Explained: The Farmer Protests in India

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Since late last November, Indian farmers mainly from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana,  have been protesting against a set of agricultural reform laws passed by the Indian government in September 2020.

With support from notable political opposition parties and unions, they have gathered into protest camps on the outskirts of the nation’s capital Delhi and have erected temporary structures such as gyms, libraries, and communal kitchens known as ‘langars’. Through these measures, the farmers are trying to send a message that they are here to stay until a complete overhaul of the farm laws comes about.

So, what are these three farm laws about, and why are the farmers opposing them? Also, what is the government’s position and rationale behind passing these laws in the first place?

Since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, India has been an agricultural powerhouse, with the sector employing 50% of the workforce and producing humongous quantities of food grains like wheat and rice. However, in recent decades, the dire state of the agricultural sector has come to light through a large number of farmer suicides and ballooning government food subsidies that have led to overproduction and the threat of the government’s inability to provide minimum price assurances in the future.

Two of the new laws passed, ‘The Farmers Produce and Trade Commerce Bill’ and the ‘Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance & Farm Services Act’ go hand in hand. They both seek to deregulate the trade of agricultural goods and attract private investment. Previously, farmers were only permitted to trade within state-controlled Mandis (essentially regulated markets) and APMC yards, like warehouses and cold storage, where the government was able to provide a minimum price guarantee and also prevent the exploitation of farmers at the hands of private traders.

The new reforms under ‘The Farmers Produce and Trade Commerce Bill’ permit private trade outside of Mandis and APMC yards, allowing farmers to individually trade with private buyers and companies without them being taxed by the government. The ‘Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance & Farm services Act’ supports this by attempting to set up a legal framework for contract farming.

These measures would most likely be beneficial to large farmers by giving them more choice for trade and allowing them to try and seek out higher prices from private companies. However, small farmers who account for a majority of the farmers in India are afraid that this deregulation, without proper subsidies and minimum price assurances, will threaten their livelihoods. In addition to this, most of the small farmers in India lack adequate legal protection and are often ill-informed & lack formal education. Therefore, dealing independently with large private companies would allow the potential exploitation of these farmers through the signing of unfair contracts.  

The third bill, ‘The Essential Commodities Amendment Act,’ is a reform of an earlier Act that places agricultural products deemed essential to daily life on a protected list, controlling the production and supply of such products to ensure price control. However, this new reform removes cereals, pulses, oilseed, edible oils, onion, and potatoes from the list of protected goods unless in exceptional circumstances of war, famine, high price rise, or national calamities.

This threatens the market price of these goods, as suppliers are able to increase demands by hoarding goods, whilst the market is able to increase the retail price by between 50-100% before the goods move back under federal price control protection. As a result, this deregulation can cause massive inflation of the prices of those essential goods removed from the protected list.

The protestors are therefore demanding the abolition of these laws or the introduction of minimum price assurance legislation.

Many feel that the government is using these Acts as an opportunity to cut the leviathan food subsidy cost and relinquish a state-controlled agricultural system that is inefficient and in need of reform. The Indian government under Prime Minister Modi has insisted that the new policies will help farmers by providing them with more trading options and potentially increasing their incomes. Furthermore, the government also believes that these laws will attract private investment, and secure the ability to assure fair prices as they seek to modernize an agricultural system that is in need of an overhaul. 

Even after 11 rounds of negotiations between the central government and the farmers, the two parties have failed to reach an agreement. The protesting farmers have rejected the government’s offer of amending the laws as they aim to seek a complete overhaul of the new system. This stalemate caused the Supreme Court to intervene by ordering a temporary suspension of the farm laws for a period of 18 months and it also directed the government to form a committee. 

However, two weeks after this court decision, on the 26th of January, the mostly peaceful farmer protests took a violent turn when a planned tractor rally, coinciding with India’s Republic Day, in Delhi turned violent…

Police and protestors had earlier agreed to cooperate, as to not interrupt the Republic Day celebrations. Protest routes were predetermined through less densely packed areas of the city. However, a rogue group of demonstrators began to flout the initially agreed route, this led to clashes between the police and protesters, as authorities used tear gas and batons, whilst some videos showed a protestor attempting to mow down police officers using a tractor. A group of protestors also made their way to the historic Red Fort and forcefully entered it by scaling the red sandstone walls of the palace.

The government responded to this incident by deploying 15 companies of paramilitary forces to boost security and have since detained around 200 for their role in the protest. They also have resorted to some unorthodox methods like cementing iron nails onto the road surface to prevent the movement of tractors and other vehicles.

After the unrest, The Joint Farmer Front, which represents a number of unions, condemned the violence, dissociating themselves “from those who indulge in such acts.” However, there is a fear that this violence threatens to discredit the previously peaceful protests and may result in a division between violent and peaceful protestors in the movement which, before the events of January 26, seemed more unified.

In conclusion, it is clear that the situation now stands at a vast and divisive crossroads between the need for reform in the face of farmer suicides and ballooning subsidies, and the farmers, fearful for their livelihoods under the shadow of large corporations and the removal of essential subsidies.

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