Dozens of colorful turbans dot the road where men from various villages and towns have come together to demand farmers' rights. At this gathering, on October 2 in the Punjab state of northern India, Sumandeep Kaur is the only one without a turban.
She is a 20-year-old journalism student, and she has come with her father, who is a farmer.
Wearing a green shirt and white trousers, she squints her eyes at her father, Kewal Singh, who is addressing the farmers as they block a toll plaza on a highway. They are protesting three new laws, all passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on September 20.
The first, The Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, claims to "empower farmers for engaging with processors, wholesalers, aggregators, wholesalers, large retailers, exporters etc, on a level playing field." It promises "price assurance to farmers even before sowing of crops." The second, The Essential Commodities Act (Amendment) Bill, aims to "drive up investment in cold storages and modernisation of the food supply chain" and creates a "competitive market environment and also prevents wastage of agri-produce that happens due to lack of storage facilities." And the third, the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, is notionally meant to "act as a catalyst to attract private sector investment for building supply chains for supply of Indian farm produce to national and global markets, and in agricultural infrastructure."
The government has claimed that its new laws will streamline farming in India and will transform the agriculture sector through increased private investment. Many activists, though, believe that measures will help a few corporations while leading to unemployment and growing debt for smaller scale farmers. Farmers also believe that many could lose land if they are forced to sell their property to corporates, which will directly deal with production and marketing of goods.
In a tweet, Modi responded to such criticism by saying: "For decades, the Indian farmer was bound by various constraints and bullied by middlemen. The bills passed by Parliament liberate the farmers from such adversities."
What happens to India's farmers is no small matter. The agriculture sector employs half of India's 1.35 billion people and contributes nearly 15 percent of India's $2.7 trillion economy. Given growing debt, poor harvests, and draught, in 2019, 28 people who depend on farming died by suicide every day. If the protesters are right about the effects of the new law, that figure could climb. That is why Kaur, who was five years old when she attended her first farmers' protest with her father, came out that Friday.
Wearing faded green floral kurta, Naseemo Kaur, no relation to Sumandeep, sits in the front row chanting slogans with over a dozen other women outside a grain silo in Moga area of Punjab at another protest on October 22. The silo is owned by Gautam Adani, an Indian industrialist whose net worth is an estimated $25.2 billion. Adani has been accused of receiving benefits from Modi to grow his business network across the country. The farmers' union that had organized this particular protest accused Modi of imposing new laws to benefit his "industrialist friends," like Adani. As each speaker at the protest accused the government of facilitating corporate looting of the agricultural sector, Naseemo took a break to drink water in the scorching heat.
She had left her home in Bhagike village early in the morning with her neighbors to travel two hours by tractor to the protest. Two months before, her son, Karamjeet Singh, 48, took his own life by drinking pesticide. After selling his family land to marry off his two sisters, Singh had gone to work as a laborer for other farmers. With India's inflation rate reaching 7.4 percent, Singh's debts had surged to over $13,000.
"He had enormous debt on him," says Naseemo later, while sitting on a cot in back in her home. "He sold his land and crop and paid back. He worked as a laborer, but he could hardly earn anything. He would often cry and say, 'What will we do, how will I marry my children, how will we sustain?' Then he thought that his life had no meaning and drank pesticide spray." Three days later, he was declared dead at the hospital. The family now has his framed portrait photograph with his birth and death dates that they plan to hang next to a similar one of his father who succumbed to cancer on December 15, 2017.
"After he sold all his land, he strongly believed that he was way beyond help. During this pandemic, he couldn't find work every day. How can a government who has lost the respect of the world be a good government? The government has given us nothing, it has never done anything for us," says Naseemo.
With no farmland or savings, it is now Sukhwinder, Singh's son and Naseemo's grandson, who goes out to look for work to provide for his family. There's a bit of his father's debt left to repay—and of course, ever present fears, that the family could have to take on more.
Back at the protest, Sukhdev Singh Khokri, speaks. He is Punjab general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union—Ekta Ugrahan—a nationwide non-partisan farmers' representative organization. In his remarks, he takes up the theme of debt, railing against the government which, "says that its treasury is not able to resolve debts."
In his yellow turban and white kurta, Khokri is respected by everyone at the protest. Modi's new measures, he predicted, would lead to more indebtedness. "These laws are going to fundamentally destroy the occupation of farming," he said, they'll "loot the crops produced by the farmers; in the name of free market, these laws will sell the market space to the private traders."
As the sun touches the lush paddy fields, the farmers begin to board tractors, bikes, and cars to leave for home. Naseemo, too, leaves. But she is not ready to stop protesting. "I will also fight. I will not stop protesting for what is right. People like me who are protesting understand my struggles," she says.
Back in her village, Sumandeep Kaur vows to fight on as well. Since March 2020, when a countrywide lockdown was announced for the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaur's college has been closed. In a large compound with one story main house and two outhouses adjoining farmland, she lives with the families of her two uncles. Over a dozen buffaloes turn their heads as she walks to pour them water in the stable.
"I returned home recently and since then I have been joining protests after the central government passed the new laws," says Kaur, as her father listens. "We are going to the villages to inform the people how the laws will destroy the farming, deprive us of everything, and snatch our lands. I consider this as a threat to Indian democracy if we impose laws on people without their consent."
According to the government, the new laws are to reform the agriculture sector in the country by providing more choices to farmers and help them get better prices to their produce. It also aims to enable farmers to enhance their trade by use of technology and also reduce the marketing costs, which can improve their income. Seen as a trap by farmers, the government's move also paves way for corporate investment into farming.
Days after the farm laws were passed, a Punjab-based political party, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)—one the BJP's oldest allies in government, quit the alliance. SAD's president, Sukhbir Badal, said the party couldn't stand by as the BJP brought "such anti-farmer and anti-Punjab bills." In the last state elections of 2017, the BJP only won three seats out of 117 in Punjab, and the protesting farmers hope that its standing will fall even further in the next election, in 2022.
Kaur believes that defeating the BJP is possible, especially if the "youth face up to this threat." Farmers don't only have sons, she says, they also have daughters, who will also fight for farmlands. "We will fight against the Modi government and the ordinances." But the protests have not attracted significant attention from the Modi government yet.
This month, the officials of the agriculture ministry met farmers' unions for talks but the meeting ended with the unions' representatives leaving after an hour, because unions are demanding that the agricultural minister or Modi himself should attend the talks. So far Modi and his senior ministers have declined, and protests have escalated. On November 5, at least one million farmers at over 5,000 locations across 20 states took to streets to in demonstration against the laws. Another march is planned for Delhi on November 26-27.
Kaur, who wants to become a journalist to tell the story of her people, her family, the farmers, says that for the past six years, she has only seen the poor sections of society getting poorer. That's something most Indians must acutely feel, too.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.