March of Distress: What the Delhi Protests Tell Us About the State of India’s Farmers


March of Distress: What the Delhi Protests Tell Us About the State of India’s Farmers

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Yet another farmers’ protest, this one spearheaded by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Samiti Coordination Committee, is being held in Delhi. Thousands of farmers demanding a special Parliament session to discuss loan waiver and the minimum support price, will march to the Parliament today, sending a strong message to the Modi government ahead of the 2019 polls. Yesterday, they gathered at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, carrying red flags and shouting slogans such as “Ayodhya nahi, karzi maaf chahiye,” NDTV reported.

The two-day protest in the capital is the fourth high-profile protest by the country’s agrarian class. In 2018, major cities like Mumbai and Delhi have been the site of large-scale protest by farmers keen on conveying their demands to the government. Some have been non-violent, some saw the farmers clashing with the police, and all have been underpinned by a sense of simmering frustration.

This frustration boiled over in October in Delhi, when protesting farmers and police went head-to-head. What set those clashes apart from the ones that came before in 2018 was the heightened atmosphere of tension. Tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and lathi charges were all brought to bear against the 30,000 farmers who had joined the march. They tried to tear down the barricades blocking their entry into Delhi, and even drove a tractor into the barricades at one point.

The nature of October’s Kisan Kranti Padyatra was starkly different from the Kisan Kranti Morcha held earlier this year, in March, even though their demands are, for the most part, similar in scope. In March, some 35,000 farmers in Maharashtra had marched from Nasik to the state capital Mumbai to demand loan waivers and recognition of land rights. Whether the state is UP or Maharashtra, the troubles facing farmers remain universal.

The fact that approximately 70 per cent of India’s population depends on the agrarian sector for their livelihood makes the plight of farmers an even more urgent issue for the government. A common sentiment being voiced by farmers is that of disappointment with the Modi-led government, which could spell disaster for the BJP in next year’s Lok Sabha elections. Even so, the fact that March’s peaceful protest in Mumbai was followed by a 10-day strike by farmers in five states, culminating in October’s vulgar display of power by the state machinery and now a march to the Parliament paints a picture of a central government that is apathetic to the issues faced by farmers.

For their part, India’s farmers have grown increasingly vocal in the last year, with their protests in urban centres primed to raise awareness among city-dwellers about what goes on beyond their cushy bubbles. As the protest marches have shown, if enduring physical hardship and making taxing journeys is what it takes to get the national media talking about the issues they face, Indian farmers are more than up to the task. Yesterday, more than a 1000 farmers from Tamil Nadu reached the capital, carrying skulls of fellow farmers who committed suicide.

This marginalisation of the agricultural community is unfortunate for a country that has long taken pride in the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan”.

The protest in Delhi has so far been peaceful. But their patience may not last forever. The embers of discontent are starting to burn hotter, and sparks are beginning to fly.

This marginalisation of the agricultural community is unfortunate for a country that has long taken pride in the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan”. The Indus Valley civilisation was one of the first cultures in history to adopt an agrarian lifestyle, and archaeological evidence shows crops like rice, wheat, and cotton were being farmed even as far back as the sixth millennium BC.

It was only as recently as the ’90s that the first signs of what is now a full-blown agrarian crisis were detectable. During the ten-day strike called by farmers’ bodies in June, Al Jazeera reported that at least 52 per cent of farming families are saddled with debt, and to make matters worse, up to 94 per cent of farmers end up selling their crops below the minimum support prices guaranteed by the government. Faced with oppressive policies, erratic climate change, and rising debt, it’s only natural that the country’s farmers are giving vent to their frustration.

The tide of rural resentment against a system that has pushed them to the sidelines continues to rise. The current return of farmers to Delhi, to once again protest their conditions, is proof enough. In this staring contest between the government and India’s backbone, who will blink first?  

This is an updated version of a story published earlier.