|Julie Smit – Since November 2020, thousands of Indian farmers have been camping out in protest against the adoption in September 2020 of three controversial farming laws aimed at liberalising and deregulating the agriculture sector. The government maintains that they will lead to economic improvements for farmers, but farmers’ unions are strongly opposed to the new laws, seeing them as a massive threat to their livelihoods. Over 100 farmers have already died in the protests, many freezing to death in the bitter cold, but despite this they are determined to continue their protest until the three laws are repealed. So what is driving this mass protest in the face of all the hardship?|
Since the 1960s, a system of state-regulated marketing boards, Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) has protected farmers from exploitation by private traders. Around 50 % of agricultural products are sold at local APMC markets “mandis”. The produce is taxed, creating funds to finance local infrastructure. The APMC mandis, while successful in some areas, such as Punjab, are often criticized for their poor functioning, which can result in farmers having to sell to private traders, who are not obliged to pay the minimum selling price guaranteed by the government.
Under the new legislation farmers can trade freely throughout India and sell to whom they choose with no taxes imposed. According to the government, this new freedom will enable farmers to obtain better prices, as they have access to more buyers. However, as the minimum selling price would no longer apply to trade outside the APMC system and small farmers lack the bargaining power of the big players their unions fear that their earnings will fall. Furthermore, as no tax would be levied on products sold outside the mandis, it is likely that traders and farmers would avoid the APMC system, which would eventually be discontinued due to the lack of finance. The farmers’ concern is that this would lead to an end to the minimum selling price system, which is simply a government policy and not contained in any law. The protesters say that if they had to choose between the imperfect mandis and an unregulated market regime, they would prefer the APMC system with the necessary improvements.
Another concern is that the new legislation provides a legal framework for farmers to engage in contract farming with private companies. The government maintains that this will offer farmers more certainty, as they will be sure of selling their produce at a predetermined price. However, it has been seen in the past that the unequal power relations in play lead to contract agreements that favour the company, delayed payments and produce being rejected on false grounds of poor quality, leaving farmers indebted and in danger of losing their land.
The third main criticism is the removal of the mandatory ceiling on the stockpiling of essential foods. This will allow private companies to manipulate prices, keeping the price that they earn in the market high and that paid to farmers low.
A history of farmers’ protests
Some 60 percent of the Indian population are farmers. It is estimated that around 50 percent of all farming families are highly indebted, resulting in an increase in rural exodus and a high level of farmer suicides. For many years, farmers have been demanding that the dramatic agrarian crisis be urgently addressed. In fact, support for farmers, including guaranteed minimum support prices of one and a half times the costs of production, was a key election promise made by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, bringing him millions of farmers’ votes. However, within months of coming to power he did an about-face, claiming that this policy could not be implemented, as it would distort the markets.
The protests taking place now on the Delhi borders are the culmination of protests by individual farmers’ organisations throughout the country over several years. In 2017 these organisations joined together to form the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, AIKSCC, (All India Platform of Farmers’ and Farmworkers’ organisations), which is leading the current protests.
In 2018 the AIKSCC farmers worked with various political parties to draft two private bills, the Farmers’ Freedom from Debt Bill and Guaranteed Fair and Remunerative Prices Bill, which were endorsed by 21 opposition parties. In November of the same year 100 000 farmers came to Delhi to demand a parliamentary discussion on the agrarian crisis and the two Bills that had been submitted, but these demands were never considered. Instead, the government imposed the three controversial Acts that are the subject of the current protest.
For the Indian agriculture expert and journalist, P. Sainath, the repeal of the controversial laws is vital, but it would only prevent a worsening of the existing agrarian crisis, whereas the root causes of rural poverty need to be addressed. He summarises these as being the corporate hijack of Indian agriculture. “The farmers in Delhi are fighting for something much larger than the three farm bills. They are fighting an imposed agrarian crisis.”
A threat to democratic freedoms
The issues at stake go beyond the question of agriculture and are indicative of the undemocratic processes in India under Modi. No consultations with farmers took place before the laws were railroaded through parliament in the middle of the pandemic when no significant resistance was to be expected. Furthermore, disputes related to the new legislation may not be dealt with in a civil court, which is in direct contravention of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to take legal action. There is widespread concern in India that clauses of this kind could be included in every law that is introduced in the future and the farmers’ protest is now being seen as part of a struggle to protect democracy in India.
 P. Sainath “India’s Farm Bills 2020”: Webinar organised by the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy, November2020: https://www.facebook.com/sansad.org/videos/3711035108964235)