Beyond India’s borders: the farmers’ protest reaches the valley
For decades, India’s government protected the agriculture sector from the free market. Then, a year and a half ago, Prime Minister Modi set out to change that. The move didn’t sit well with farmers—and not just those in India.
A pair of bulls could be heard clomping their hooves as they pulled the cart away (ਗੱਡਾ) from the front gate of Baljit Dhaliwal’s home in the village of Hathur, in India’s northern state of Punjab. The large, oversized wooden wheels kicked up a cloud of dirt as they rolled across the uneven ground. It was dawn, and Dhaliwal, not yet a teenager, was already joyfully accompanying his father to the family farm.
Punjab was once considered the breadbasket of India but agriculture continues to be a linchpin of India’s economy. India is the second most populous country in the world (1.2 billion), and more than half (58%) of its working population (234M) is in agriculture, according to India’s latest census in 2011.
For decades, India’s government protected the sector from the free market. Then, a year and a half ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set out to change that. The move didn’t sit well with farmers—and not just those in India.
Anger followed. Then protests, in India and across the world, including in Canada. And, late last year: victory.
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Dhaliwal immigrated to Canada in 1971 when he was just 18. He first moved to New Westminster, where he worked at a lumber mill. But eventually he returned to his roots: farming. Dhaliwal is part of the Punjabi-speaking diaspora, a population nearly 31,000 strong across the Fraser Valley, according to the 2016 census. He moved to Abbotsford in 1980 and today farms blueberries in Aldergrove and raspberries near the Abbotsford airport.
But Dhaliwal, like many of the diaspora, retains strong ties with India. In addition to having family in Punjab, many immigrants from that region are also landholders. Farmland is passed down through generations. What was once the responsibility of his father now belongs to Dhaliwal and his brothers. Although they now lease their farmland to other locals in the village, Dhaliwal’s family retain the rights to the land. Before the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for these landholders to return to India each year to assure the family’s affairs remain in order. That relationship with India is commonplace—and it meant many were invested, both emotionally and financially, in Modi’s proposed farm laws.
“When I learned the farmers were going to Delhi, that Modi had passed the bills, it hurt. How could they force that on the public?” Dhaliwal asked. “They should have involved the farmers. Those with no knowledge on the subject passed the bills. Because of this I had to get involved.”
Dhaliwal was far from alone.
During the summer of 2020, when parliament was not sitting due to the pandemic, Modi’s government introduced three emergency ordinances: bills that would later be passed by India’s parliament in September of that year. Modi’s allies framed the bills as providing freedom to farmers. (The BJP, Modi’s right-wing party that has been in power since 2014, is one of two major political parties in India and is historically known to represent Hindu interests. Farmers in Punjab are predominately of the Sikh religion.)
Before the bills were introduced, farmers in India could sell select crops at government-run markets at a fixed price, known as MSP (minimum support price). Modi argued the bills would eliminate the middleman and allow farmers to sell directly to the buyer. However, farmers feared that without government support, the free market competition would drive down prices and drive them into poverty.
Under the original regulations, farmers in India who sell commodities like wheat were promised a minimum rate. Like in Canada, not all commodities in India are protected in the same way. Canadian berry farmers like Dhaliwal, for example, are not guaranteed a minimum price for their products in the same way regulatory bodies protect dairy and poultry farmers. (Like when BC dairy farmers dumped 7.5 million litres of milk in November after the floods, but received financial support from the Canadian Dairy Commission. Read our story here.)
In Canada, no political party has suggested ending supply management for the dairy sector, in part because of the fear of massive political repercussions were they to do so. In India, that’s just what happened.
The proposed farm laws triggered what would be a year and half long protest, eventually involving millions of people in India and around the world. People in Canada followed suit. As a farmer in Canada, Dhaliwal said he can attest to the price uncertainty that comes with each harvest season, and couldn’t support Modi’s proposal to end the minimum prices.
Satwinder Bains, director of the South Asian Studies Institute (SASI), called the response from the diaspora in Canada uncommon. It’s unheard of, she said, that immigrant communities are this invested in their native politics and what’s at stake. She drew a parallel with the 2019 Hong Kong protests, which didn’t elicit the same response from the Chinese diaspora as the farmers’ protest did from the South Asian community.
So what was it about the farmers’ protest that reverberated around the globe? Well, Bains believes it has much to do with the fact that the immigrant community remains to be a land-holding class and, beyond that, there was a personal connection.
“When they saw the faces of the people marching on to Delhi, each person saw their mother or their father or their brother or their sister or their aunt, uncle,” she said. “I think the movement, the face of the movement, really spoke volumes.”
Tens of thousands marched on the footpath to India’s capital, New Delhi. Adults of all ages would spend the next year sitting at the foot of parliament trying to get Modi’s attention. But they weren’t alone. The diaspora was alongside them. Protests in support of India’s farmers were held around the world, including in the Fraser Valley. “No farmers, no food” decals began commonly appearing on vehicles.
For more than a year, protesters gathered weekly in Abbotsford along South Fraser Way, to register their opposition to the laws. Rallies were also held in Langley, Surrey and Vancouver, as well as Abbotsford.
Dhaliwal attended some of the rallies himself.
Supporters donated food, clothing, tents and millions of dollars to the cause. But its effectiveness, Bains said, was to the credit of the Indian farmers’ union, who coordinated for a resistance against the farm laws.
“The union united a republic. After independence, I doubt any other movement has done that,” Bains said. “This fight, the end result was not just benefiting the Sikhs, it was not just benefiting Punjab, it benefited all the provinces.” (Sikhism is the most practiced faith in Punjab. Bains noted that the Sikhs were at the forefront in Delhi but that might have been a factor of geography.)
The protests later gained international recognition outside of the Punjabi community when singer Rihanna tweeted a link to a CNN article to her 100M followers asking why the world wasn’t talking about what was happening in India. That was followed by a similar post from climate activist Greta Thunberg. Rihanna’s tweet sent Modi’s government working on damage control. Meanwhile, Indian celebrities came to the defense of the government, many sharing similarly worded responses online.
Eventually, a year and half later, on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, Modi backed down and announced the farm laws would be repealed. It’s thought that Modi’s decision to reverse course is tied to upcoming critical assembly elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, a state just southeast of Punjab.
“He could have had a change of mind a long time ago. He did it because elections are coming,” Bains said. “The power of the farmer has suddenly shifted. And the promises made by the union to ensure that these people do not get elected, again, is a watershed moment for India. It is a game changer.”
Bains doesn’t argue that India’s archaic farm laws are in need of reform. Her colleague at SASI, Dr. Inder Mann, said the answer is not oppressing farm laws.
Mann called attention to the link between suicide rates among farmers in India and rising debt levels. The cost of key inputs like fertilizer and fuel is increasing, and the return on investment is not keeping up.
Mann suggests the government invest in advancing agricultural practices in India with research on how to improve the crop cycle. He also said the government needs to provide more opportunities for farmers and labourers to exit the agricultural sector. The sector is now saturated, he said, and there are three times the number of people farming than what is needed to manage the average five acre farm.
“It should be a holistic approach.”
Additionally, Mann said the government needs to incentivize crop diversification. Farmers don’t grow vegetables because they aren’t offered MSP like they are with wheat and rice.
From Bains’ perspective, what comes next will be determined when the results of the election are announced in March.
“This is just the beginning.”
The interview with Baljit Dhaliwal was conducted in Punjabi. His quotes in this story have been translated into English.
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