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Here’s why farmers in India are protesting

Written by Ellie Hutchings

Illustration by Monika Radojevic

Tens of thousands of Indian farmers are continuing to protest by camping along major highways on the outskirts of New Delhi. Farmers are demanding the Indian government reverses its new laws on agricultural reform and have said they won’t leave until their demands are met.

The ongoing protests are growing rapidly to become a nationwide pushback against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reforms. Thousands of outraged farmers have encircled New Delhi, refusing to move their tractors and trailers until negotiations start. They have vowed to keep protesting until the government reverses its recently passed pro-market agricultural policies, and have been resupplying themselves with food, fuel, firewood and medical supplies so that they will be able to stay put for weeks.

The bills were first passed in September, and protests have been ongoing ever since. The protests first began in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana, where productivity has been high. Though these two states have seen the biggest protests, farmers are now taking action across the country.

The three laws that triggered the protests are known as: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act; the Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act; and the Essential Commodities Act – all of which were passed without consultation with India’s farmers. Taken together, these new laws will relax rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – rules which previously protected India’s farmers from the free market.

Currently, most Indian farmers are selling their produce at government-controlled markets. Now, as a result of the new laws, farmers will be allowed to sell produce at a market price directly to private buyers, such as online grocers or supermarket chains. Though this means farmers will have greater freedom to sell their produce outside state-controlled markets, farmers have found a number of reasons to reject the reforms. For example, the farmers’ abilities to challenge disputes in court have been curtailed, and a new pollution-focused law prescribes prison or a fine of up to 10 million rupees (about $135,000) for burning crop residue.

Most concerning, however, is the impact India’s new agriculture laws will have on farmers’ income. The farmers say that the new laws will drive down prices and devastate their earnings, and are also worried about corporations taking over their small farms. They have been opposed to the changes from the very beginning, seeing the laws as an attack on their identity in altering the way they have been farming for generations. The new laws have resulted in the end of a decades-old system that had guaranteed farmers minimum prices.

With that being said, the protestors are equally angry about the manner in which the bills were passed as they are about the contents. The governing Indian People’s Party (BJP) refused to extend the debate around the bills or refer to a special committee where it could be refined further, despite repeated requests from the opposition. For this reason, the government has been accused of ignoring parliamentary procedure by hurrying to pass the bills and refusing to consult the farmers. The Indian government maintains that these new laws will make it easier for farmers to sell their produce directly to big buyers and Prime Minister Modi claims the farmers have been misled by the spread of misinformation.

Though the introduction of new laws around agriculture proved to be the catalyst for the protests, farmers have been experiencing political unrest for a number of years before now. In India, more than 60 percent of the population depends on agriculture to make a living, making farmers a huge political constituency. But, despite the importance of the industry to the livelihoods of so many Indian people, farming accounts for less than a sixth of the country’s GDP. Progress has been slowed by a lack of modernisation and decline in productivity, resulting in a shrinking income from farming. In 2016, Prime Minister Modi and his party promised farmers’ incomes would have doubled by 2022. Yet, nearly five years later, consumer price inflation has been chipping away at wage gains. Anger amongst farmers had already been bubbling underneath the surface, and now it’s come to a boil with the advent of the new laws.

Though many economists and agricultural experts support the farmers’ demands for a minimum assured price for their produce, members of Prime Minister Modi’s party and allies in the media have branded the protesting farmers as ‘anti-national’ for criticising the Modi government.

Coverage of the protests in Western media may have been minimal, but there has been a global response to the Indian farmers’ plight. For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau voiced concern for the farmers during a Facebook Live session, which prompted India’s foreign ministry to summon Canadian diplomats. The ministry said Trudeau’s comments constituted “unacceptable interference” and risked damaging ties between the two nations.

In the UK, people have been rallying in support for Indian farmers. More than 1,000 people took part in protests across West Bromwich and Birmingham in December, and it’s expected that demonstrations will continue. Protesters also descended on the Indian High Commission in London, despite police warnings not to break Covid laws.

Indian diasporas are raising awareness of the farmers’ fears that government reforms will damage their livelihoods, and the protestors in India show no sign of relenting. At the moment, it seems the government and the farmers have reached stalemate, with neither President Modi nor the protestors showing any signs of backing down.

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