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Thursday, December 2, 2021

How organized and well-financed Indian farmers faced Modi

NEW DELHI – Om Prakash relied on relatives and neighbors to look after their wheat and vegetable fields. He ate food donated by sympathizers at home and abroad. When he felt a fever, he turned to volunteer medical workers who, like him, huddle near a noisy overpass for several months due to the heat and cold, as well as due to a deadly viral outbreak.

Now, a year away from the farm and family has finally paid off.

Mr. Prakash was one of thousands of farmers in India who used their organizational skills, wide network of support and sheer perseverance to force one of the country’s most powerful leaders in modern history to rarely back down. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday that lawmakers will repeal new agricultural laws that protesting farmers feared would leave them vulnerable to predatory large companies and disrupt their lifestyles.

Their victory will not help India solve the deep inefficiencies that plague its agricultural sector, problems that keep people in some places malnourished even if grain in other parts is not used or exported. But it showed how a group desperate to maintain their middle-class lifestyle can successfully challenge a government accustomed to suppressing dissent rather than reckoning with it.

“This is strength, this is strength, this is struggle, it is the casualties of over 700 farmers at these borders that forced Mr. Modi to come down to repeal these laws,” said Darshant Pal Singh, one of nine leaders of the farmers’ protests. …

Farmers who camped on the outskirts of India’s capital, New Delhi, over the course of the year, have endured more than the elements. In the spring, a vicious second wave of Covid-19 swept through the city. The movement also experienced two episodes of violence that resulted in the deaths of protesters, one in New Delhi in January and the other last month in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, increasing pressure on the group to surrender.

But farmers’ persistence in strengthening their campaign, their support from a global network of allies and the non-violent nature of the protests have proven to be keys to their success, supporters say. Despite the loss of life and several other incidents, the farmers’ protests were largely peaceful. Other recent protest movements, such as the movement against the law speeding up citizenship for some groups but excluding Muslims, have suffered from violence.

The work is not finished yet. Farmers have pledged to continue their protests until the government presents another demand guaranteeing a minimum price for nearly two dozen crops. Rather than backing down now, they sense an opportunity to press even harder on the prime minister, who has been nervously watching his party’s polls drop in a number of states next year for elections. The government said it will form a committee to consider the matter.

India’s agricultural system still needs fixing, and even many protested farmers admit it. This system, which began during the famine of the 1960s, created centralized markets where farmers could sell their crops. Some of the proceeds are channeled back to farming communities through infrastructure projects, pensions and programs that provide free technical advice on issues such as seeds and fertilizers.

Today, this system has led to inefficiency: the government subsidizes water-intensive crops in drylands. Agriculture focuses on staple crops, while more nutritious crops such as leafy vegetables are ignored.

Most of the 60 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce subsists on subsistence farming. While some farmers live middle-class lives, aided by modern aids such as tractors and irrigation, many others see no profit and are in debt. Since it is difficult to find work in the city and in the factory in a country still struggling with poverty, many children from the farm emigrate in search of a better life.

Mr Modi’s laws were designed to attract more private money to agriculture and make it more responsive to market forces. Mr Singh, the protest leader, said many farmers would prefer subsidies to a wider range of products.

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“The root of the agricultural problem in India is that farmers are not getting the value they deserve for their crops,” said Mr Singh. “There are two ways to see reforms – distribution of land to corporations, big people, capitalists. Another is to help farmers increase their yields. ”

The movement began in Punjab, home to a large Sikh community, a religious group and some of the richest agricultural lands in the country. Protest leaders relied on both organizing and funding their annual demonstrations.

Financial aid, especially from Sikh temples and organizations outside India, has been critical to the sustainability of the movement, said Baldev Singh Sirsa, head of the farm.

The organizers relied heavily on the Punjabi Sikh diaspora. Major charities such as Khalsa Aid International, a British relief group, raised money for the protesters. Smaller ones such as the Midland Langar Seva Society, also based in the UK, also participated.

The protesters made sure that their complaints were heard abroad. Supporters who weathered freezing temperatures in Toronto and Montreal have posted signs outside Indian consulates in Canada. Protesters marched in front of the UN headquarters in New York. The campaign worked: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and pop singer Rihanna spoke in solidarity.

The organizers also cited the philosophy of Sikhism, which emphasizes support for victims of injustice and the value of community over the individual. The vast protest camps of the farming movement, which fed and clothed thousands of people daily and provided clean water, sanitation supplies, and even hairdressers and tailors, reflect the Sikh value of self-sufficiency, they said.

Members of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, called the protesters Khalistanis, a term referring to separatists who campaigned and even fought for an independent Sikh state many years ago. In response, the organizers of the protest tried to suppress anger, even trying to be seen and heard.

This self-discipline has been put to the test at times.

In January, as India celebrated Republic Day, a national holiday, some farmers drove tractors through police barricades in New Delhi, killing one protester. Political scientists declared the movement dead. But the organizers hid behind the barricades and resumed their peaceful protests in the harsh winter, the devastating wave of the coronavirus, scorching summer and autumn.

Then, in October, a BJP convoy rammed a group of protesting farmers, killing four protesters, along with four others, including a local journalist. The son of one of the ministers, Mr. Modi, is among those under investigation in connection with this episode.

The incident, which occurred after protesters decided to cover up campaigning by BJP officials to bring in cameras, may have been a turning point. The number of BJPs interviewed soon dropped in Uttar Pradesh, where the deaths occurred. Party officials began to fear that they might lose the state in elections scheduled for early next year.

The day after Mr. Modi’s surprise announcement, the mood in the vicinity of Singhu, a village in Haryana state that borders the capital, was gloomy. Religious music and political speeches were heard from loudspeakers in a makeshift village of bamboo huts, where people sold T-shirts and flags that read “No Farmers, No Food.”

Outside one of the huts serving a free vegetarian lunch, Mr. Prakash, a farmer, described how he slept in cold weather and rain next to a busy road, leaving his farm in the care of his brothers’ children.

Mr. Prakash, who has retired from 20 years in the Indian Air Force, does not need a farm to survive. Instead, by holding on to the seven acres of land that he and his siblings inherited from their parents, they ensure they can support a middle-class life in a country where the vagaries of the economy often pull people back into poverty.

Mr Prakash said the family farm supported his ambitions and that he wants the same for his children.

“To save our Motherland,” he said, “we can stay here for another two years.”

Hari Kumar made reporting.

World Nation News Deskhttps://www.worldnationnews.com
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