Each year on the Punjabi festival of Lohri, peanut shells fly into the bonfire, challenging the biting January cold. “Uddam aa, dalidarr jaa,” elders recite a couplet. “Dalidarr di jarh chulle paa!” Throw the very roots of apathy into the fire, may it be replaced by fiery effort! Youngsters dance to tunes they fancy but not before the customary call-and-response (“hoye!”) folk song about “Dulla Bhatti waala” – the legendary hero who led a rebellion against Mughal emperor Akbar.

As the winter festival rolls around on January 13 this year, the song has special resonance as farmers and laborers sit resolutely in the freezing cold around New Delhi demanding the repeal of three new agricultural laws that they believe will undermine their livelihoods.

The bravehearted protestors carry with them decades of agrarian desperation and dejection. What they are asking for is not too much. Sadly, it may be too little. The fact that the government remains obstinate despite knowing this makes its apathy all the more galling.

The rebellion of Dulla Bhatti, whose story is invoked every Lohri, was rooted in agrarian discontent. It was a protest against the new top-down systems imposed by Akbar in a way that “seriously compromised the economic and political independence of the zamindars” or landed farmers, as Haroon Khalid has written. The situation was aggravated by the emperor’s apathy and excesses – or so the fable goes.

On Lohri day, Dulla Bhatti rescued two young women from the emperor and arranged for them to be married. The hero died fighting and is remembered for his principled resistance.

Centuries after Akbar, in the 1980s, a Punjabi mother I met in Sangrur district decided to name her two sons after the revolutionary: Dulla Singh and Bhatti Singh. She told me it had a perfect poetic ring, no matter in what mood she called out to the pair: love, anger, astonishment, pride – they stood for everything.

But by the time the boys grew up, their awe-inspiring names were no match for crushing farming debt and the threats to their livelihood. Dulla Singh was engaged to be married in 1993 when he drank pesticide and ended his life. His fiancé was quickly promised to his younger brother, Bhatti Singh. Both families agreed – after no one consulted the young woman – that a wedding and new beginnings would be the needed distraction from their debt-ridden farming lives.

Seven years later, Bhatti also drank pesticide and died.

Their mother elaborated on what led to the family’s debt: “First there was no water for our land. No tube well. No canal water. We took loans for that.” Boring deeper and deeper into the land to sustain the water-intensive cycles of wheat and rice in Punjab – as dictated by the so-called Green Revolution – has not only depleted the water table dangerously but also made farming unsustainable.

In 2021, still tied to the same farming cycles, one of the key demands of the protesting farmers is that their government water subsidy should remain unchanged. (They particularly oppose a change that requires the already-hurting farmer to pay their electricity bills upfront and then wait to receive reimbursements sometime later.)

Left without an option

Ironically, winning this demand will result in Punjabi farmers further losing on the ecology of their heartland. But farmers know they are presented with no options. States like Haryana have begun to provide government incentives for non-water-intensive crops. Such incentives that allow farmers to voluntarily opt for alternate crops are sorely needed for Punjab’s depleting soil and water. As the water table further plummets, pumping costs will increase and more electricity will be needed.

If the only subsidies farmers receive are for electricity, this will continue to be a convenient excuse for not providing other necessary reforms to aid small and medium farmers (“but farmers receive free bijli [electricity]!”).

Farmers know that they need a range of changes that go much beyond their current demands. But they also know that they have been cornered and so have focused on the government’s newest laws. Surely this sword wasn’t waved at them to distract them from long-standing demands?

Take the Minimum Support Price at which the government guarantees farmers it will buy some staple crops, and the method by which the government induced non-rice-eating states like Punjab to grow water-intensive rice through the Green Revolution. The protesting farmers are demanding the government must continue guaranteeing this price-support programme. For decades before 2020, farmers wanted the MSP to be increased, linked to the national price index – as is done with everything in urban India, so as to accurately reflect the farmers’ cost of living.

For now, farmers in Punjab are trapped in unforgiving cycles growing rice and wheat, perpetuating the paradox of India’s grain basket: the people feeding the nation are unable to feed their own children. A fair Minimum Support Price for the cycles the government itself forced them into since decades, in conjunction with other overdue changes like crop diversification (including fruits and vegetables), is the only way to responsibly ease the deathly desperation (prevent further suicides, for a start) and at the same time bring 21st-century sustainability to the agrarian sector.

Dulla and Bhatti’s mother (who wishes to remain anonymous out of concern for the security of her grandsons) remembers that the family’s debt spiked one year when their crop was eaten by pests. Because crop insurance – a long-standing farmer demand, even if not prominently on the table today – has not been guaranteed to farmers for such natural vagaries, they lack any security net to keep them from being pushed to the edge.

Bhatti’s widow added, “First he took loans to get a tractor…and now look.” The tractor was sold to pay back debt taken from a bank as well as from a local money lender. The family expressed appreciation for the Baba Nanak Education Society charity that stepped in to support the children’s education where no government emergency relief was available. The family was also all praise for relatives who helped them return their outstanding loans.

An ubiquitous feature

Debt has always been a ubiquitous feature of Punjabi farming, but it has not always been as deadly. The British-era Land Alienation Act of 1900 protected indebted farmers from being dispossessed of the lands or homes and ushered in other agrarian reforms. Some of these safeguards are associated with Sir Chhotu Ram, the revenue minister in Prime Minister Sikandar Hayat Khan’s cabinet in 1930s colonial Punjab. These laws have inexplicably fallen into disuse, ironically after the foreign masters left (though many memorials, colleges, even a holiday are named after Haryanvi hero Chottu Ram).

Instead, now farmers have internalised the shame of being behind on the loans that they are required to take to operate in the current system.

“We couldn’t possibly sit on this money,” said Dulla Bhatti’s mother. “We had to sell some things to pay the moneylender back… Rs 3 lakhs loan. If you ask me, truthfully, I wanted to offer him anything else in the house too… No one can say we stooped down, no one can say anything about us doing wrong.”

A mutated pride of the Dulla Bhatti of yore had lived on. But the elderly matriarch said: “There should have been no shame in the debt. Debt has just been part of life. At least they could have been alive. We are a women-led house now with Bhatti’s two children who vow they will move to neighboring states, but not try to farm here at home.”

Over time, the Central government’s policies have enabled the rise of urban centres at the cost of farmers. Agriculture continues to become a less viable source of livelihood with every passing year but Punjab’s farmers are not being provided job alternatives outside the agriculture sector or training to get them. For decades, the government has reasoned that Punjab is too close to the India-Pakistan border and industrial development would prove hazardous should there be another hot conflict between the two nations – never mind why the policy hasn’t been introduced to another border state like Gujarat or how (not-so-recent) methods of warfare dissociate the level of threat from the distance to the border.

Incentives for new investors – not monopolies thrust by hasty government Acts – to set up clean industry in Punjab is sorely needed.

Dulla and Bhatti’s father is alive – but barely, says his wife. He is clinically depressed and has been saved by villagers twice at the railroad tracks, where he lay down to attempt suicide.

Such are the old farmer fathers and mothers whose map of wrinkles and heavy hearts have led them to the doorsteps of Delhi. They are dying at the protest site: more than 75 are reported dead. They are resisting in desperate ways. As of this writing, at least four farmers are reported to have died by suicides in an attempt to invoke the government’s attention.

The new laws that allow for unfettered corporate monopolisation of the agriculture sector and remove the legal system as a recourse for dispute resolution are the final insult that have led farm workers to mobilise at such a large scale. Repealing these laws is just the beginning. Today’s Dulla Bhattis need a much better deal: one that reforms agriculture holistically to encourage crop diversification towards low-water options, institutes crop insurance, ensures secure sources of lending and provides emergency relief.

Farmers must begin to see their difficult, back-breaking profession as a viable option for their families as well as see a path to alternate career options. Their uddam (effort) has been feeding the nation, already facing severe hunger crises without allowing monopolies to control even the essential roti, chawal, daal.

The dalidarr (apathetic disarray) being experienced this Lohri is entirely on the part of the government. To awaken this government, the farmers have announced a plan to march into New Delhi, their own capital from which they have been blocked behind barbed wire for frigid weeks, on January 26. Peaceful principled resistance should not be acceptable only in folktales from Mughal times or stories of satyagraha when the rulers were white.

The world is looking at how the current rulers treat the farmers. The government must not only preserve their right to protest, but also revoke the hastily proposed and callous new farm Acts. It must work to find solutions that address the jarh (root-causes) of the deadly status quo that makes farming a losing proposition for the millions that feed the country.

The fires of Lohri on January 13 will not serve only to keep the protestors warm. The flames are an urgent signal to the government to take on a new role in the folktale being created today by our food producers.

Mallika Kaur is a writer and lawyer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the United States and South Asia and teaches at UC Berkeley School of Law. Her She is the author of Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper.

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