Farmers’ mass protests in India cut deeply across Canada

Diaspora politics in play between Sikh and Hindu Canadians.
Although South Asian Hindus are 3.9 percent of the population compared to 1.1 percent South Asian Sikhs, Canadian Sikhs are more concentrated in a number of ridings thus increasing their political weight (14 ridings with more than 10 percent Sikhs, four with more than 20 percent, 10 ridings with more than 10 percent Hindus, with no riding more than 20 percent, 2011 NHS):
Surrey’s Harjit Singh Gill visits his family’s ancestral farm in India almost every year.

The farm, like most in India, is small, with crops of wheat and rice. Some of it’s leased to his brother-in-law, Parminer Singh Rangian, and others in the 3,400-person village of Maksudra in the state of Punjab.

“Punjab feeds the tummies of the rest of India. Punjab feeds 500 million people,” says Gill, standing in his large yard in the Panorama Ridge neighbourhood. This is where he began 25 years ago as an immigrant taxi driver, before becoming a builder and eventually constructing his own mansion.

Despite the states of Punjab and adjacent Haryana forming the breadbasket of India, many of its farmers make meagre livings and are in debt, Gill says. Things are even worse for farmers in other parts of India, where 60 per cent of the population of 1.3 billion relies on agriculture to make a living. But the sector only accounts for one-sixth of the country’s GDP.

Three free-market reforms proposed in September by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — designed to end government-guaranteed crop prices and ostensibly improve productivity — have provoked hundreds of thousands of farmers from the state of Punjab and Haryana to take their tractors and set up continuing protest camps in Delhi, the capital of India. Some confrontations have turned violent.

International celebrities — including U.S. pop singer Rihanna, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and lifestyles entrepreneur Meena Harris, a niece of U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris — have proclaimed support for the farmers and called out Modi. In turn, the majority-backed Indian government has labelled them “foreign individuals” trading in “sensationalism.”

Tensions have been high across Canada, which has a Punjabi-Canadian population of 700,000, most of whom are Sikhs and many of whom have farming origins. They’ve helped organize large motorcade demonstrations against the Indian government in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Chilliwack, Surrey and downtown Vancouver, outside the consulate of India.

The frequent outcries have forced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into a complex, changing dance. He’s trying to balance hundreds of thousands of Indo-Canadians who support Modi, a Hindu nationalist, against the many Punjabi-Canadian voters and others who back the aggrieved farmers.

While Punjabi-language newspapers in Canada express outrage over Modi’s proposed reforms, other Indian-language media outlets in Canada have highlighted counter-protests praising Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. One recent pro-Modi demonstration brought 350 vehicles, many bearing the flag of India, to the Indian consulate in downtown Vancouver.

In December, Trudeau, appearing to take sides, came out supporting the Indian farmers’ “right to be heard.” B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan also tweeted he “understands the anguish” of Canadians sympathetic to the farmers.

But Modi’s allies have responded by accusing Trudeau of “legitimating extremist activism” in protesting in front of India’s consulates in Canada. This month, Trudeau, who has more than a dozen Sikh cabinet ministers and MPs in his government, reduced escalating animosity by asking for desperately needed vaccines from India. In turn, Modi let it be known he’s happy to help out his “friend.”

What does Gill think of all the high-level political machinations?

He is uncompromising. The protests aren’t only a fight for justice for farmers, Gill says, they’re also a crusade to safeguard Punjab, population 30 million, from Modi and his agribusiness cronies, who are keen to gobble up small farms.

“Modi has said to the farmers of Punjab: ‘We need your grain to feed the country.’ But really he wants complete control,” says Gill, comparing Modi with populist U.S. President Donald Trump.

The battle over guaranteed produce prices is “not all about farming. It’s about protecting Punjab,” the birthplace of Sikhism, says Gill, a popular talk-show host for Sher-E-Punjab Radio AM 600 who ran in 2019 for the federal NDP.

Even though Gill says he isn’t an advocate for a separate Sikh homeland called Khalistan — “because it’s not realistic to create a sovereign country within another country” — he would like India’s leaders to treat Sikhs in Punjab like Quebecers, who have distinct status within Canada.

Getting to the root of farmers’ conflict

Given the vehemence of the protests and a recent Indian high-court ruling, Modi, whose right-wing party handily won re-election in 2019, has offered to compromise by putting the reforms on hold.

But that hasn’t satisfied suspicious farmers in India, who want the proposals revoked. Nor has it quieted protest organizers across Canada, including in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, such as Pindia Dhaliwal.

The Punjabi diaspora, from New Zealand to California, Dhaliwal says, is determined to: “Ask India why they’re killing us? Ask India why they are oppressing us, why they’re silencing us, why they are persecuting minorities?”

Modi seeks to loosen strict regulations around the pricing and storage of produce, which have protected India’s farmers from the free-market system for decades. The government currently exempts farmers from income tax and crop insurance, guarantees a minimum price for 23 crops and regularly waives off debts. But the system disappoints all sides, with critics saying it’s rife with shady middlemen.

Along with many economists, Modi has argued that offering farmers a guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for crops prevents them from bargaining for better prices.

Opponents in Canada, including Gill, are by no means alone in mistrusting Modi’s motives.

They say his reforms were poorly conceived, not to mention pushed forward during a pandemic without consultation.

Sanjay Ruparelia, a political scientist at Ryerson University in Toronto, says advocates of Modi’s three reforms say farmers would be able to sell their harvest to a much wider range of private actors, raising their incomes and reducing food prices.

“Yet, consider the fine print,” Ruparelia says. “There is also a very real risk that agricultural deregulation will lead to farmers being paid less than the minimum support price.’’

Interviewed while travelling in India on work, University of B.C. adjunct public policy Prof. Shashidharan Enarth says the guaranteed MSP system for selling crops in India is riddled with a lack of transparency, caste conflicts and corruption.

Still, it’s better than Modi’s plan, says Enarth, who has worked for the World Bank.

“The MSP policy should be considered a public good,” he says, because it provides some stability. “The focus should be on removing corruption rather than removing MSP itself without an effective alternative.”

Although Modi promotes a free market, Enarth says it can only “work well when there is rule of law. India may be an electoral democracy, but we have rule of muscle running most institutions.”

Similarly, Surrey’s Gill says he’s appalled by the way banks, working with Modi’s government, have encouraged millions of farmers to become indebted.

Some, says Gill, have overextended themselves with mortgages to build big houses in Punjab. Others, Gill says, are borrowing too much from banks to send their offspring to Canada as students or temporary workers, in hopes they will eventually immigrate, including to Surrey, where one-quarter of the population speaks Punjabi.

Despite widespread problems with the status quo, Enarth — who has spent 15 years organizing small-scale, often illiterate farmers in India into collectives so they will gain more bargaining power — says he’s been several times to Punjab, but his organizing efforts aren’t particularly needed there.

“Punjabis are well organized, with more political muscle, and relatively wealthier than other Indians. Farmers from other states could not have sustained a 90-day protest on this scale.”

Data shows Indian farmers’ suicides rates are even higher outside Punjab and Haryana.

Punjabi farmers tend to do better than others, Gill says, because they’re industrious, have embraced modern technology and lobbied governments to build irrigation systems. They strongly advocate the secure price system for wheat, rice and barley, he says, because they have benefited from it — more than farmers from other regions, where the system has been spotty.

Even though having taxpayers guarantee how much farmers receive has often led to an excess of certain crops that go wasted, Enarth says the MSP’s value lies in the way it combats price-fixing by cartels.

India’s agriculture sector, however, is in trouble in general, says Enarth. “Reforms are needed to address the root cause of poverty among rural Indians, which is farm labourers’ very low productivity.”

At least half of farm workers in India should be helped to move into another field of work, he says.

Indo-Canadians seek to sway Indian politics

How did complex farm legislation become the focus of street activism in Canada?

“Punjabi Canadians,” says Enarth, “have very close ties with their families back home — and therefore they are exerting whatever leverage they have in terms of influencing local politics in Punjab, and among non-resident Indians elsewhere.”

Asked how some of the roughly 800,000 Indo-Canadians who aren’t Punjabi are viewing the protests, Enarth suggests many are from middle- to high-income families far removed from agriculture — and many are fans of Modi. “They’re therefore likely to be indifferent, if not befuddled.”

Some Indian and Indo-Canadian media outlets have been critical of the pro-farmers’ protests in Canada. The Vancouver-based Hindi-language outlet CanAm News is among those aiming to counteract the anti-Modi protests, according to Mirems, which translates ethnic-language media reports in Canada.

Some Indo-Canadians “believe the agenda has largely been hijacked by pro-Khalistan elements in Canada,” according to CanAm News, echoing a common view in India’s media. One article quoted the organizer of a recent pro-India car rally in Vancouver, Neema Manral of Delta, who has been a candidate for the B.C. Green party.

“There was so much anger within the community here” over anti-government protests that “we had to do something,” Manral says. While most Indo-Canadians respect the protesting farmers, Manral was determined to help organize the 350 vehicles that took part in a Feb. 6 “tiranga rally,” referring to displays of the orange, white and green flag of India.

In response to the cascade of accusations flying around the world and Canada, Ajay Bisaria, India’s High Commissioner in Ottawa, this week lamented the “flood of misinformation, blatant lies and distortions being circulated.”

“There has been an increase in rhetoric promoting violence in India. Such disinformation is aimed at defaming and harming the image of India and Indians, as well as to sow distrust and promote hatred between different communities of Indian origin in Canada.”

He called on everyone to be vigilant against propaganda and hate speech.

Now in their sixth month, the protests have become one of the biggest challenges ever faced by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Source: Farmers’ mass protests in India cut deeply across Canada

The Limits of Narendra Modi’s Nationalism

Of note:

Narendra Modi is no stranger to protests. Since his reelection last year, the Indian prime minister’s policies have triggered a number of mass demonstrations, including his decision to revoke the constitutional autonomy of Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, and last year’s contentious move to establish a religious test for people from neighboring countries seeking citizenship that excludes Muslims.

Source: The Limits of Narendra Modi’s Nationalism

Immigrants new to U.S. are farming its lands with old ways

Interesting. Wonder if any of this is happening in Canada (apart from the Canadian Sikhs in British Columbia):

It was pitch-black in the early morning after the Washington region’s first snowfall, when the Nigerian farmer went to check on his crops. Olaniyi Balogun pushed open the fence, took two steps, then stamped his boot against the soil. He bent over the rows of kale and gently touched the underside of a palm-size, sprouting leaf.

“Hmm,” he grunted, frowning. Just like he thought — frozen.

Most farmers in the Maryland suburbs stop growing their crops by mid-January, but Balogun wants to stretch out the season as far as he can. His wife says it’s because he’s a workaholic; he disagrees. In the rural towns outside Akure, the city in southwestern Nigeria where he was born, people farm year-round.

“For me, this is the only thing I know how to do,” said Balogun, 53, a stocky man with a deep, steady voice. Every time he steps out onto his farm, he said, he remembers himself as a boy, leaping off a crowded pickup truck into the cornfields, slingshot in hand.

“This is what makes me happy.”

Agriculture was once the driving economic force of Montgomery County, now a booming suburb of 1 million people. But after World War II, rapid industrialization drew residents and resources away from the land, leaving just several hundred farmers in what is now the county’s protected 93,000-acre agricultural reserve.

As the county’s demographics change, another shift is underway. Immigrants, many of whom grew up farming in their home countries, are taking over small pockets of the land — part of what advocates say is a national trend that is most pronounced in West Coast states such as California and Washington.

In the United States, farmers have been — and are — predominantly white and male. A third of them are over 65, and as they march toward retirement, many struggle to find successors, contributing to a crisis within the industry that has seen rises in bankruptcies, loan delinquencies and suicides.

From New York’s Hudson Valley to California’s Central Coast, public and private organizations are trying to connect immigrants with the resources they need to start their own farms or cultivate land owned by others, hoping to infuse the industry with new energy and traditions.

The U.S. agriculture census does not track farmers based on national origin, but judging by its data on race, the growth of immigrant farmers seems likely, experts say. From 2007 to 2017 (the most recent year the census was conducted), the number of farms with Hispanic producers grew about 30%, from 66,000 to 86,000. Those who study the census note that since many land-leasing contracts happen informally, these figures may undercount the number of foreign-born farmers who are bringing their agricultural traditions to U.S. shores.

In her recent book “The New American Farmer,” Syracuse University professor Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern says immigrant farmers often introduce new crops and their own, more sustainable farming practices — complementing a growing U.S. “food movement” that urges consumers to take back control of what they eat.

Some immigrant farmers in Maryland have become their neighborhood’s local producers, reviving fading relationships among buyers, farmers and landowners.

“These farmers, their heart and soul are in the land,” said Caroline Taylor, a Maryland farmer and the head of the nonprofit Montgomery Countryside Alliance. “It’s something people miss.”

A love match service: land + farmer

The alliance runs a program, called Land Link, that matches potential farmers with landowners who don’t want to farm but want to keep their land active. The goal, Taylor said, is to revitalize the agricultural reserve and in turn fend off developers hungry for the land.

Since it started in 2011, the Land Link program has helped to lease out nearly 500 acres. It has gained more momentum in recent years, Taylor said, in part because of increasing demand from immigrant and minority farmers, who constitute the majority of applicants. Alliance staff members receive a growing number of inquiries each week on the program, Taylor added, some from people not even in the country yet.

Before he moved to the United States, Balogun ran his own farm in Nigeria that spanned more than 120 acres. In 2016, he married Tope Fajingbesi, a self-described “city girl” who left Lagos in the early 2000s to study, and later settle in College Park as a lecturer at the University of Maryland. They agreed that he would join her if — and only if — he could farm. But in wealthy Montgomery, buying land, even renting, seemed impossible.

“I said to him, ‘Yes, of course we will do it,’ but inside, I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way,’ ” Fajingbesi, 42, recalled. “What was the plan? I don’t know. We had no plan.”

When Land Link first matched them with landowners Dorothy and Brad Leissa, Fajingbesi crunched the numbers. “$500 a month,” she told her husband. That’s all they could shell out. At an introductory meeting, the Nigerian couple nervously asked the Leissas how much it would cost to rent the acre of land around the their 19th-century farmhouse. When the landlords asked for a dollar, Fajingbesi thought she had misheard. One dollar, the Leissas repeated.

“We’re happy to share,” said Dorothy, a soft-spoken schoolteacher. “Really, we’re happy to let them use it.”

Slowly, Balogun began to build up Dodo Farms, spending 11 — sometimes 12 — hours at the site each day. When he harvested his first tomatoes, he brought a bag to the Leissas’ farmhouse at the top of the hill. At Thanksgiving, he turned up at their door with a 25-pound turkey.

Last year, the couple brought him a gift: a wooden sign for the dim-lit shed where he does his administrative work. On it, the words “OFIISI NIYI” — Yoruba for “Niyi’s office.”

They wanted to show Balogun that he belonged on the farm, Dorothy said.

And that it belonged to him.

What’s old is new again

Minkoff-Zern, the Syracuse professor, interviewed 70 immigrant Latino farmers for her book. Nearly all showed a preference for a specific farming style, she wrote, “one where they are able to regain control over their daily labor and reproduce a specific agrarian way of life.”

They limit use of chemicals, opting for natural alternatives that were used in family farms in their home countries. They go out of their ways to ensure that the crops are safe and healthy. As one Mexican farmer in New York told Minkoff-Zern: “We were organic [in Mexico], we just didn’t know we were.”

Balogun is similar: Instead of commercial fertilizer, he uses cow manure, which he gets free from a nearby cattle rancher. He avoids pesticides, picking out weeds and insects by hand.

“These farmers are working with natural systems, using quote-unquote old school conservation techniques,” Taylor said. “These are folks that have things to teach us.”

Immigrant farmers also offer different crops. In the summer, Balogun grows a type of spinach often used in Nigerian stews but not easily found in this country. Another Land Link farmer, Tanya Doka-Spandhla, 54, almost exclusively grows crops native to South and West Africa — vegetables that grew in the backyard of her childhood home in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Doka-Spandhla, who came to the U.S. two decades ago, said she started her farm in 2015 because she missed food from home. She wanted the mustard greens, “tsunga,” that are sautéed with peanut butter sauce, and the pumpkin leaves, “mubura,” that are boiled and eaten with porridge. She craved the jelly-meat of the bright yellow horned melon, called “kiwano.”

On summer weekends, her three-acre farm in Gaithersburg is a buzzing hub for Montgomery’s expanding West African population.

“It just makes sense,” Taylor said. “We have a million people in the county now. They aren’t all people who want to eat baked potatoes.”

Dodo Farms, too, has earned a loyal following — and not just among immigrants. Among the more enthusiastic fans is Alexa Bely, a 50-year-old biology professor who not only gets most of her household’s produce from Balogun but has persuaded her neighbors in College Park to do the same.

For those who cannot make it to the College Park farmers market, where Balogun sells produce on the weekends, Bely picks up their vegetables and delivers them herself.

“I’ve become a bit of a nut about this,” she admitted, laughing. “But he’s doing something that I really believe in.”

“And,” she added, “his carrots are the best I’ve ever tasted.”

Source: Immigrants new to U.S. are farming its lands with old ways