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Indian farmers' protests expose failed systems, lopsided priorities

The Modi-led government has paid little attention to the farming community since it came to power in 2014

Indian farmers' protests expose failed systems, lopsided priorities

Farmers hold a protest in Amritsar on Oct. 1 against new agriculture laws that they say will devastate the sector. (Photo: AFP)

Millions of Indian farmers are on the warpath protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accelerated farm reforms. The reforms are driven by two new laws that will plough through the lives of ordinary village farmers as they aim to help corporates and multinational firms, protest leaders claim.

With the new farm laws, Modi aims to privatize the agriculture sector, India’s largest employer. But critics say the new laws will leave more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people to the vagaries of the market.

Agrarian states like Punjab and Haryana have become the epicenter of protests since the government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed these laws last week. BJP leaders including Modi claim the laws will liberate Indian farmers from the clutches of middlemen and transform agriculture by attracting private investment.

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Farmers question the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, which paves the way for contract farming with corporate investors for mutually agreed remuneration, and the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, which allows farmers the freedom to sell anywhere.

Farmers currently sell their produce through government agencies after paying the government the required fees. Farmers fear the new laws will eventually wipe out the government-backed wholesale markets (mandi) and guaranteed prices.

The government has said the mandi system will remain in force, as will the sensitive minimum support price (MSP) whereby the government buys certain produce assuring a minimum price, but farmers are skeptical about the assurances as they are not part of the law.

They suspect eventually the MSP and mandi system will disappear and farmers will be exposed to a market where multinationals will have bargaining advantage. Moreover, the corporate firms that pump in money will ignore small-scale farmers, who will become laborers in their own land without any bargaining capacity.

"This is a death warrant for small and marginalized farmers. This is aimed at destroying them by handing over agriculture and markets to the big corporates. They want to snatch away our land. But we will not let them do this," Sukhdev Singh Kokri, a farmer from Punjab, told the BBC.

Farmers in India are a pampered lot due to their crucial voting bank. From time to time, governments have doled out high subsidies to win them over during the run-up to elections. However, large landowners corner a lion’s share of these concessions as small and marginal peasants have little or no bargaining power.

Half of India's population work in agriculture, a sector plagued by low productivity, lack of storage infrastructure and high indebtedness.

The government cites the new laws as a panacea for farmers' troubles by roping in market forces, thereby improving farmers’ incomes and productivity and attracting investment and technology. According to the government, this will benefit not only agriculture but also the economy as a whole.

India has a long history of farm movements. However, India’s response to the farmers’ plight has been more rhetorical than real.

From the popular uprisings in the 1980s, led by Bharatiya Kisan (Indian farmers’) Union, and the farmers’ march in March 2018 in Mumbai, farmers’ protests in India have largely remained ineffective, failing to usher in meaningful policy changes.

The agriculture sector, the backbone of India’s economy, has been in the grip of a deep crisis for three decades. Overwhelmed by debt, thousands of farmers have committed suicide since 2000.

In the absence of government spending and bank credit, landless peasants and farm workers fall easy prey to money lenders. Large-scale acquisition of their land for big-ticket projects adds to their woes.

Hundreds of Catholic missionaries in India have tried to liberate poverty-stricken families of marginal farmers from the money lenders’ debt trap. Franciscan Clarist nun Rani Maria was stabbed to death by hired assassin Samunder Singh in 1995 in a village in Madhya Pradesh state. Singh admitted in court that he was hired by money lenders who opposed the nun’s efforts to help poor villagers become more self-sufficient. 

Marginal households owning less than 2 hectares account for 87 percent of farmer households in India, according to official National Sample Survey data. Their average net income is less than their consumption expenditure.

The Modi-led government has paid little attention to the farming community since it came to power in 2014.

In the recent Covid-19 stimulus package, which accounted for 10.05 percent of India’s GDP, announced in the context of the Covid-19 economic shock, Modi set aside only 7 percent for farmers and allied sectors even when agriculture would have been the only option for millions of migrant laborers who fled the big cities due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

The government has shown a tendency not to invest too much money in the agriculture sector. The current level of government spending turns out to be too little to ensure growth for millions of Indian farmers who toil with traditional farming methods.

The withdrawal of the government from the agriculture sector makes private capital the only game in town. Private investors, in turn, will manage to extract various concessions and subsidies from the government as conditions to invest at the cost of poor farmers.

Reduced government spending depresses domestic demand and the negotiating power of labor, putting millions of marginalized farmers at the mercy of private capital.

The marginalized farmers and landless peasants are ignored by all Indian political parties. None of them show any interest in championing their cause. No major national-level parties have thrown their weight behind the protesting farmers.

The main national opposition Congress party has not shown its ire at the new laws on the floor of parliament and never bothered to take it to the streets. Other regional opposition parties, who lack a national presence, have paid only lip service to the farmers’ protests.

Forsaken by all, Indian farmers are left high and dry with no solid backing to fall back on during an agrarian crisis.

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