- BBC World News
The peasant protest that has rocked India for months turned violent when a group of farmers participating in a gigantic march in New Delhi deviated from the established route to make their presence felt in the center of the capital.
A peasant died and some 400 policemen were injured after some protesters broke the barricades placed along the route and attacked the authorities to go to the iconic Red Fort of Delhi, one of the most important historical monuments in the country.
Shortly afterwards, the flags of the agricultural unions leading the protest flew in the citadel where more than 70 years ago the flag of an independent India was also raised for the first time.
All in rejection of the attempts of the Narendra Modi government to reform the agricultural sector, the trigger for what many also consider “the biggest protest in history.”
Indeed, it is estimated that some 250 million Indian trade unionists –equivalent to 3.3% of the world’s population– participated in a historic day of strike that took place on November 26.
And despite the passage of time, the farmers of the second most populous country in the world – millions and millions of them – they have not stopped protesting.
But what exactly is the government of India trying to do? What is behind the claim of the peasants? And what consequences can the events of last Tuesday have for a protest that until then had enough popular support?
At the center of the dispute are three laws enacted by Modi in September 2020, which relax the rules that regulate the sale, price and storage of agricultural products in the country.
For a long time, Indian farmers have sold their crops in some 7,000 wholesale markets government regulated, known as “mandis”.
These markets are run by committees made up of farmers, often large landowners, and traders or “commission agents” who act as intermediaries to negotiate sales, organize storage and transport, and even finance deals.
The State also supports farmers with generous subsidies, exemption from income tax and insurance for their crops, also guaranteeing the prices of 23 crops and exempting them from debt when they cannot pay their loans.
But the government is interested in reducing the incentives associated with crops that can have a negative environmental impact due to their high water consumption and whose overproduction has also translated into lower profits for farmers, such as wheat, rice and sugar cane.
And, as a whole, the three laws come to eliminate several of the rules that have protected Indian peasants from an unrestricted free market, something that according to the authorities will make the sector more efficient while allowing them to increase their income.
Farmers, however, are not convinced.
“If you let big companies decide prices and buy crops, we will lose our lands, we will lose our income, “says Gurnam Singh Charuni, one of the main leaders of the protest.
“We don’t trust big business. Free markets work in countries with less corruption and more regulation. It can’t work for us here,” he told the BBC in December.
US $ 271 per year
Part of the problem is that, despite state support for the sector, Indian farmers are not in a bed of roses.
Rather, as BBC India correspondent Soutik Biswas explains, the country’s peasants They have been on the boil for years.
Indeed, although more than half of the Indians work on farms, agriculture represents only one sixth of the country’s GDP. And, for years, the size of the plots has been shrinking, as has the income from agriculture.
“Indian farmers are mostly small or marginal: 68% of them own less than one hectare of land and only 6% of them actually receive guaranteed price support for their crops “, Biswas emphasizes.
“In fact, in the words of an economist, more than half of the farmers ‘do not even have enough to sell’,” adds the BBC correspondent, who also notes that in places like the populous and poor state of Bihar, where unrestricted trade in agricultural products has already been allowed, private buyers are also lacking.
Still, as Biswas explains, 90% of Indian farmers they already sell their products on the open market.
But there prices can be wildly erratic, and brokers, who often form cartels, take much of the profits, which explains why the average annual income of a farm family in more than half of the US states India in 2016 was 20,000 rupees ($ 271).
“Anger at the injustice towards farmers was brewing. It is now being channeled through this protest against the new laws,” food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma told the BBC.
“How are people going to have faith in the market if income is so low even when most crop transactions are already private?”
Indeed, since Independence in 1947, Indian farmers have mobilized on numerous occasions to protest against falling crop prices, indebtedness and difficulties in the agricultural sector.
“But the staggering levels of cohesion and mobilization, involving some 40 farmers’ unions, have never been seen. more than half a million protesters and large sectors of civil society from the current protests, “Biswas emphasizes.
The movement originated in Punjab, India’s relatively prosperous agricultural heartland and one of the states that has benefited the most from the country’s agricultural policies, alongside its neighbor, Haryana.
The first peasant mobilizations took place there in August last year, as soon as the reform project was announced, but the movement acquired a national character at the end of September when the three laws were approved.
And in late November tens of thousands of peasants marched into New Delhi, camping outside the capital in dire conditions for months in a protest that has already left some 60 dead.
The latest events, however, are further complicating negotiations that already amount to 11 unsuccessful rounds of talks with the government.
As Biswas points out, “one danger is that after the violence both parties will dig in even more in their positions.”
“After several rounds of talks and an offer to suspend the reform for 18 months, the government may refuse to take any further steps. But at the same time, it is difficult to see farmers, especially those from Punjab and Haryana, ending the protests. and returning home in what would be seen as a defeat for the movement, “he explains.
For the BBC correspondent, however, further negotiations is the only possible way towards the solution and both parties will have to make concessions.
“The current stalemate is shameful for both the protesters and the government,” Biswas concludes.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.