NEW DELHI — Thousands of angry farmers have massed on the outskirts of the Indian capital in recent weeks, sleeping outdoors and braving cold temperatures to protest against government agricultural reforms.
At stake is a Minimum Support Price (MSP) set by the government at the start of every season that the Food Corporation of India buys farm produce. It is an income floor that farmers fear might vanish as a result of three agricultural reform bills passed by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September.
“We want safety on our crops and guarantee from the authorities that the bills are not a way to remove the Minimum Support Price,” Subhash Singh, a farmer from Bathinda in the state of Punjab, said.
Diljit Singh Kaur, also from Bhatinda, said if the government does not plan to eliminate the MSP, “why can’t they put it in writing and pass another bill guaranteeing it for the farmers.”
The new legislation is touted by the government as liberation for farmers, enabling them to sell not just in a regulated market but to individuals and corporations. Kaur and protesting farmers fear big companies will maneuver to drive down prices.
“We don’t trust these big corporates,” Kaur said.
The farmers, many accompanied by their children, said younger generations will not remain in the already stressed agricultural sector if their futures are made even more precarious.
“Our rozi-roti (livelihood) depends on the government buying our crops on MSP,” Singh said. “COVID-19 has taken away a lot from us in the past months we cannot afford to lose more now.”
The protests — primarily mounted from India’s farming heartland in Punjab and Haryana — began shortly after the three bills were passed on Sept. 27, with more than 500 farm unions mounting large demonstrations to demand their withdrawal.
Over the ensuing weeks, protests against the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce Bill, the Farmers Agreement on Price and Farm Services Bill, and the Essential Commodities Bill gathered momentum, with farmers marching on New Delhi in their thousands on Nov. 26.
Modi and his cabinet ministers have told farmers they do not intend to end government procurement policies and the MSP, but protests have only grown, gathering support not only from opposition parties in India but from farmers and political leaders around the world.
In British Columbia, which has a large population of Sikh ex-patriates hailing from Punjab, farmers hosted a car rally in a parking lot to support Indian farmers. In Winnipeg, hundreds of vehicles formed a caravan along the Perimeter Highway around the Manitoba capital, while similar rallies were held in London and the U.S.
In recent weeks, emotions have run high on the borders of New Delhi, where police have erected barb-wire barriers to prevent protesters from entering the city. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was put under house arrest, as was the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav.
The protests also prompted a diplomatic uproar after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earned a scolding from the Indian government for expressing his support of the legal protest. Afterwards, Canada’s high commissioner in New Delhi was summoned to be reprimanded over what India saw as Trudeau’s intrusion in its internal affairs.
“The situation is concerning,” said Trudeau. “Canada will always be there to support peaceful protests. We believe (in) the importance of dialogue and that’s why we reached out in multiple means to the authorities to highlight our concerns.”
Trudeau stood by his remarks, saying Canada will always support the right to lawful dissent.
Negotiations between the Modi government and farm union leaders have to date been fruitless.
“They need to find a common ground or else these protests will only harm the country,” said Aadi Tandon, a student of Thapar University in Patiala, Punjab.