In the closing months of 2020, over a quarter billion people have taken to the streets of India to protest the new farming bills that have been decided by parliament earlier in the year. The sweeping number of protestors is beyond comparison and constitutes what may be the largest protest events in world history. But the recent eruptions are only the tip of the iceberg of a decade-long struggle of Indian farmers – yet media coverage has barely gone further than superficially covering the content of the three bills that sparked such huge outrage in civil society. Taking a look at the wider implications of recent government activity will help to shed light on the current events.
The historic struggle of India’s farmers
Around the time of India’s newly gained independence and the partition of Pakistan, agriculture was in a difficult situation. The Bengal famine in 1943 demanded over two million victims and throughout the next two decades, much of India’s population remained malnourished. Droughts ravaged the country; the population was sprawling but production levels were stagnating and heavily relied on outdated technology. When Indira Gandhi assumed the office of prime minister in 1966, agriculture naturally became a key focus of her political agenda. She declared the advent of the Green Revolution that was aimed at increasing land productivity and food production. The core elements it entailed were new crop types, specifically higher-yielding varieties of crops and new technology such as fertilizers and irrigation techniques.
While the Green Revolution sparked a great increase in overall food production, the industrialization of agriculture left many of the small farmers behind on those developments. The new technology was simply too expensive and even if purchased on a loan, many found themselves in huge debt and a vicious cycle: the newly developed seeds required heavy use of irrigation and chemicals but if they were only applied once, the soil turned infertile and depleted of nutrients. Many small farms that lacked even the initial funds to purchase fertilizers collapsed in competition with large commercial farms of wealthy landowners. For many, the growing distress became unbearable: to this day, India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and 11.2% of those who end their lives are farmers. Around 60% of India’s population is still involved in agriculture and debt is widespread.
What do the new bills entail?
Unsurprisingly, economists and farmers agreed on the need for policy reforms given the historic struggle. These policy reforms arrived when the parliament approved three agricultural acts in September – without consulting farmers’ organizations or respecting the regular parliamentary procedure. Currently, the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) under the Indian government regulates agricultural markets. It was enacted in 2003 in order to protect farmers from exploitation by private actors or creditors. The sale of agricultural commodities can only take place within these state regulated markets and thus ensures stable retail prices. The new reforms aim to liberalize this system by allowing farmers to directly sell their harvest to private firms instead of government-controlled markets. Supposedly, it should give more freedom to the farmers, who can now decide to sell their products to a range of buyers. Furthermore, electronic agricultural trading platforms will be established to make trade free of obstacles and more efficient. Essentially, the reforms liberalize the agricultural market in one go and are aimed at increasing economic growth. This has sparked many concerns amongst India’s farmers, such as the loss of the Minimum Support Price, that ensures a minimum profit for their harvest. The bills raise the looming possibility that big corporations will be in control of the agricultural market against which small farmers have virtually no power. On top of all that, the laws are devoid of any safeguards or regulatory frameworks for the farmers – which increases fears that the government will not be concerned with curtailing the economic power of the private firms. The farmers are alarmed by the prospect of being left without a safety net and that with no guaranteed prices of the government market, they are exposed to exploitation by private firms, exactly as they have been during the Green Revolution. A repetition of history is feared, where small farmers are again the losers of top-down enforced development.
The BJP’s crushing grip on India’s democracy
The farming bills had little legitimacy to begin with; they were rammed through by the government and did not leave time for consultation or response from civil society. The protests were met with police force, internet access was taken down in the protest camps, journalists have been facing criminal charges and tweets from celebrities such as Rihanna or activist Greta Thunberg on the matter have been condemned by the ministry of external affairs. Government-held talks with farmers unions have not led to any sort of rapprochement. All in all, India’s leading party is not cooperating with the farmers and there is no visible intention of accommodating their demands. Even though India calls itself a democracy, a majority of the population is not being listened to.
The long-standing demands of farmers for better conditions have been met with a defeating rule of the BJP - neglecting the possibility for communication and collaboration to address the concerns of the farmers. The recent uprising has to be understood as a reaction to a decade-long struggle of Indian farmers and to the BJP’s undemocratic rule over their fate. In a time where the Covid pandemic has caused so much strain on an already pressured sector, for many these bills are the unacceptable tip of the iceberg.
Editor's Note: If you are able, please find the small independent film The Last Farmer - a story about the octogenarian farmer Maayandi, who works tirelessly as he has done all his life, in a confusing and modernising India around him. While it is long, it is a poignant film with many lessons and many laughs. Released in 2021 and a huge success at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, it is well worth the effort of finding and watching.