In late November, what may have been the single largest protest in human history took place in India, as tens of thousands of farmers marched to the capital to protest proposed new legislation and upward of 250 million people around the subcontinent participated in a 24-hour general strike in solidarity. This massive people’s movement has gained attention worldwide and, moreover, forced the government to come meet the protesters where they are instead of just cracking down and brutalizing them, a first in the six years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule.
To comprehend this moment, you have to understand the long plight of India’s farmers. To a much greater degree than other major economies, India retains its mass agrarian traditions alongside its developed industrial and tech sectors—agriculture is still the largest source of livelihood for most Indians, employing more than half the subcontinent’s workforce, mostly in small and local farms instead of agribusiness behemoths. Yet the farmers themselves, despite feeding so much of the nation and providing a significant bedrock for India’s economy, have always had a brutal time of it. Colonial-induced famines (temporarily solved by the reforms of the 1960s “Green Revolution,” which later would cause its own issues), bureaucratic and oppressive government policy, exploitation by feudal-minded landholders, and, of course, climate change have continually left India’s land workers among the worst off the world over. Even before the acceleration in mass despair augured by the pandemic and ensuing locust invasion, farmers had been left completely strapped by crippling debts, losses on marketed goods, and devastation from extreme weather; long-troubling suicide rates reached staggering new heights. Those who say India has “too many farmers,” as a writer at Indian business publication Mint and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute have claimed, are completely missing the point: The country has bled so many other jobs involving so-called unskilled labor, especially lately, that many of the country’s poorest, illiterate, and otherwise disenfranchised have no other labor recourse, especially with no workable safety net on hand.