At the end of September 2020, the Indian Government passed three agricultural bills that will transform the country’s farming system. The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce Act, Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and Essential Commodities Act have been introduced as initiatives to increase growth in India’s agricultural sector and benefit the country’s farmers.
Since the bills were ratified, however, millions in India kickstarted a protest demanding their reversal, declaring these bills will harm farmers rather than help them. This protest has since surpassed India’s borders and spread worldwide, becoming one of the largest social movements in history.
Kiran Dulay is a Punjabi Canadian/British Sikh living in the UK. With her family having originated in India, and within its farming industry, Kiran is close to the movement that calls for the protection of India’s farmers. In this interview, Kiran explains the cause of the movement, details actions taken by her family, as well as an entire community, and provides an international perspective, while also noting where religion fits into it all.
“These bills are a massive threat to farmers, their land, their produce, their business. It threatens their lives, their future, their children’s lives; it’s not just a current problem”, Kiran begins, explaining the impact this legislation will have on Indian farmers. “The main movement has been from Punjab to Delhi, because most of the farmers protesting are from there, but it has brought in farmers from other states. This affects farmers in Pakistan too, not just Sikh Punjabi farmers.” She talks me through each bill and what exactly it will entail.
THE FARMERS PRODUCE TRADE AND COMMERCE ACT
The first bill promotes inter-state trade, promising lower transport costs. Kiran explains India does not have the infrastructure to support this, meaning the transport of goods will, in fact, be expensive. The bill also aims to expand the market for farmers, enabling them to trade outside of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee and with large companies, assuring greater competition and lower prices.
Kiran explains that this will lead to the collapse of the current Minimum Support Price (MSP), which prevents farmers from being paid low prices; “At the beginning, private buyers will pay higher than the current market, so farmers will sell to them, but then the current system will no longer be needed and MSP will not exist along with it. Private buyers will realise they have no-one to compete with for price and will drop their prices, lower than the MSP. Realistically, farmers will not be able to afford this and it could lead them into poverty.”
THE FARMERS AGREEMENT ON PRICE ASSURANCE AND FARM SERVICES ACT
This bill intends to provide more opportunities for farmers to contract their produce to buyers, such as large retailers and agri-business firms, on pre-agreed prices. “This will only benefit farmers which own a lot of land. A high percentage of farmers own very little land, so there is a bigger gap in contracting opportunities for small farmers.”
THE ESSENTIAL COMMODITIES ACT
Finally, the Essential Commodities Act removes certain commodities otherwise deemed as essential from the list of essential commodities. These include products like potatoes, onions and oilseeds. This bill therefore removes limits on stocks of what would be deemed essential products, meaning there will be no cap on the amount of stock large companies can retain. “This allows them to dominate the market by buying and storing limited products. It leaves little space for smaller farmers to sell their own crops.”
All three bills remove protections for farmers against private buyers; “Without this protection, big corporations will gain a large amount of power over poorer farmers.”
Having discussed the implications of these bills, I ask Kiran why there is the obligation, felt by her family, as well as an entire community, to demonstrate against this new legislation. “Our ancestors come from farming. If they did not move out of India, we would still be affected by this. We still have family in India whose main job is farming. But it’s not just about where we come from. As a human, you should help the situation; any injustices should be talked about by humans.”
Kiran explains the cause for protesting through the movement’s popular slogan ‘No farmers, no food’: “Those are the people who provide us with food. It is our job to make their voices heard; they should not be left alone to do that. Even if people think it does not affect them, it does. If you add spices to your food: 70% of the world’s spices from India. If you use medicine: India is the third largest producer of pharmaceuticals in the world. If you consume any Indian imports, such as basmati rice, wheat, cane sugar, black tea, coffee, onions, oats, berries, it affects you.”
Kiran stresses this peaceful protest aims to raise awareness and change these bills, “for the Indian government to realise that, globally, no one’s going to stop talking about it. Without anyone talking about it or putting it forward, it is not getting the voice it deserves.” And to the people who say it’s not their problem: “You should care about humanity. Stop bringing up the differences between countries and just come together as a collective for human rights.”
As part of her university’s Sikh Society, Kiran is participating in discussions and debates on the topic, to spread information and raise awareness. “Students in Sikh societies across all universities are talking about this and finding ways to promote it.” Her family in California and Vancouver have also been helping to organise demonstrations, protesting to the Indian High Commission in each location. The same is done by family and friends across the UK.
“As a community, everyone is supporting each other”, even through minor acts to assist the protest; “people are in standstills in their cars for many hours, so my family are also handing out food and posters to protestors.”
Kiran is based in the UK, where the protest has gradually expanded too. “I think it is picking up here because of the young generation. They have shared it the most online. Without social media we would not have been able to come together to raise this awareness. It was not being covered by the media.”
We remain on the topic of media and the way the framing of the protest affects attitudes to the cause. “There is very little media coverage, or it is being covered in a negative way.” Kiran cites the example of responses to Birmingham’s protest, which the media largely reported as an inconvenience to local businesses, despite a number of business owners in the area voicing their support. “It has been negatively manipulated in the media by focusing on police trying to control the situation, COVID (which did not stop protests before, and everyone is being safe), or how ‘inconvenient’ it was. People need to understand how inconvenient it is for these farmers. It is a collective human rights problem, not just one country’s problem.”
We then reflect on the UK’s response to the movement, as an international voice. 36 UK MPs have written a letter to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, pleading him to raise the matter with Delhi. However, the current response has been limited to supporting the Indian population’s right to protest, although cautious of any violence that may erupt from such protests. The Foreign Secretary has remained firm in keeping the UK out of matters concerning the Indian government.
“The UK can do a lot better to promote the cause. There have not been any meaningful comments on the protest from the Prime Minister.” She brings up Boris Johnson‘s confusion of the matter in the House of Commons when he referred to the issues between India and Pakistan, instead of the protest; “he did not know what he was talking about.”
On the other hand, Kiran has praised the Canadian Government: “The Prime Minister’s comments have been positive, expressing solidarity. The national farmers unions have talked about it as well, and there has been widespread media coverage.” She notes that she wants to see this response from the UK as well; “they should put forward a more positive viewpoint, put out a statement to support the protestors and support the cause. The Prime Minister of India needs to change the bills. If, internationally, everyone comes together, he is bound to change it. He cares about his international reputation.”
Is this why the protest should be international despite the issue being domestic? “Without the support of other countries, how can one country change? They need an international movement for this change. If countries continue to take a global stand for the cause and against the unjust violence protestors are facing, India will be forced to listen and abide by the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, expression and assembly.”
Referring to the violent response protestors have faced by the Indian police and army, Kiran fears this protest may become even more violent, despite the international attention it has received. “The Indian government has suppressed farmers and Sikhs in the past, so there is a chance the Prime Minister may order the army to shoot at protestors.” She claims international attention has not been enough to prevent repression; “protestors are still being treated badly, some are dying, are beaten, tear gassed”.
Kiran also notes the mental effects of the farmers’ fight. “The protest itself is draining, but they would rather go through that, they would rather die for the cause, than have future generations go through poverty and distress because of this. It is obvious to the farmers that this law will destroy their livelihoods.” It is because of this why a number of farmers have already committed suicide; “They can’t deal with the fact that this is going to happen to their livelihood and their future generations.”
The Indian farmers’ movement is regarded as one of the largest social movements in history, taking place within the same year as another global movement, Black Lives Matter, as well as other significant movements, such as #EndSARS protests in Nigeria and anti-government protests in Belarus. It is also the year of COVID. We discuss the prevalent themes of fighting for lives, for rights, for livelihoods in 2020.
When asked whether this context makes the Indian farmers’ protests even more significant, Kiran added that “this year has been a year of fighting against injustice. These movements share common interests, which is a big driver.” However, Kiran also speaks on the hesitancies she has in comparing this movement to ones like Black Lives Matter. “This movement has not reached the same level as BLM. I think a lot of people jumped on BLM as it was trending. With this, not enough people are putting effort into venturing out and seeing what the cause is about. If everyone who has supported similar movements in the past came together, this would be much larger.”
Speaking of previous protest movements and their trajectories, the issue of dilution was also raised. As the movement grows outside of India, is it worrying the cause may become so big that it will be ever-present, making it easier to adjust to and ignore? While considering it a possibility, Kiran concludes:
“As a community, I don’t see people stopping before this change is made.”
If there is no risk of dilution, doubts could linger whether protests may be misdirected. The attendance of pro-Khalistan groups at protests has been viewed as distracting from the cause to promote an anti-Indian agenda instead. However, the sentiment among Kiran and her family is simple: the protest is not being misdirected. “The ultimate purpose of the movement is to repeal the three bills, but we also have to understand people’s psyche, the play between their cultural and religious being, and their place in the country of India.” Kiran’s brother-in-law, Gurvinder Singh, speaks on this issue specifically, “People continue this dialogue when they do not feel heard or free in their country. The hesitancy of the government to repeal these bills shows that it prioritizes corporations and financial investment over people’s wellbeing, which further perpetuates the idea that farmers are treated as second class citizens in their own country.”
Finally, the topic of religion, and where it fits into a protest movement for farmers, was discussed. “So many Sikhs are protesting because most of the farmers in Punjab and India are Sikhs.” While heritage is a large contributing factor to the role of religious values in the movement, political history also plays a big part: “To a certain extent, it is based on previous things that have happened to Sikhs, things they do not want happening to them again.” Kiran refers to the 1984 Sikh Massacre, during which the Indian National Congress organised riots against Sikhs in the country. With religious roots, values, and lessons from history, Kiran’s community is taught “if there is any injustice, you need to put your voice forward and try to change it. Our religion drives us to make this better. Muslims and Hindus are also supporting it.”
Kiran concludes by stating that, ultimately, common humanitarian values drive the cause:
This is a human movement.
This interview is part of TNGO’s Human Stories rubric.
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