After nearly a month of living in tents and shacks in the biting cold of north India, with temperatures dropping to zero degrees Celsius, 83-year-old Harful Singh fell ill. It became difficult for him to breathe, and he had this pain in his chest.
He and 80-year-old Jaspal Kaur, his wife – both members of the All India Krantikari Kisan Sabha – had come to the Singhu protest site at the Haryana-Delhi border on November 26 in a tractor-trolley along with 11-12 other farmers. When his health became unsteady, on December 21, the couple went back to their village, Sohag Heri in Fatehgarh Sahib district of Punjab, around 200 kilometres away.
Three days later, on December 24, Harful Singh died.
Barely 10 days after that, Jaspal Kaur was back at Singhu. “My husband sacrificed his life for me, our children and for our land. I had to come back and continue the fight we started,” she said. “Trolleys come and go every day from my village. I took one of them to return.”
When we met in January, Jaspal was sitting in a tent surrounded by women cooking meals for the langar, going about her work quietly amid the bustle of the makeshift kitchen. Sitting on the floor, she had stacked up a pile of hot rotis after spreading ghee over them. “Sometimes it gets too cold [at night] and my leg joints hurt. But we are farmers, so pain and loss are not new for us,” she said of those winter weeks.
Her sons would come and visit her often at the protest site. Jaspal’s family owns one acre of land on which they grow paddy. The land was divided between their two sons when Harful was alive.
“I lost my husband, I can’t let the land go,” Jaspal said. “If the government wants to do good for us, tell them to exempt farmers like me from having to repay loans. Tell them to give me money [pension] so that I can live on my own, now that I am a widow. I am not educated. I have spent my whole life farming – it is not like other work where you get a pension,” she said.
Jaspal’s family, like numerous households, is in debt, though she was unable to outline the details. A financial inclusion survey done by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development in 2018 shows that 44 per cent of all (agricultural) households in Punjab were indebted – slightly lower than the all-India number of 52.5 per cent. The average outstanding debt was Rs. 104,602.
Instead of state assistance in the form of pension and loans waivers, Jaspal foresees that the new laws, introduced by the central government, will worsen the situation of farm families like hers. “With the new laws, prajapati [rulers/masters] will take control of the mandi and they will fix rates as per their whim.”
To protest against these laws, tens of thousands of other farmers have remained resolutely stationed at various sites on the borders of Delhi since November 26. The laws that they are opposing are the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. These were first passed as ordinances on June 5, 2020, then introduced as farm bills in Parliament on September 14, and hastened into Acts by the 20th of that month.
The farmers see this legislation as devastating their livelihoods by expanding the space for large corporate to exercise even greater power over farming. They will also undermine the main forms of support to the cultivator, including the minimum support price (MSP), the agricultural produce marketing committees (APMCs), state procurement and more. The laws have also been criticised as affecting every Indian as they disable the right to legal recourse of all citizens, undermining Article 32 of the Constitution of India.
“My husband is a shaheed [martyr] now. My grandchildren will ask me what I was doing when the government was making kala kanun [black laws] for us farmers. What will I tell them?” asked Jaspal. “I am doing what Harful would have done for our future. Even if it takes another six months, I am not leaving. I will not let his sacrifice go to waste.”
Snigdha Sony is an intern with PARI Education, and studying for a Bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Delhi. She says: “I wanted to cover the protests especially from the view of women who are underrepresented in the media despite being a major force in agriculture and in the movement. During my internship, I learnt the details that go into writing about marginalised people and how to combine facts with lucid storytelling. I learnt lessons beyond editing and reporting.”