HOW THE "LARGEST DEMOCRACY" IN THE WORLD MANAGES DISSENT
"The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments. (Niharendu Dutt Mazumdar v. Emperor AIR 1942 FC22). Difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence, dissent, or for that matter, even disapprobation, are recognised legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies. An aware and assertive citizenry, in contradistinction with an indifferent or docile citizenry, is indisputably a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy."
- Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana
In the last 90 days of the farmer protests at the borders of Delhi, nearly 250 farmers have died, thousands of Sikhs including women have been jailed under the draconian UAPA act, hundreds have been attacked brutally by the police in a single day including one who was shot dead. Some of those that were attacked or sent to jail include Indian Army veterans, one of them as old as 80 years who had fought in 3 wars to protect the country. The Government has also felt threatened by a 24 year old Dalit labor activist Nodeep Kaur, who has been in jail without warrant for over a month, including being physically and sexually abused by the police. This only begins to describe the ongoing human rights violations by the Government on its own people.
Since last month, it is easier to cross the border from India into Nepal, than it is to cross the Delhi border from Singhu. To the hundreds of thousands of farmers protesting at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur, the Government has sealed them off from the rest of the country with a dozen layers of barricade, concrete walls, metal spikes and barbed wire, putting even Donald Trump to shame. Access has been cut off to fresh water tankers from Delhi and makeshift toilet facilities installed by the farmers only days earlier. If this were not enough, virtual access to the rest of the world has also been cut off by turning off high-speed internet at the protest sites and denying permission to independent journalists from visiting and reporting on them. As it deflects international pressure, dissenting Twitter handles are being blocked, comedians jailed for jokes critical of the government and online hate-factories raised to create divisions within society.
Why would a nation that claims to be the largest democracy of the world, take such draconian measures on its own citizens?
India is confirmatory to the Paris Principles endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Section 2(1)(d) of the PHRA defines Human Rights as the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India. Yet, in 2018 it slipped to position 111 from #94 in the year before in the Human Freedom Index Rank. Its human development index stands at 0.65/1, well below that of the world average. None of this is surprising as in 2019 alone, Human Rights Watch raised alarms on multiple fronts including the plights of Dalits, religious minorities, women's and children's rights. This includes the status of Jammu and Kashmir, the impunity enjoyed by security forces, and the lack of freedom of expression overall.
Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took office in 2014, India's position in the EIU Democracy Index has fallen from its peak at position 27 (score of 7.92), down to #53 (score of 6.61) in 2020. India has claimed the need for harsh actions in the name of "necessary reforms" to further economic activity. Yet it's economy is only the 120th freest, behind neighboring communist nations such as China and Vietnam, even behind Papua New Guinea. Further still, its Annual GDP Growth has fallen from 7.4% in 2014 to 4.2% in 2019. In 2020 alone, it shrank by over 10%, the worst among the top economies of the world.
Even as the overall GDP has risen till 2019, income inequality has continued to rise. Whether it was the demonetization of 2016 or the mass domestic immigration exodus at the start of the pandemic, the poorest of the nation have had to bear the brunt. This includes the farming sector constituting nearly 58% of the labor force of India, but only 15% of the GDP. The Governments over the decades have done little to prop that by contributing an average of only 2% of the annual budget towards agriculture. While the average farmer income has remained abysmal (graphic), the official tally of farmer suicides stands at nearly 300,000 since 1995, although the actual number may be much higher.
The states of Maharashtra and Punjab lead the tally of farmer suicides in the country. This despite Punjab having one of the largest agricultural incomes in the country. Along with incomes, the price of agricultural land is also one of the highest in Punjab. The biggest reason for suicides here has been agricultural debt as farmers are forced to pay huge interest rates on loans to buy seeds and fertilizers to grow food for others. That's why it is not surprising to see father and son commit suicide together, often by consuming pesticide. This is one epidemic that has been running for decades with no signs of ending.
But agricultural debt is not the only reason for the plight of the Indian farmer. Climate change has increased the occurrence of drought and storms, both responsible for poor yield or loss of crop. Two successive seasons of poor yield are enough to leave a farming household with no options left to explore. The high-yield wheat and rice seeds introduced at the time of the Green Revolution over 50 years ago has left behind a legacy of devastation and disease. The seeds require increased use of pesticide and fertilizer, not to mention a lot more water to grow. The pesticide use has resulted in a large increase in incidence of cancer in rural Punjab and Maharashtra (Cancer Train), while increased groundwater depletion means every year the farmers need to install still more powerful machines to look for water at lower depths inside the earth.
So when climate activist Greta Thunberg tweets in support of the farmers, the Indian Government is faced with a double threat. The introduction of the farm bills is not the only legislation that was rushed in secretly during the pandemic. Massive deregulation of the coal and mining industry has taken place too. India is a signatory to the Paris Climate Accord but it stands far behind its goals. So domestic climate activists such as Disha Ravi, Shantanu and Nikita Jacob are all threats to the Indian Government and its actual goals. Which is why by arresting them they are sending a message to the other youth in the country and continue to instill fear in their minds. Both farmers and climate activists understand well the disastrous consequences of climate change on earth.
An independent media is considered the fourth pillar of a free democratic society. But in India that might not be true anymore as its rank in the Press Freedom Index has fallen to #142 of 180 countries, below even war-crippled Afghanistan and South Sudan. This drop is largely driven by the lack of journalistic ethics in most mainstream media houses as well as enforcing the largest internet shutdowns across the world, with an estimated cost of $2.8 billion to the economy. While the residents of Kashmir were reeling under the pandemic last year, their lives were made worse when doctors had to rely on 2G speeds. Not ironically, the world did not know about it till they saw Rihanna's tweet. But why would the media bend over backwards to cater to the government? One big reason may be that the Government itself is one of the largest markets for TV-based ad revenue. For a perception-crazy Government, it has no hesitation on spending tax money on creating an image for re-election, than to spend the money towards the benefit of the citizens itself. While this is an excellent way of hiding the facts and maintaining the image, independent journalists and others such as NDTV are still a thorn in the nefarious ways of the Government. The obvious solution to that is to jail those who dare expose. That's why it is no surprise that most Indian TV Channels make even the likes of Fox TV seem quite moderate.
What does all this mean to a nation of 1.4 billion people, where most still are part of the unorganized sector including with agriculture. According to renowned economist Arun, the pandemic affected the unorganized economy more than the organized one, and in 2020 the economy shrank by 29% in contrast to the Government figure of 7.7%. Long periods of weak economic progress has left the job market in a terrible position. But despite such devastating results of its neo-liberal economic models, the BJP Government remains committed to proceeding with the same. It is no surprise that the primary beneficiaries of the free market agricultural trade model will be the Ambani and Adani families, who have already started to open large grain storage facilities with the farm bills hardly having been passed. In the western world including the United States where the free market model has been running for decades, farming is supported by subsidies as high as $100,000 per family, per year. In India the subsidies do not cross $100. This leaves us with a major question to ponder over.
If the free market model is to be introduced for Indian agriculture in its current form, with no Minimum Support Price legislation, no increased subsidies for farmers, and reduced regulation on hoarding and price manipulation practices, what do we expect the nearly 800 million people will do, whose lives are dependent upon agriculture?
Will this result in an increase in farmer suicides across the country, or increased saturation of an urban labor market environment?
With climate change stirring global crises like those in Syria, do we expect mass exodus of these farmers to the rest of the world as undocumented immigrants?
Will further increase in food prices make life more difficult for another 500 million middle class and poor citizens of the country?
Will this looming humanitarian crisis be allowed to unfold for the world to watch without them doing anything about it?