Young Indian protesters determined to secure agrarian reforms from Modi government


SHAMBHU, INDIA: Farmers in India’s northern Punjab state demanding higher prices for their crops from the national government are relying on young students to ensure the agitation’s momentum does not fizzle out.

Eighteen-year-old Simranjeet Singh Mathada is one of thousands of college students who have been waking up at 3 am for almost two weeks to help cook meals at community kitchens, fill tankers with potable water and load tractor trailers with supplies before heading to the protest site some 200 km (125 miles) from the capital, New Delhi.

“The protests are now about safeguarding the country’s agrarian economy and farmers of Punjab are determined to bring this reform at all costs,” said Mathada.

Protester demands are centred around guaranteed floor prices which will allow Mathada’s parents and millions of other farmers to sell their produce at fixed rates.

Even as negotiations between farmer unions and government have been underway, protests have sometimes turned violent.

On several occasions, scores of farmers have suffered injuries trying to force their way through concrete blocks and barbed wires installed by police to prevent them from marching on the capital.

Some police officials were also injured in these sporadic clashes.

“Our determination to bring about the change helps face the police every day,” said Mathada, who is studying for a degree in Arts.

Mathada and his father have been using swimming goggles and a metal shield to protect themselves from thick clouds of smoke and tear gas shells lobbed via drones by the police.

“It has been a shocking experience to see how the police can use force to stop farmers from marching towards Delhi…it has shown me how democracy can fade so quickly,” said Mathada.

Before the protests, Mathada helped his family cultivate crops on their ancestral land and manage a hardware shop.

“For now, the main occupation is to make sure Modi government accepts our demands,” he said, adding that attending college lectures has become secondary for him and some of his classmates.

The protests come just months before elections in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party is seeking a third consecutive term.

Last week, Modi said his government is committed to the welfare of farmers and is on a mission to make them entrepreneurs and exporters.

Mathada will be eligible to vote for the first time but is having doubts.

“I think about democracy and feel a bit disillusioned; I may not even cast my vote this time.”