But Singh has not been home to Punjab for one year since he joined farmers at one of three protest sites in the Indian capital to campaign against new farming laws that they claimed would leave them vulnerable to exploitation.
“When I first came here, I thought I would stay here for 15 days, maybe 20 days, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had a whole year,” Singh said while sipping morning tea surrounded by young protesters. At a camp site in Singh on the outskirts of Delhi.
On Friday, numbers swelled at all three protest sites as farmers gathered to celebrate a year of civic action that last week prompted Modi to make a rare policy change.
On November 19, the prime minister said he would formally repeal the legislation because the government had failed to convince farmers of its importance.
“I urge all my fellow angry farmers…to go back to their homes, your fields and your families. Let’s make a fresh start,” Modi said.
But they did not return home.
On the contrary, union leaders say farmers will continue to protest until the government meets several other demands, including raising the minimum price for their produce, withdrawing legal action against some farmers, and paying compensation to the families of hundreds of residents. Farmers who died as a result of a civil lawsuit.
For 12 months, Singh slept on a wooden bed covered with blankets inside one of the hundreds of huts crowded at Singu, the main protest site.
Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party insisted the reforms would fix a troubled system. Previously, farmers had to sell their goods at auction, receiving at least a minimum government-agreed subsidy price (MSP) for some of their crops.
Farming laws are intended to relax rules around the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural products that have protected farmers from an unrestricted free market for decades. However, farmers said market forces can bring down prices even if small farmers may find it difficult to negotiate favorable deals with giant companies.
Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion people, according to a report by Brand India. The country is the second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, groundnuts, fruits and vegetables in the world.
But farming families made a median income of just 10,218 rupees ($137) a month in 2018-2019, according to government statistics – 316 rupees less than the average salary in the country that year.
Economist Devinder Sharma said most farmers do not cultivate enough land to make a profit, leading to debilitating debts.
“When farmers sow their seeds to grow crops, they really incur a loss,” he said. “They sacrificed their income for consumers, and it was the small farmers who were exploited the most.”
The extreme poverty and debt faced by many of India’s farmers have forced some to take extreme measures. In 2019, more than 10,000 people in the agricultural sector took their own lives, according to government data.
“This demonstration culminates in doubly outrageous,” Sharma said. “Farmers know this may be their last chance to secure a stable future for themselves. This is a life or death situation.”
What farmers want
Delhi police set up barriers to limit access to the three protest sites on Friday, but turnout was lower than at the height of the protests.
Party time is over – although few in number, tens of thousands still come out with clear demands.
Rakesh Teket, the national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Kisan Farmers’ Union, urged the government to talk to farmers to find a solution – which he signaled with more government support.
“They can support us with electricity, provide fertilizers and other equipment used in agriculture. They can help us increase the yield,” he said. “The government can support us by providing medical and health benefits to the villagers, by providing education to their children.”
For 15 years, farmers say successive governments have ignored recommendations to relieve farmers’ stress made by the National Farmers’ Committee, headed by Professor M.
From 2004 to 2006, Swaminathan published five reports proposing measures including raising the Minimum Support Price (MSP) to give farmers more financial stability and control over their income.
The government claims to have implemented 200 of the 201 recommendations, but farmers say land ownership and food distribution still need reform, and they want all farmers legally entitled to MSP for their entire crop.
The unions also made more specific demands regarding the protest. For example, they are calling for the arrest of the younger Home Affairs Minister Ajay Mishra Tene, whose convoy allegedly rammed protesters in Lakhimpur Khiri, Uttar Pradesh in October.
The farmers also want a “martyrs’ memorial” to be erected on the Singo border in memory of 700 farmers who union leaders say died while calling for reforms.
Most of the deaths were caused by extreme cold and road accidents, said Paramjit Singh Katyal, media representative for Samkyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body for farmers’ unions.
Modi’s ‘rare’ dip
Giles Verners, associate professor of political science at India’s University of Ashoka, said Modi’s reversal of farming laws was an uncharacteristic departure from his usual hard-line style.
“It goes against the brand of leadership that Modi has been building since he was in power – that image of a strong and decisive leader making tough and uncritical decisions,” Verners said.
In 2016, Modi complied with his decision to ban most paper money in India after declaring the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes to be “worthless pieces of paper”.
Three years later, he faced the wrath of angry protesters after introducing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act – a law that promised to speed up Indian citizenship for all faiths from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, except for Islam.
More recently, he faced a backlash over his alleged mishandling of the pandemic, after India faced a brutal second wave that saw cases surge and crematoriums run out.
“It is rare that (the BJP) recognize the need to change course,” Verners said. This makes this decision even more important.”
Some are pointing to a pivotal state election next year.
Seven Indian states will hold elections to determine whether the BJP will retain power. Modi’s ruling party currently governs six out of seven states, including the agricultural state of Uttar Pradesh.
Paramjit Kaur, a 57-year-old farmer at the protest site in Singu, said Modi’s decline was politically motivated.
“Uttar Pradesh is going from his hands, the Punjab is going from his hands… That’s why he backtracked on the laws,” she said.
In May, the BJP suffered a loss in West Bengal – a state it considered a guaranteed victory. Meanwhile, polls show a weak lead of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
Infuriating the farmers could lead to Modi losing a large number of votes.
“If the elections were late, he would have delayed them even more. They only work for the elections, they don’t care about the people,” Kaur said.
Now, she sees the cancellation as an opportunity to put more pressure on Modi to meet their remaining demands.
“These are our rights, and we will not leave without our rights… If he accepts our demands, we will leave, otherwise we will remain as we are,” she said.
“If we die here, we die”
For some experts, Modi’s agricultural laws were one of India’s “biggest reforms” that had the potential to transform its ailing agricultural sector.
Repealing it would make it difficult for other governments to propose similar reforms, said economist Gautam Chekerman, vice president of the Observer Research Foundation.
“The future of farmers is set for the next quarter century – no political party will have the guts to touch these reforms,” Cheekerman said.
For some farming families, it’s too late.
At the Singu protest site, Harginder Singh, 45, says he is among the last generation of farmers working on the acres of land he owns in his village in Punjab. His sons moved to another place.
“They didn’t see any benefit in staying in agriculture,” he said. “But I am fighting to preserve an industry that I cannot see destroyed.”
Santosh Singh holds a dagger, as many Sikhs do, but for him this was resistance to patience and peace.
For generations, his family has worked the land, and he hopes his descendants will continue to maintain this tradition.
That is why he is committed to fighting for the entire farming community in India – no matter how long it takes.
“We will not leave. If we die here, we will,” he said.
We know this will be a long struggle.”
CNN’s Fedika Sood contributed to this report.