Tens of thousands of farmers manned barricades and blocked highways Friday around India's capital of New Delhi for a ninth straight day, protesting new agricultural laws they fear may hurt their already-meager profits.
Passed in September, three new laws aim to deregulate Indian agriculture, by encouraging farmers to sell directly to companies. The government has long been a middle man, guaranteeing minimum prices for certain crops. The laws say farmers will still have price assurances, but the language is vague, and farmers are nervous about losing government support.
"We're worried no one will buy our produce, and that we'll go into debt," says Harinder Singh, general-secretary of a Punjabi farmers union, who spoke to NPR by phone from the truck where he's been sleeping in a protest camp. "We want the government to repeal these laws."
Talks between union representatives and government officials broke down Thursday night, and more talks are scheduled for Saturday.
Meanwhile, the protests have spread to other Indian cities, including some in the state of Punjab, India's breadbasket, and abroad. Followers of the Sikh faith, founded in Punjab, joined a car caravan Wednesday near the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. On Friday, India's foreign ministry summoned Canadian diplomats after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau voiced solidarity with the protests.
More than half of Indians, in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, eke out a living on farms, according to Indian census data.
"But they are not getting due respect, nor the political and economic space they deserve," says Medha Patkar, a social activist who joined the farmer protests in Delhi and Indore.
Small-scale farmers have helped India over the decades become self-sufficient in food. But Patkar accuses the Indian government of eroding a long, proud agrarian tradition that Mahatma Gandhi championed.
"This sector is not just neglected, but deliberately ignored and underestimated because of the present paradigm of development, which is not just market-oriented but consumerism-based," she says. "We want production by the masses – as Gandhi said — not mass production."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes no secret of wanting to modernize and industrialize India. It's a promise he was elected on – though critics say he has failed to deliver.
In a radio address last weekend, Modi said his new agricultural laws "unshackle farmers" by giving them new opportunities.
Decades ago, India was a big recipient of international food aid. But the use of pesticides and machines led to a green revolution starting in the 1960s, which allowed India to become self-sufficient in food. Nowadays it grows surpluses of wheat and rice, for export.
But it also manages to do that with fewer workers, compared with back in Gandhi's day.
"The heart of the matter is that India has too many farmers," says Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "So what you have is a government that is trying to improve the lives of those farmers by giving them more choices. But you also [have] a section of farmers who are gripped by a very understandable anxiety about what these changes may end up meaning for their lives."
Dhume says the government rushed out these agricultural laws, without consulting farmers, and did a poor job of explaining them to those who would be most affected. It also did so in September, at a time when government-regulated wholesale markets were shut, because of the pandemic. So farmers felt particularly vulnerable. And many of them already live so close to the bone.
On top of that, India has now entered a recession – two consecutive quarters of negative growth — for the first time since the government began publishing quarterly gross domestic product figures.
The coronavirus has erased the robust economic growth India enjoyed for decades. So it's not the right time for the government to try to deregulate and wean farmers off state support, says Jayati Ghosh, a development economist.
"Alternative occupations are not emerging. We are not industrializing rapidly enough, and we are not generating manufacturing employment. So there's nothing else for people to do," Ghosh says. "The way to diversify is not to kill off a sector, but to make another sector much more attractive and available, with income opportunities – and that hasn't happened."
Farmers are desperate, she says. But so are workers in other sectors. Unemployment had already hit a four-decade high, even before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Since the country's independence from Britain in 1947, India's economy has overall been a success story. Hundreds of millions of people have emerged from poverty. The challenge now is to prevent them all from slipping backward.
"Never mind the cold, or the water cannons and tear gas from police," an unidentified female farmer told local TV this week as protests raged around her in Delhi.
"We'll stay here all winter, until we get help."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting all week in India's capital. They accuse the government of using the coronavirus crisis to push through agricultural reforms without consulting them. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing in Hindi).
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Farmers sing about India's fertile plains as they march. They're manning barricades and blocking highways. Harinder Singh has slept in his truck for eight nights. He's the head of a farmers union in Punjab.
HARINDER SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: We're worried no one will buy our produce, he says. We'll go into debt. We want the government to repeal these laws. Passed in September, three new laws aimed to deregulate Indian agriculture. Until now, the government has been the middleman, guaranteeing minimum prices. The new laws do say farmers will have price assurances. But the language is vague, and that makes farmers worried. More than half of Indians, hundreds of millions of people, eke out a living on farms.
MEDHA PATKAR: But they are not getting the due respect.
FRAYER: Medha Patkar is a social activist who accuses the Indian government of eroding a long, proud agrarian tradition that Mahatma Gandhi championed.
PATKAR: Agriculture is based on self-reliance, simplicity. That is under assault because of development.
FRAYER: Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes no secret of wanting to industrialize India. It's a promise he was elected on. And he says his agriculture reforms are part of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking Hindi).
FRAYER: These reforms unshackle our farmers by giving them new opportunities, Modi said in a radio address. India used to be a big recipient of international food aid. But the use of pesticides and machines led to a green revolution in the 1960s, and India became self-sufficient in food. But agriculture now needs fewer workers, says Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
SADANAND DHUME: The heart of the matter is that India has too many farmers. So what you have is a government that is trying to improve the lives of those farmers by giving them more choices, but you also have a section of farmers who are gripped by a very understandable anxiety about what these changes may end up meaning for their lives.
FRAYER: He says the government rushed out these reforms and did a poor job of explaining them. On top of that, India has now entered a recession.
JAYATI GHOSH: The challenges for India are huge.
FRAYER: Economist Jayati Ghosh says the coronavirus has erased the growth India enjoyed for decades. And so it's unfair, she says, for the government to wean farmers off state support now when...
GHOSH: Alternative occupations are not emerging. We are not industrializing rapidly enough. We're not generating manufacturing employment. And so there's really nothing else for people to do.
FRAYER: Farmers are desperate, she says, but so are workers in other sectors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in non-English language).
FRAYER: This week, as protests raged in Delhi, a farmer camping out there told local TV...
UNIDENTIFIED FARMER: (Speaking Punjabi).
FRAYER: Never mind the cold or the water cannons or the tear gas, she says. We'll stay here all winter until we get help. Lauren Frayer, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK'S "MUY TRANQUILO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.