In recent months, we have witnessed an active uprising in Delhi with the largest peaceful protests ever held by farmers, attracting solidarity from farmers all across India and in cities around the world. The power of social media has informed those of us engaged in this story about actual events happening on the ground. In the faces of peaceful protesters, we see our parents, grandparents, and generations of farmers who have come before us reflected in their struggle. And yet, our narratives have once again been criminalized and distorted by mainstream media outlets to propel the bias of persons in positions of power and privilege. Labels of extremism have been thrown out hoping to catch some bait, but Sikhs are challenging the darkness by disrupting narratives meant to weaponize our issues. This time we have people on the ground telling us their personal stories, courageous journalists amplifying voices of the underrepresented, and censorship challenged through the power of visual evidence.
Three agricultural bills were passed in the Indian parliament in September without any consultation with farmers and will ultimately take away the livelihoods of small farmers who own less than five hectares of land. The impact of today’s protests stem back to the 1960s when The Green Revolution was introduced.
British filmmaker, Rehmat Rayatt co-produced the documentary film Toxification with Leva Kwestany to tell the story of how the Green Revolution misled farmers to overuse agricultural chemicals and deplete their own land. Their work began in 2015.
This is the story of the toxification of Panjab.
About Rehmat Rayatt
REHMAT RAYATT Co-director/Co-producer
“My work ultimately draws on my identity as a first generation British-born Indian.”
Based in London, social documentary photographer and filmmaker Rehmat Rayatt grew up in rural Essex, England. She graduated from the Arts University Bournemouth with a BA(Hons) in Photography and works globally within film, photography and education.
Her work has been screened and exhibited at The Southbank Centre, BFI Southbank, The Old Truman Brewery, The New Art Exchange, Candid Arts Trust and many more, as well as on broadcast channels such as Sky Arts, in print and online in The Guardian, The Times of India and more.
Toxification is a project very close to Rehmat’s heart; telling the stories of her homeland, voiced in her mother tongue, is both a mission and a personal calling. The award winning documentary was selected for a number of film festivals before releasing in cinemas globally in 2019. Featured in The Guardian, The Times of India, The Tribune India, BBC Radio London, BBC Asian Network, Geo TV and more, Toxification is critically acclaimed.
NAVJOT: Welcome Rehmat!
What first sparked your desire to explore the issues faced by farmers in Panjab?
REHMAT: Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts on your platform!
My connection with Punjab is complex; I was born in the UK and my parents and grandparents were born in Kenya. Although I was lucky to visit India many times as a young person and adult, we did so as tourists more than anything else, not having any family there. I’d never visited a ‘Pind’, a village. Even so, I knew that Punjab, the land of five rivers, has always been a subject of great pride for Punjabis; a fertile and lush area, one whose crops had fed the whole of India during times where the risk of famine loomed. I fell in love with the idea of a motherland with green fields as far as the eye could see, strong, healthy Punjabis and a real sense of community. I had read about farmer suicide in the media, but nowing that Indian media is often far from accurate, I was keen to see the situation for myself. I researched and shared my findings with my friend and fellow filmmaker Leva Kwestany, and we made the decision to fly out to Punjab later that year to do some on-the-ground research and create a short film documenting our findings. Upon arriving in Sangrur, the area with one of the highest rates of farmer suicide in Punjab, I remember looking for those lush fields and seeing black, burnt and empty expanses, fields of dying cotton plants, dry crops and a real sense of struggle on the faces of farmers. Every interview took us deeper, and before long our ten minute film had grown to a full length feature film.
NAVJOT: Whose story/ies does Toxification documentary share?
REHMAT:Toxification is unique in that it brings together a number of issues facing the farmers, which provide the context necessary to understand the bigger picture of farming in north India. For me, the current protests are underpinned by this context, so it’s important to know how Punjab’s past has affected its present. The main topics that we uncover links between are agricultural chemical overuse, drug abuse and mental health in farmers. I won’t say too much, but it’s highly informative and goes back to the Green Revolution which was a turning point for farming in Punjab – and in the punjabi spirit of ‘Chardi Kala’, resilience, the film captures the hope of a Punjab where farmers can once again be masters of their land.
Toxification is led by the farmers themselves, and this was my focus. There is no narrative or voiceover, because I wanted to hear the farmers’ real life experience; no one can tell their stories as poignantly as they can, and it is no one else’s story to tell but theirs. The farmers we spoke to lead the film, and rightly so; it wouldn’t be right to make a film about farmer suicide without focusing on those who are most affected. As a documentary maker I seek to share the whole story, which is why the film includes interviews with a government official in the department of agriculture and experts in the fields of agriculture, drug abuse and farmer suicide.
NAVJOT: Why did you feel these narratives needed to be told?
REHMAT: As consumers of food, we have a role to play. Knowledge really is power, and if we can be more mindful of our choices we can hope to impact the narrative of farmers. This isn’t just an issue affecting Punjabis or Indians; if you ate today, the issues affect you, too.
NAVJOT: The current farmer protests in Delhi, India have brought long-standing issues to the surface around the world. Given your experiences talking to farmers and their families, do you believe the three agriculture bills will benefit these farming communities?
REHMAT: I believe that the bills which have been passed will create a more challenging livelihood for small scale farmers, while supporting farmers with larger amounts of land. Nearly 85% of India’s farmers own less than 5 acres of land, so the impact will be huge. I have read articles predicting more suicides than ever before, and I believe this will be the case – it’s heartbreaking knowing that the farmers who we interviewed may now face even more struggles than when we spoke with them.
NAVJOT: The peaceful protests have been the largest held in the world and yet, there has been little coverage by mainstream media. Do you feel the historically distorted and politicized narratives of Panjabi Sikh farmers will shift due to grassroots reporting and films such as the Toxification documentary?
REHMAT: India’s government and media relies heavily on this unjust narrative to disempower Sikhs and those who support them. Connection is the most important avenue to dislodge these narratives and give rise to understanding, and my hope is that as many people as possible watch Toxification; seeing and hearing the stories from the mouths of the farmers, it’s natural to to feel a human connection with them. Toxification will be available on a well known online platform by the end of January, so follow us on socials to be kept updated.
NAVJOT: Women have risen up during these farmer protests. What are some characteristics of these female activists from Panjab that we may not be familiar with?
REHMAT: I love the videos I’ve seen of the women at the Delhi protest etc, but I don’t feel comfortable answering this question as the women we interviewed for Toxification were in complete despair, in stark contrast to the powerful, witty and jovial women I’ve seen at the protests. I don’t feel comfortable speaking about women I’ve never met or spoken to – hope you understand!
NAVJOT: Of course! Thank you for sharing the vivid experiences.