Thousands of farmers from across India will march to the parliament in New Delhi on November 30, to demand action on the deepening agrarian crisis that has left a trail of heavy debts and suicide in its wake.
More than 300,000 farmers have killed themselves over the last 20 years – the equivalent of a suicide every hour. Despite that heavy toll, political leaders and the middle class remain largely oblivious to a terrible human rights crisis.
Despite decades of strong economic growth, government investment in rural communities has lagged, leaving millions at the mercy of erratic monsoons, whether flooding or drought.
Women, who make up as much as 75 percent of the agricultural workforce as per unofficial estimates, continue to be paid less than men. They are often not recognized as farmers because they do not own land and struggle to access resources as a result. Yet, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says rural women are key players in the effort to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially of addressing hunger and malnutrition, because women reinvest up to 90 percent of their earnings into their households.
Dalits – formerly “untouchables” – and tribal communities, particularly in rural areas, continue to face routine discrimination. Mining and infrastructure projects have displaced tribal communities. Despite constitutional guarantees and laws, the government needs to do more to deliver quality education, health, and nutritional security to rural areas.
The protests come just before India heads to Poland next month for the global climate summit, and on the heels of a reminder by the UN high commissioner for human rights that governments have an obligation to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Studies have shown that the effects of climate change have contributed to farmer suicides and higher indebtedness.
Instead of adequately addressing farmers’ challenges, the government has often clashed with farmers over allegations of forcible acquisition of land. Even the government’s politically populist policies on cow protection have hurt some farmers by forcing them to care for unproductive cattle.
How the government responds to the protests will determine whether it is serious about tackling a slew of related issues including poverty, food and nutrition security, and climate change – all goals India has committed to implement in the next decade as part of the SDG framework.