But Singh hasn’t been home in Punjab for a year since he joined farmers at one of three protest sites in the Indian capital to campaign against a new agricultural law that they claim will let them in. waterfall.
“When I first came here, I thought I would be here 15, maybe 20 days, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a whole year go by,” Singh said as he sipped his morning tea, surrounded by people young protesters. at a campsite in Singhu, on the outskirts of Delhi.
On Friday, numbers at all three protest sites rose as farmers gathered to mark a year of civil action last week that pushed Modi into a rare policy reversal.
On November 19, the Prime Minister said he would formally repeal the law because the government had failed to convince farmers of its importance.
“I appeal to all my agitated farmer friends…go back to your homes, fields and families. Start afresh,” Modi said.
But they didn’t go home.
By contrast, union leaders say farmers will continue to protest until the government meets several other demands, including raising the minimum price of their products, withdrawing legal action some farmers and paid compensation to the families of hundreds. The farmers died as a result of the civil lawsuit.
Planting trees at a loss
For 12 months, Singh slept in a blanket-covered wooden cot inside one of the hundreds of tents crowded with people in Singhu, the main protest site.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has insisted reforms will fix a troubled system. In the past, farmers had to auction their goods, where they got at least the government’s agreed-upon minimum support price (MSP) for some of their crops.
Agricultural laws that relax the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce have protected farmers from the unregulated free market for decades. However, farmers say market forces could push prices down even further, and smaller farmers may find it difficult to negotiate favorable deals with the giants.
Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, according to a report from the Brand Equity Fund of India. The country is the world’s second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, peanuts, fruits and vegetables.
But farming households had an average income of just 10,218 rupees ($137) per month for 2018-19, according to government statistics – 316 rupees less than the national average wage for that year. .
Economist Devinder Sharma says most farmers don’t plow enough land to make a profit, leading to debt piled up.
“When farmers plant seeds to grow crops, they make a loss,” he said. “They sacrificed their income for the benefit of consumers, and it was the small farmers who were exploited the most.”
The poverty and indebtedness faced by many Indian farmers has forced some to take harsh measures. In 2019, more than 10,000 people in the agricultural sector took their own lives, according to government figures.
“This protest culminated in complex anger,” said Sharma. “Farmers know this may be their last chance to secure a stable future for themselves. This is a do or die situation.”
What do farmers want?
Delhi police set up blockades to restrict access to three protest sites on Friday, but turnout was lower than at the height of the protests.
The time to celebrate is over – despite the smaller numbers, tens of thousands still show up with clear demands.
Rakesh Tikait, national spokesman for farmers’ organization Bhartiya Kisan Union, urged the government to talk to farmers to find a solution – which he suggested needed more government support.
“They can assist us with electricity, provide fertilizer, with other equipment used in agriculture. They can help us increase the rate of crops,” he said. “The government can support us by providing health benefits to the people in the village, by providing education for their children.”
For 15 years, farmers say successive governments have ignored recommendations to ease farmers’ stress made by the National Committee on Farmers, led by Prof.
Between 2004 and 2006, Swaminathan published five reports that suggested measures including raising the minimum support price (MSP) to make farmers more financially stable and in control of their income.
The government claims it has implemented 200 of the 201 recommendations, but farmers say land tenure and food distribution still need reform and it wants all farmers to legally enjoy the MSP for the entire population. their crop.
Unions have also made more specific demands related to the protest. For example, they called for the arrest of Home Minister Ajay Mishra Teni, whose convoy they say attacked protesters in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh in October.
Farmers also want a permanent “martyrs memorial” to be erected on the Singhu border in memory of the 700 farmers, union leaders claim to have died while calling for reform.
Paramjeet Singh Katyal, media representative for Samkyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella organization of farmers’ unions, said most of the deaths were due to severe cold and road accidents.
Modi’s ‘rare’ failure
Giles Verniers, assistant professor of Political Science at India’s Ashoka University, said Modi’s reversal of agricultural law was a departure from his usual hardline style.
“It contradicts the brand of leadership that Modi has built since he took power – that is the image of a strong, decisive leader who makes tough decisions and is free from distractions,” Verniers said. criticism,” Verniers said.
In 2016, Modi stood by the decision to ban most Indian banknotes after calling the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes “worthless notes”.
Three years later, he faced the wrath of angry protesters after enacting the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act – a law that promised to quickly grant Indian citizenship to all. all faiths from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, with the exception of Islam.
And most recently, he has faced public backlash for allegedly mishandling the pandemic, after India faced a brutal second wave that saw the Cases skyrocketed and crematoriums were full.
“Rarely (BJP) admits that they need to change course,” Verniers said. “That makes this decision all the more important.”
Some are looking to key state elections next year.
Seven Indian states will hold elections to determine whether the BJP can stay in power. Modi’s ruling party now governs six of the seven states, including the predominantly agricultural Uttar Pradesh.
Paramjeet Kaur, a 57-year-old farmer at the protest site in Singhu, said Modi’s opposition was politically motivated.
“Uttar Pradesh will be out of his hand, Punjab will be from him… that’s why he’s taking the law back,” she said.
In May, the BJP suffered a loss in West Bengal – a state they had seen as a guaranteed victory. Meanwhile, polls show that the BJP’s lead in Uttar Pradesh has waned.
Angry farmers could see Modi lose a sizable number of votes.
“If elections come after that, he will delay it further. They only work for elections, they don’t care about people,” Kaur said.
Now, she sees the dismissal as an opportunity to put more pressure on Modi to meet their remaining demands.
“This is our right, we won’t leave without our rights … if he accepts our request, we will leave, otherwise we will stay,” she said. speak.
‘If we die here, we die’
To some experts, Modi’s agricultural law is one of India’s “biggest reforms”, with the power to change the country’s stricken agricultural sector.
Economist Gautam Chikermane, vice president at the Observer Research Foundation, said the deregulation would make it difficult for other governments to propose similar reforms.
“The future of farmers is sealed for the next quarter of a century – no political party has the guts to push through with these reforms,” says Chikermane.
For some farming families, it was too late.
At the Singhu protest site, Harjinder Singh, 45, said he was from the last generation of farmers working on the acres he owns in his village in Punjab. His children have moved elsewhere.
“They don’t see any benefit in staying in agriculture,” he said. “But I’m fighting to preserve an industry that I can’t see ruined.”
Santosh Singh carries a dagger, as many Sikhs do, but for him this is a protest of patience and peace.
His family has been working in the land for generations, hoping that his descendants continue the tradition.
That’s why he’s committed to fighting for India’s entire farming community – no matter how long it takes.
“We won’t leave. If we die here, we die,” he said.
“We knew this was going to be a long struggle.”
CNN’s Vedika Sud contributed reporting.