1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Can India's farmers keep up their fight against PM Modi?

Mahima Kapoor in New Delhi
July 3, 2024

In northern India, defiant farmers continue their steadfast protest amidst challenges posed by the sowing season. Despite facing political obstacles and personal sacrifices, their determination is growing.

Farmers gear up for the day's sit in protest in the early hours of the morning at Shambhu border, Haryana
Farmers gear up for the day's sit-in protest in the early hours of the morning at Shambhu border, HaryanaImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

For nearly five months, around 40 farmers have been living in reinforced tents on a highway in northern India, 212 kilometers (132 miles) from Delhi. These farmers have been protesting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, despite their numbers dwindling since earlier this year.

In February, tens of thousands of farmers gathered at the Shambhu border, a key interstate checkpoint, expressing anger towards the government for not fulfilling its promise to guarantee a minimum support price (MSP) for crops.

The proposed MSP, which would be at least 50% higher than the cost of production, was seen as a crucial safety net to protect the farming community from volatile price fluctuations.

The farmers remain resolute, continuing their protest in hopes that the government will honor its commitment and provide the much-needed price stability that could safeguard their livelihoods.

Emboldened by the success of the mass farmer movement in 2020-21, which forced Modi to repeal laws intended to modernize the agricultural sector, they took to protest again.

The demand for the MSP is one of 10 presented by the farmers, and perhaps its most crucial. Others include changes to pensions, insurance schemes and loan waivers.

But can the protesters keep up the pressure even as their numbers declined in the face of harsh weather, lack of unity, and the beginning of the summer sowing season?

Young farmer struck by shrapnel fights for his community

On a recent cloudy morning, the deserted-looking campsite lay eerily silent, with only a few elderly men sitting in the kitchen tent.

"We're only 30-40 of us here overnight, but wait for a few hours and you will see," an elderly farmer said, as he scooped up curry with his day-old bread. And indeed by noon, over 1,000 farmers from neighboring villages had joined them.

 Farmers protesting at the Shambhu border gearing up for the day's sit in protest in the early hours of the morning at Shambhu border, Haryana, India
Farmers protesting at the Shambhu border gearing up for the day's sit in protest in the early hours of the morning at Shambhu border, Haryana, IndiaImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

Tejveer Singh, a farmer forum spokesperson, acknowledged that it was mostly elderly men and few women protesting.

"Consistent demonstration requires patience — which elderly folks have, not the youth. Our young farmers have a different role, to organize the food, do the heavy lifting and stand at the forefront when we expect violence from authorities," he said. "Even now, thousands of farmers are ready to answer our call, should we need it."

One such young participant is 21-year-old Harpreet Singh who visits the protest site nearly every day.

On February 13, the local state police dropped tear gas shells via drones on protesting farmers, and shrapnel from one of the canisters tore into Harpreet's legs. Three days later, still at the protest site, he realized the wounds were infected, which led to a weeks-long recovery process at the hospital.

This did not deter the young activist. "I come from a small family of farmers. My only chance at making a name for myself is to fight for the rights of my community," he said, smiling.

Harpreet Singh, farmer activist, was left injured in a scuffle with Haryana Police on February 13 at the Shambhu border
Harpreet Singh, farmer activist, was left injured in a scuffle with Haryana Police on February 13 at the Shambhu borderImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

'My vision is gone for life'

But not everyone can remain in high spirits.

Davander Singh Bhangu, who was also present at the site on February 13, permanently lost vision in one eye after a piece of shrapnel struck his face.

"I was with them for the cause, but what did I get in return? My vision is gone for life and they haven't even bothered reaching out," he said, referring to the leaders organizing the current movement. While Bhangu received Rs 50,000 (€560, $600) in compensation from the farmers' union, he said that he was not looking for money but felt used and abandoned by the cause. 

Another farmer, Sandeep Singh, said he could not afford to be a part of the movement. He has taken to driving rental cars to make ends meet while his father and brothers tend to their small farm.

"If we go and sit at the dharna (sit-in) everyday, who will sow our seeds, who will earn the bread?" he said.

Farmers' unions have strongly denied any allegations of corruption following rumors that some farmers who had negotiated with government representatives were subsequently able to purchase additional land.

Farmers take advantage of weakened government

Prime Minister Modi returned to power in June for a third consecutive term, although his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now relies on the support of coalition partners to remain in power. The ruling party faced significant setbacks, losing half its seats in Haryana and failing to secure any seats in Punjab — two crucial states where farmers have actively mobilized against his administration.

Despite farmers in these regions viewing the election results as a partial victory, no representatives from the federal government have reached out to them since the results were announced.

Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University in the US, said the farmers still have advantages in their favor.

"This is a weakened government and the farmers are aware of it… They did succeed the first time around in getting the Modi government to at least put off the legislation," he said. "They tasted blood the first time around."

Indien Shambhu Bauern am Protestort
Farmers at the protest site listening to farmer union leaders' speech at the main tent at the Shambhu border, HaryanaImage: Mahima Kapoor/DW

A diminishing movement?

However, the farmers also face a disadvantage. "Sustaining any movement of collective action is always very difficult because some people can be bought out, some won't have the time to devote, some people get tired of it not working. I am not surprised that the movement has diminished," Ganguly added.

Jasdeep Singh, political activist and editor of the Trolley Times, a newsletter on the farmers' movement, agreed.

"It will be hard to sustain this movement for long. Even the villages around the Shambhu border have complained because they find it hard to commute," he said. "While removing them may be a hard task, I think it may fizzle out."

Tech and tradition: The future of farming - Eco India

Agriculture policy expert Devender Sharma said the government is more likely to give in to their demand for a legal guarantee of MSP.

"This is a genuine demand. Globally farmers are calling for guaranteeing the cost of production," he said. "Farmers all over the world now realize they have been shortchanged for decades as a result of which farming is in a serious crisis," he added.

"I am sure the government will sooner than later have to accept the demand of farmers for a legally guaranteed MSP." According to Sharma, implementing legal MSP guarantees would put more money into the hands of farmers, leading to greater prosperity across rural India.

Tejveer Singh, spokesperson for the farmers, refuted claims that the movement has stalled. He emphasized that the upcoming regional elections in five key states — Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Delhi, and Bihar — in 2024-25 present a significant opportunity for the movement, giving it an "edge."

"We are working on putting pressure on the opposition parties to raise the MSP issue in the parliament," he said. "The issue of MSP is a very complicated one… We know it is going to be a long fight, we are willing to make the effort," Singh stressed.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum