Bangalore

On February 20, an estimated 50,000 agricultural workers donned red pointed caps, or topis, and began a 110-mile protest march through the state of Maharashtra, in west-central India. Landless laborers, members of tribal communities, and farming families traveled from village to village singing traditional songs. The All India Kisan Sabh (AIKS), a 16-million-member peasant-led coalition organized the protest, and hoped the journey would deliver a message to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party: After years of broken promises, it was time for the government to meet their demands.

For more than a decade, smallholder farmers had called for a one-time waiver on their loans and for the government to raise the minimum-support price for crops.

Many of India’s farmers have endured long periods of drought and been saddled with crippling loans from predatory lenders. More than half of India’s 90.2 million farming households are stuck in cycles of debt. Over the last 20 years, official records have logged more than 300,000 farmer suicides. The statistics show the rates steadily rising before the government suddenly stopped reporting the numbers after 2016.

From summer 2017 and into this year, there have been a series of farmer rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of protesters. But with the national elections that go from April 11 to May 19, agricultural workers are seizing the moment to use their votes as leverage to extract concessions.

“For the first time, the agrarian crisis has come to the center stage. No political party is able to ignore it,” said AIKS Joint Secretary Vijoo Krishnan, in an airy, bright coalition office belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Bangalore. “The government feels now that the peasantry are rising up and their own position in power is shaky. They’re forced to pay attention.”

Farmers were a big part of the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. In 2014, Modi swept to power with almost half of the landowning farmers’ vote after he promised to double their incomes within five years. But shortly after Modi came into office, official statements conveniently pushed this lofty goal forward to 2022. Farmers say little has changed for them since Modi took office, and agricultural workers still overwhelmingly earn less than the legal minimum wage.

“The promises made by Narendra Modi and the BJP successfully created hopes for our farmers, and that translated into votes for them,” Krishnan said. “But the farmers have seen through their game plan. Today, that is turning against them.”

Modi’s signature policy accomplishments have, in fact, made life much more difficult for farmers. In November 2016, the government invalidated the 500- and 1000-rupee notes. This forced Indians to either deposit their bills electronically or exchange old bills for newer ones.

“Demonetization was a huge blow to farmers,” said Debarshi Das, a development economist at the Humanities and Social Science Department, IIT, Guwahati. “Harvesting season was around the same time, and suddenly 86 percent of banknotes were no longer acceptable. So for the informal economy that depends on cash, which included almost all smallholder farmers, they got completely paralyzed. The entire process was halted. Farmers simply couldn’t sell goods or buy future inputs because the cash just wasn’t there.”

Krishnan remembers this well, as AIKS was on a country-wide jatha, or caravan, to rally communities from India’s southern tip in Kanyakumari to the capital of Delhi. He saw many farmers dumping their fresh produce to rot on bazaar floors since no one had the cash to pay them. Other farmers drove their tractors over vegetable fields full of carrot, cauliflower, and cabbage since they couldn’t afford picking or transportation costs. For them, the vegetables were better used as compost. Krishnan said he met one woman who sold her farmland for 400,000 rupees ($5,747) in cash just before demonization. The government banks had strict limits on how many notes people could exchange, and Krishnan said the woman, facing few options, killed herself.

Then Modi expanded the ban on slaughtering cattle, which left millions of cow herders and traders with no way to earn a living. The Forest Rights Act of 2006, which was meant to officially recognize title deeds for thousands of landless tribal agrarian communities and benefit a fifth of India’s population, simply hasn’t been implemented. More than half of over 4 million claims to acquire forest land for scheduled tribes have been rejected. At the same time, state governments controlled by the BJP diluted protective clauses to speed up the purchases of farmland for infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, lower-than-usual levels of rainfall devastated landscapes across the region, and most farmers in India have no irrigation systems or crop insurance. With no universal loan waiver available to households who are continually turned away from public-sector banks, tens of millions of farmers are still in massive amounts of debt to private lenders.

It’s no wonder that a 2018 survey found 76 percent of farmers would prefer employment anywhere else but in agriculture.

Despite Modi’s public promises to make sure farmers got paid more, in 2015 the BJP government asked states to stop providing the bonus funds to raise the yearly minimum support price, which sets the base price for crops to be sold. As a result, millions of farmers have made steadily less as input costs keep rising.

“Earlier governments didn’t do that. They didn’t outright cheat or betray or lie to farmers,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, a farmers’-rights activist and founder of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. “What’s spurring this action now is that fact that farmers feel that they are being taken for a ride.”

But now the farmer coalition is finding new tactics to demand government-wide reform, including codified legal entitlements in the form of two bills introduced in Parliament in last August that establish the legal right of freedom from indebtedness and guaranteed remunerative prices for farmers. As the agrarian movement builds political power, the BJP has started to lose support from key districts throughout India. Last fall, the opposition Congress Party vowed to waive farmer loans in three agricultural states—Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan—and ousted the BJP from its seats in the most recent state elections.

In response, in February, Modi hastily announced a scheme to provide 6,000 rupees ($84.50) a year to any farmer who owns two hectares or less of farmland, paid in three equal installments—at least one of them conveniently distributed right before the elections.

Farmers’-rights activists and leaders say that Modi’s plan doesn’t address their demands and is merely a last-ditch effort to buy votes. “This is actually an institutionalized bribing of our section of the electorate before the election,” Krishnan said. “For five years, they never once thought about this.”

Agriculture makes up about one-fourth of rural GDP—about half of what it did a decade ago—and its contribution to the national income has dwindled to about 15 percent. Meanwhile, the government shifted its investments and attention to urban and non-agriculture sectors. Modi’s government has made huge investments in dams, canals, and other irrigation projects, but the majority of India’s cropland remains rain-fed, meaning diverted water doesn’t reach smallholder farmers. One research institute in Delhi found that only 10 percent of farmers who own between 1-4 acres have benefited from government projects and subsidies.

While the upcoming elections shine a spotlight on farmers’ rights, a real answer to the crisis requires more than an electoral win. “No farmer organization will ever claim that there is one silver bullet which is an answer for India’s agrarian crisis,” Kuruganti said. “They’d be foolish to say this. It requires a basket of measures—some immediate, and some for the medium and long term. It’s got to be an incremental process.”