Updated: Mar 22
Source: CNBC.com Thousands of farmers gather in protests against the new agricultural legislation passed by the Indian government.
Many farmers in India have gone to the streets to protest new government laws that could destroy their lives as they know it.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed these three agricultural laws back in September, claiming that they would “give farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to private businesses” like big chains. Indian farmers, on the other hand, argue that the new legislation would leave them worse off than before because it made it easier for big businesses to exploit them and force low prices.
The Indian government has, in the past, set guaranteed prices to farmers’ crops. This provided a certainty when these farmers made investments for the next crop cycle. Farmers had to bring their crops to whole-sale markets (Mandis) and sell their harvest at their states’ Agricultural Produce Market Committee’s auctions where they knew they would at least receive the government-guaranteed price. There were also restrictions on who could purchase the goods, all instituted to protect the farmers.
The Minister’s new laws allow for farmers to sell their crops to anyone at any price. That gives farmers more freedom and an opportunity at a higher income. Although Modi believes these laws will “open [the] country to global markets” and increase the modernization of food supply, farmers argue that the lack of restrictions will allow large companies to dictate prices, leaving farmers defenseless. In years when there is a surplus, farmers fear they might not even meet the minimum support price even though the Indian government assures that the guaranteed price will stay in place.
According to the World Bank, agricultural workers make up more than half of India’s workforce. They worked long hours in the fields to still provide food for the country during its coronavirus lockdown. They already had trouble staying out of debt in the shrinking economy, and that debt has led to a suicide crisis. So, of course, the new agricultural laws impact a large community of people and eligible voters.
In order to win over these voters on the political scale, Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed these new laws to resolve farmers’ problems with income. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act allows for contract farming in which farmers and corporate investors that enter contracts produce crops and agree on a price. Agricultural workers believe that these contracts would make it very hard for them to refuse corporate players. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act gives farmers the freedom to sell anywhere (outside the traditional markets) which broadens opportunities for selling but also allows more buyers to move into deregulated spaces. Modi called the laws a “watershed moment” that would reform the agricultural sector in India and attract private investments.
Farmers from Punjab and Haryana don’t agree. They arrived at the borders of New Delhi, arriving in tractors, blocking the highways, and making camps. Police in turn tried to block protestors from entering the capital of India by digging up roads and putting up barriers in order to prevent sit-ins. These interactions have caused tension between the groups: the tension being especially high after demonstrators threw stones at officers and damaged public property, and the police fired tear gas and water cannons back.
Another thing to reflect the importance in which farmers view these protests is that New Delhi is a hot-spot for the coronavirus. The president of the farmers union in Uttar Pradesh Mukut Singh exclaimed, “We are trying to be weary of Covid but we don’t have an option -- it is a question of life and death.” Although covid-19 is risky, Singh believes these laws are even riskier.
People around the world have been supportive of the farmers’ plight because of the universality of their struggle. Their protests affect the food, with India being the largest producer of spices and second in the production of fruits and vegetables. Ramanpreet Kaur, a Sikh Punjabi in New York, believes everyone “should be concerned about exploitation of the people who feed you everyday”.
Although the deadlock has refused to break with the previous rounds of talks between the farmers’ unions and the government, the sixth round of negotiations has been scheduled for December 30th. The Indian government is open to amendments and the farmers are adamant on their position of repealing the laws.