“I was feeling cold while coming on the bike. I kept changing my position: when the sun was hot I sat in front and at other times I was sitting between mumma and papa,” nine-year-old Ashpreet Kaur said in one enthusiastic breath. Ashpreet had traveled to the protest site at Singhu with her older sister and parents to attend the tractor rally scheduled for January 26. The more-than-400-km journey from Gurdaspur district, took her family two days to cover on a motorbike driven by her father Lakhvir Singh, a farmer from Uchha Dhakala village in Punjab.
Ashpreet is a Class 4 student at the Swami Swaroopanand Sen. Sec Memorial School, Khudadpur in Gurdaspur district. “My friends and I had been talking about the rally and I finally had the opportunity to come,” said Ashpreet. Her friends were also planning to come for the tractor rally.
Lakhs of farmers have been protesting at Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur on the borders of Delhi since November 26, 2020, asking the government to repeal the three new farm laws. On January 26, 2021, farmers were going to create history by holding peaceful tractor parades along planned routes. These were to be flagged off from three borders – Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur – after the official parade at Rajpath in central Delhi around noon.
“People ask why we brought our daughters to the protest – we are here only because Ashpreet insisted,” said Lakhvir. He spoke to Ashpreet’s school principal and told him that the family would be away for 10 days or more. “He [the principal] understood because he is also from my pind [village] and knows the situation,” he said.
The family chose Singhu, on the Delhi-Haryana border and 39-year-old Lakhvir rode his Bajaj Platina motorcycle all the way. They spent the night at Fatehgarh Sahib and ate in the langars (free kitchens) at toll plazas along the way.
In Uchha Dhakala in Dorangala block of Gurdaspur district, the family owns roughly four acres. “We grow wheat and paddy according to season. I also have a kyaari [vegetable bed] where we grow vegetables for our own consumption including turmeric, coriander, sometimes sesame, henna and other plants for use at home. It’s my daughters who take care of these beds,” said Ashpreet’s mother, Baljit Kaur.
“In a farmer’s family everyone is a farmer. Daughters bring food to the field, then before seeding they help put cow dung and fertilisers in the fields, help tie the harvest by making gathis [bundles] and cut grass for the cattle. The entire family works together in the fields,” she added.
Thirty-six-year old Baljit says her knees hurt on the long bike journey and the cold wind was hard to bear. She was grateful to get into the trolley organised by the Punjab Kisan Union, to which they are affiliated. “We were so tired after the journey that we fell asleep as soon as we got into the trolleys. It’s not cold inside the trolley as it is covered from three sides. We put one blanket beneath us and two blankets over us. When we reached Singhu we got our clothes cleaned in a washing machine seva [service] here. Everything has been arranged [at the protest site] and the washrooms are in a building on the other side of the road.
Ashpreet’s 15-year-old sister Jashkaran Preet Kaur is a student in Class 9 at the Government Senior Secondary School, Magar Mudian in Gurdaspur. She says she sees her future in farming: “I want to become a farmer because we are the ones who grow the food we all eat.” Her mother added that Jashkaran takes care of the vegetable patch.
Looking at my jottings of our conversation, Jashkaran said: “I also write. I would have shown you my writings but I left my diary at home. I could not bring any books because there is no space on the bike. I am thinking of doing a project – a tree with the names of all the leaders of the 32 jathebandi [farmer’s unions] and their respective work.”
On January 26, Lakhvir had to use his motorbike to supply petrol in cans to the tractors in the rally and the family couldn’t participate in the rally themselves. Ashpreet was disappointed but says she enjoyed seeing the line-up of tractors.
Lakhvir and Baljit say they wanted to come as a family. “We want to safeguard the interests of coming generations like you and my daughter,” said Lakhvir. “We know what has happened to our education system after privatisation – you have to pay high fees in private colleges to get private jobs as there are no government jobs any more. The same will happen to agriculture if we do not resist now.”
He is worried that their annual income of roughly Rs. 2.5 lakh will decline with the coming of private mandis and that they will be forced to buy food grains at high prices. His fears are founded on the three laws the government has recently passed. The laws 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, despite opposition.
The farmers see this legislation as devastating their livelihoods by expanding the space for large corporates 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 for all citizens, undermining Article 32 of the Constitution of India.
The family has locked their home and come for the rally. “No one in the pind [village] leaves their house and comes away. You adjust your timing to make sure someone is always at home. But this time we didn’t care: If someone wants to rob our house they can; anyway what will remain if these ‘black’ laws don’t go?” asked Lakhvir.
Before leaving for the protest he says he started the motor to pump water to irrigate the newly planted wheat. His hope is that the future will not only bring a good harvest for him, but will also see a roll back of the new laws that will impact his children’s future. “We are sitting here in protest for these children,” he said.
This story was originally published on February 12, 2021 and some names were misspelt. We regret the error.
Soumya Thakur is a fourth year student of BBLLB at Chandigarh University. She comes from a farming family and has been involved in student activism – in areas of gender sensitisation and citizenship. She says: “I came to Singhu from my home in Chhattisgarh to document the protests. At a meeting for the Punjab Kisan Union in Singhu, I heard about this family and wanted to write about them. I am reading P. Sainath’s book, Everybody loves a good drought and I am inspired to also write about marginalised people.”