India: Between the Farmers’ Struggle and the COVID Crisis

India: Between the Farmers’ Struggle and the COVID Crisis

Cover Image by TNGO Illustrator Rossella Gangi

Between ongoing farmers’ protests and an escalating COVID crisis, India has faced intense challenges in the past year. Farmers’ protests that began in September 2020 have remained restless as the nationwide movement continues to demand the repeal of three agricultural bills: The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce Act, The Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities Act. These bills have been criticized for favoring big business in the farming industry at the expense of smaller farmers across the country. The demands have thus far been rejected, and the protests have been tainted by government repression as well as an overarching theme of working-class struggle.

The social and economic challenges brought forward by the farming bills and ensuing protests have been exacerbated by the country’s COVID crisis. Following a boom in April and May, India has recorded 29 million cases and over 380,000 deaths so far. India’s struggle with COVID has been defined by its lack of available supplies, most importantly, oxygen. The situation has forced some patients to turn to the black market, where the cost of oxygen cylinders is significantly higher. India also faced a shortage of vaccines during the peak months of the outbreak. Despite being one of the world’s top producers of the vaccine, it has exported most of its available doses. This is not only a national public health crisis but also highlights the issue of global health inequality: a country of middle/lower income status is not sufficiently resourced to deal with a pandemic.

All-in-all, India has faced great social and economic strain in the past year, amounting to political challenges where the government’s adequacy and capabilities are also questioned.

The Indian Government Under A Microscope

India’s government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has undergone close scrutiny amid the current challenges. On top of internal civilian distress, the cabinet has faced international criticism for its response to the farmers’ protests and speculation over its delayed response to immediate COVID challenges. This has placed the government under a microscope in which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) leadership, and perceived ability to respond to the population’s needs, have been re-evaluated.

Government officials have become increasingly scrutinized for their hesitancy to impose a full-scale national lockdown, the lack of nationwide testing, and a lag in delivering crucial supplies to hospitals amid the second wave of COVID in India. This boiled down to concerns over the economic repercussions of such measures. In some instances, scrutiny of the BJP has resulted in lost state elections, as well as sanctions against officials by the Delhi High Court. Recently, speculation has arisen over the government’s PM Cares charity, which has centered its disaster-relief efforts on COVID support. The charity’s funding from various wealthy donors has reportedly been put towards health care supplies, particularly oxygen ventilators. However, there have been mass complaints that the ventilators were faulty, which has contributed to speculation over the charity’s actual spending and raising concerns over corruption.

A COVID-19 patient in Delhi, India Source: Atul Loke/The New York Times

Paired with the government’s response to ongoing farmers’ protests, the COVID speculation exacerbates doubts regarding Modi’s service to the people. Protesting farmers have sustained their demand that the government repeal the agricultural bills. At first, talks were initiated to mediate between India’s ruling body and representatives of the country’s farmers. However, these talks have since stalled. A letter penned by the umbrella organization Samyukta Kisan Morcha describes Modi’s Government as “the most anti-farmer government that this country has seen”, encapsulating the movement’s cause to raise awareness of the neglect that thousands of farmers feel at the hands of their government. This has reflected the neglect currently felt within the country as much of the population suffers at the hands of what is regarded as COVID mismanagement.

Plans for COVID Recovery

A major contributing factor to the Indian government’s pace of response to the COVID boom in the country, however, is its shortage of resources. Much of the population has been unable to access vaccines, along with medical supplies and facilities to cope with the virus. The existence of global pre-purchase agreements for COVID-19 vaccine doses has caused India to fall behind in a race for COVID recovery. That being said, recent weeks have seen reinvigorated efforts to vaccinate every adult in the country. Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of a new policy that makes the federal government responsible for buying the majority of vaccines produced in the country has made the whole population’s recovery more promising. Nevertheless, complications caused by logistics and persuading people to take the vaccine, especially in rural areas, are still delaying recuperation in the country.

Additionally, international aid must be taken into consideration. India’s recovery efforts have been primarily enabled through foreign actors’ provision of medical aid and supplies. This is added to worldwide fundraising initiatives by independent organizations intended to help Indians in need. In a moment when the government is responsible for spearheading the population’s recovery, it is apparent that it needs external assistance. These international efforts merely echo the global input on India’s farmers’ protests. In particular, Western leaders spoke about the movement, largely in favor of the cause, while independent organizations also rallied together and raised money for protesting farmers. Both cases suggest that it is specifically India’s citizens who rely on international help, as the government cannot entirely provide it.

The Indian government is therefore in a weakened position in terms of its footing as a government trusted to act on the needs of its people. Whether its approaches have been deliberate or a consequence of external circumstances, the government is currently being re-evaluated. Upcoming state elections will continue to be the most accurate reflection of this re-evaluation.

  1. Will the combination of the farmers’ protests and COVID crisis be enough for Indians to vote the ruling party out?
  2. Would a more proactive government approach to the COVID crisis make a substantial enough difference, considering the issue of global health inequality and India’s position in handling the pandemic in relation to higher income countries?
  3. Would people be less critical of the government if issues with the country’s farming system, and consequent protests, had not been taking place alongside the COVID boom in the country?

Suggested Reading

Bajekal, Naina (2021). “India’s COVID-19 Crisis is Spiralling Out of Control. It Didn’t Have to Be This Way.” TIME, 28 April, 2021.

Pandey, Vikas (2021). “Covid-19 in India: Patients struggle at home as hospitals choke.” BBC News, 26 April.

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