India’s protesting farmers, who have been camped on the outskirts of the capital, Delhi, have warned of intensifying their agitation if their demands are not met. Farmers’ organizations announced on Saturday, January 2 that they would hold a series of agitations culminating in a tractor parade in Delhi on January 26, which is celebrated as Republic Day.
The government has so far refused to accept the key demand of the farmers, which is the withdrawal of three farm laws which were rammed through parliament in September. Farmers fear these laws will drive down the prices they get for their produce and pave the way for greater corporate involvement in agriculture. Tens of thousands of farmers have been protesting for over a month over this demand and many others. The farmers are currently camped in five locations on the outskirts of the capital.
Republic Day every year is marked with a major parade which showcases India’s military might and cultural diversity. The leader of a foreign country is usually the guest of honor. This year, British prime minister Boris Johnson was expected to attend the celebrations but he cancelled his trip due to the COVID-19 pandemic
The farmers and the government held another round of talks on Monday but they were inconclusive. An earlier round of talks on December 30 saw the government accept two of the four demands of the farmers. The government, however, refused to make any concessions on the withdrawal of farm laws and a legal guarantee on the Minimum Support Price [a price determined by the government at which it procures crops from farmers] The talks were attended by representatives from 41 farmers’ groups under the umbrella of Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) [United Farmers’ Front].
One of the demands conceded by the government is to exempt farmers from penalties in the recent legislation criminalizing stubble burning. This measure was implemented to limit air pollution levels in Delhi and surrounding regions. The other is to repeal the contentious Electricity Bill 2020, which would have taken away special subsidies and guarantees from the farmers.
Discussions with the government: the story so far
Seven rounds of talks have been held since the laws were passed by the government in September, four of which were held after the farmers began blockading the capital.
The first two rounds of talks were held on October 14 and November 13, which did not yield any results. This led to thousands of farmers, mainly from the States of Punjab and Haryana, descending on the borders of Delhi, along with farmers’ groups from neighboring States.
The next three rounds, held on December 3, 5 and 7, involved leaders of dozens of farmers’ movements across India negotiating with a delegation of ministers. Each round of talks was inconclusive as farmers stuck to their ground, agreeing only to hold talks on the ways to repeal the three laws and increase the existing MSPs, which the government evaded.
Prime minister Narendra Modi did not take part in the talks while his second-in-command, home minister Amit Shah, only briefly met the farmers. It was only after a month of protests and a concerted boycott campaign targeting corporate entities seen as close to the government that the sixth round finally included the main agenda as demanded by the farmers.
Struggle set to intensify, support pours in
Farmers’ organizations have set out a road map of protests for the coming days if the government does not heed their demands. These include marches to the residences of governors in various States and marches from the protest sites outside Delhi.
Trade union confederations are joining in solidarity. The left-wing Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) held a countrywide strike at over 100,000 workplaces on December 30. The striking workers, while reiterating the farmers’ demands of repealing the new farm laws and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020, also called for the repeal of the three labor new codes and a halt to the recent privatization drive by the government. They also demanded extensive pandemic relief for unorganized and agricultural workers.
The All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU) has also given a call for a two-day strike of farm workers at the grassroots level on January 7 and 8. The AIAWU strike will coincide with the CITU campaign to court mass arrest if the government does not relent.
In the meanwhile, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which is part of the coalition that is organizing the blockade of Delhi, has mobilized thousands of more farmers from different parts of India to take part in the struggle. One such contingent of over 500 farmers from the western State of Maharashtra reached Delhi on December 25 after covering 1,300 kilometers. Several other farmers’ contingents from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have also reached the borders of Delhi despite facing roadblocks erected by the police forces of neighboring States.
Several agitations and rallies were held in States like Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal by the left parties and other opposition groups earlier this week, which faced police repression. More protests have been called in other States as well. Solidarity has also poured in in the form of money, goods and essentials being sent to the thousands of farmers camped at Delhi’s borders.
Workers’ unions in national telecom giant BSNL crowdsourced a check of INR 100,000 (USD 1368.93) for the protesting farmers. From the town of Vazhakulam, Kerala, a major pineapple producing hub in India, over 2,500 farmers joined hands to send around 16 tonnes of pineapples to Delhi’s borders.
Boycott of corporates
One of the hallmarks of the ongoing agitation is the way farmers’ groups have targeted the biggest corporates of the country, who are seen as the primary beneficiaries of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of prime minister Modi. In their countrywide strike on December 8, the organizers of the protest called for the boycott of major corporations like Reliance Industries and the Adani Group, owned by billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani, respectively.
Ambani and Adani are the richest men in India. The government’s recent policies in the field of agriculture are seen to be in aid of the latest ventures of the corporates in the agro-food sector. Activists and economists have argued that the removal of government subsidies on irrigation and electricity, along with the absence of MSPs and Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) under the new laws, would put farmers at the mercy of the market and corporate forces.
The boycott was also adopted by various civil society groups, political parties and average citizens. For instance, according to the Bharatiya Kisan Union – Ugrahan, one of the organizers of the protest, Reliance’s Jio Infocomm lost more than 700,000 mobile phone connections in the two weeks since the protests.
The story was updated on January 5 with the latest developments