Indian Farmers’ Protest: What You Need to Know

Image by Pandit Amandeep

Words by Alex Daud Briggs

Millions of Indian farmers from the northern states of India sit on the highways leading to New Delhi in protest of the recent laws passed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In 2020, Modi’s government, The Bharatiya Janata Nationalist Party, passed a series of market laws that would change the process of agriculture in India. These three acts will allow:

  • Heavily deregulated trade outside the traditional state farming market
  • More privatised trade without oversight
  • Unlimited storage of goods, which would permit wealthy organisations to stock up on products and control prices

Essentially these would allow large corporations to come in and act with little regulation or restraint. With a population of over a billion people and agriculture making up around half of the country’s labour force, that’s a lot of small-time farmers whose livelihoods could be devastated. 

It’s important to look into the events that led up to this law. In the 1960s, India attempted to modernise farming and increase their food supply following a string of famines caused by drought. This was called the Green Revolution. However, this modernisation involved using US advisers, who ended up overusing pesticides and chemical fertilizers. So, while this ended the famine and provided the Indian population with even more food than they needed, large parts of land became infertile.

This led to the creation of a fairly complicated market system. A basic version is that farmers could bring their products to open state overviewed wholesale markets called Mundis. Here the farmers auctioned their goods to traders with transparent prices. This also included a “minimum support price” for each specific product to make sure that farmers could make a decent wage. While it is a flawed system, as traders could often work together to gang up on farmers for cheaper prices, for the most part it worked due to oversight and standardisation.

Unfortunately, since the Green Revolution, life has become much harsher for India’s agricultural industry. Money is disappearing, as agriculture has gone from over 50% of India’s annual income to only 15%. Over 50% of farming families are currently in debt and suicide rates among farmers are on the rise. Needless to say, farmers have wanted reforms for decades and these latest laws have felt like the opposite.

These acts would create two simultaneous agricultural markets: the traditional regulated mandis and private mandis. These private mandis would work without limitations or transparent trade, two things that have worked to protect the small-time workers for a long time. The results are pretty easy to see; large corporations will be able to swoop into the privatised sector, set their own trade prices and heavily take advantage of the local agricultural groups for their own gain. Local farmers would have to concede to their likely exploitative trade or risk losing their businesses all together.

As the law has been passed, traditional wholesale markets have seen fewer stocks arrive and businesses have been going bankrupt. This has inevitably caused uproar in India and has sparked the farmers’ protest. Millions of farmers now camp outside Delhi, blocking popular highways and staging a more or less peaceful rebellion to have the laws revoked. Some have stated that they will stay for 4 years if they have to. It’s the biggest protest of the last year – a year that has been filled with protests.

Of course, despite what they say, it hasn’t been completely peaceful. Violence broke out when police fired tear gas at protesters who started to drive their tractors through Delhi. Police have also arrested more than 120 people and are attempting to charge union leaders with rioting and sedition. The government is now also trying to use concrete barriers to box in the main protest sites and cut off electricity, water and the Internet.

There have even been counter protests by those backing the government, where people have burnt effigies of Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, as they tweeted their support of the farmers. Some even claim that the protests are really part of a conspiracy created by China so that they can secretly come in and buy all of India’s agricultural markets. For his part Prime Minister Modi has said that the “riots” are “insulting” and that he would not change his mind on new farming laws. However, he is willing to show some mercy by delaying them for 18 months.

This is more or less another chapter in the on going debate of whether the industry should be privatised or subsidised by the government. Supporters of privatisation would argue that it would help develop the economy, which in turn would help the population as a whole. While people who say it should be subsidised would note that historically privatisation has only ever benefitted the elite and not the ground level workers. They would highlight that those are the people protesting and that they make up half of India’s population, so it would be hard not to hear them out.

Without coming off as too left wing, this law seems to come from the same populist mentality that has been seen in recent years across the USA and the UK (complete with the same outlandish conspiracy theories involving China). Modi has been pretty unsubtle about his Indian nationalist views, especially when looking at his clampdown on the contested Kashmir region and his passing of laws seemingly designed to disadvantage Indian Muslims. Allowing an increase in privatisation at the expense of an already troubled working class just seems like the next step in his agenda.

I personally believe that we should support the Indian farmers in their time of need against a clearly unfair and exploitative series of laws.