Why We Should Be Paying Attention to The Farmers Protests in India
Updated: Mar 22
Co-authors: Hayley Brackenridge & Aarisha Elvi
Hello, my name is Hayley Brackenridge and my pronouns are she/her. I live in what is currently Guelph Ontario, the territory of Mississauga peoples and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, under Treaty 3, the Between-The-Lakes purchase. I identify as a white settler of what is currently known as Canada, with mixed European descent. I am cis, female-identifying, heterosexual, neurotypical, and able-bodied. These identifying factors contribute to my relational position which has shaped my perspective of the world. In writing this blogpost, I intend to communicate accurate, non-partisan information pertaining to the farmers strike in India. I do not wish to speak for those with experiences that I have not lived, but rather lessen the burden of translation exhaustion. I acknowledge that, without the lived experiences, I may not always get it right but I am committed to unlearning and learning.
Hello my name is Aarisha and my pronouns are she/her. I am happy to share my positionality as I see this as an opportunity not only to reflect on my roots but also to ground myself before I begin any work that is of profound spiritual significance to me. As a Bangladeshi-Canadian, I always feel lucky to wake up everyday to live, play and work on the unceded territories of Kwantlen, sc̓əwaθenaɁɬ təməxʷ (Tsawwassen), S’ólh Téméxw (Stó:lō), Stz'uminus, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples, also what is currently called Richmond, British Columbia. I express my gratitude and warmly thank the people who are close to the farmers’ movement, the Kisaan movement; and have taken their time to offer me a great deal of insight and resources regarding this matter, particularly Sonia Panda who has been tirelessly organizing rallies and protests around the greater Vancouver area in British Columbia. Without their time and energy, it would not have made sense to proceed with such a project that is meant to shed light and bring global awareness of such a powerful movement. With that, I hope the readers of SUTE feel more connected in gaining clarity of the intricacies and complexities of the farmers’ movement in India.
What is happening in India?
One of the largest protests in history is taking place in India, yet the mainstream media has made little efforts to publicize the events properly. As we speak, India faces not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a climate crisis at large. In particular, 3 recent (as of 2020) Agri Bills/Farm Bills have drawn national attention for their impact on farmer wellbeing. Farmers who are represented by over 250 farmers’ organizations, marched across and arrived in New Delhi. They continue on hunger strikes to show the level of severity of the three recently enacted Farm Bills (1) which the current government under Prime Minister Modi claims will reform the agricultural sector. Although several rounds of negotiations took place, they remained unproductive as the resistance to amend these bills was strong, creating tensions between farmers and the government. However, farmers are resiliently pushing through in the face of oppression as they enter, approximately, their 80th day of the protest as of this article publishing.
In 2020, India enacted Farm Bills that were supposedly intended to alleviate the high rates of Punjab farmer suicides, while preparing Indian agriculture for success in the wake of increasing extreme weather events brought on by climate change. These agricultural reforms were, however, unconstitutionally approved as there was a lack of scrutiny in the deliberative and consultative process, primarily the lack of consultation with the farmers and stakeholders involved (2). In this article, the Farm Bills are discussed with the hopes of shedding some light to this matter, the implications it has on the farmers, and global food security.
Credit: Altaf Qadri/Associated Press https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/world/asia/india-farmers-protest-pollution-coronavirus.html
The 3 Agri Bills/Farm Bills Being Disputed
1. ‘The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce bill was designed to enable the concept of ‘One Nation-One Market’, which designates the entirety of India as a “trade area” under consistent governing trade laws (2). This bill, which allows farmers to sell their product anywhere within the country, was intended to replace the current system called the Agricultural Produce Market Committee laws (APMCs) (2). APMCs established government approved ‘mandis’, also known as agricultural markets, ensures the purchasing and selling of goods can only occur in these markets (2). The APMCs govern a state-operated market where farmers sell their produce to traders or commission agents who act as “middlemen''. These middlemen then sell their produce within the rest of the country (2).
The APMCs were designed to protect farmers and ensure that produce is sold for the proper value, and by doing so, introduced what is known as Minimum Support Price (MSP) (2). MSP is the minimum price set by the government to ensure that farmers do not receive low rates (2). Large scale farmers need to notify APMC or trade with only APMC licensed traders in order to be protected by the government but small scale farmers sell their items outside of the APMCs (1). However, with the newly enacted Farmers’ Produce Trade Commerce Bill, farmers are allowed to sell their produce outside of the APMC yards, but in doing so, will lose the benefit of receiving MSP (2). Upon reflecting, the bill helps large scale farmers have the means to freely trade with private companies outside of the APMCs as the government will no longer impose tax on selling and purchasing of goods, meaning that it allows them to sell their items at a good price (1). This is the government’s incentive to move away from agricultural business altogether (1). On the other hand, this bill hardly makes a difference for small scale farmers as they already sell outside of APMCs, and due to travel costs they do not have any incentive to travel further to sell their items, leaving them with fewer options than larger farmers (1). The caveat is that once the farmers enter the free market, it will leave them in a difficult position as their income will depend on the fluctuations of market prices. (1). For instance, if prices are low due to less demand but the cost of cultivation is high, the farmers are left on their own as the government will not step in to provide any form of subsidy (1).
2. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020
The title of the bill explicitly states ‘Empowerment and Protection’, indicating the government will protect the farmers through a legal document. This Act allows farmers to enter into agreement with ‘sponsor parties’ and is meant to prevent the exploitation of farmers by private businesses (1). This is known as contract farming, where the farmer agrees to execute said requirements of the buyer as outlined in a contract, and in exchange the buyer decides to purchase the product for a price that has been pre-established (1).To avoid exploitation, this bill acts as a ‘dispute settlement mechanism’ between the buyer and the farmer through an independent established authority (1). However, the term ‘Farm Services’ in the bill has harmful underlying implications on farmer yield and income levels. It allows the buyer to legally ask the farmer to produce a specific quality of product, meet certain delivery requirements, and more, without considering the ecological ramifications that it may entail, and is ultimately ineffective at protecting both the farmer and the environment (1). Moreover, since private companies can ask for such demands through this legal contract, they can in fact, exploit farmers through legal clauses (1); and as flawed and counterproductive this bill is, it is questionable if farmers were taken into consideration when enacting the legislation.
Capital intensive agriculture is not a new concept. This practice was already rampant in India since the "Green Revolution'' began around 1965 and during this time, farmers transitioned to industrialized practices, including the use of high yielding cultivars, chemical fertilizers and irrigation (3). Many have argued that it caused more harm than good, resulting in ecological crises such as biodiversity loss, saline and degraded soils, and fertilizers that polluted water causing public health disorders (4).
This bill was to be used as a nation-wide legal framework claiming to stabilize farmer income and to reform agriculture and attract private investment (1) but to say the least, this bill seizes any level of autonomy that a farmer has in decision making, making the contract ineffective in protecting farmers’ rights.
3. Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill (ECA)
The Essential Commodities Bill was initially enacted in 1955 to provide certain essential commodities such as food, medicine, fuel to the general interest of the public and also remove said commodities when it is no longer needed (1). For instance, if there is a shortage of onions, the central government will intervene and add it to the Essential Commodities list to ensure that the onions are available to the people at an appropriate price; and once the situation improves, the government will remove those commodities from the list (1). Similarly, masks and hand sanitizers were deemed Essential Commodities and distributed by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic (1).
The bill was designed to eliminate the practice of creating an ‘artificial demand’ that traders or wholesalers may execute by hoarding essential commodities that could result in inflation of prices (1). At the risk of inflation, the bill allows the central government to add commodities to the ECA list to ensure that the commodities are available under the right price.
However, the recently amended ECA removed protections on certain food items that are considered essential in most households, such as pulses, oils, oilseeds, potatoes, and onions so they can only regulate the prices in case of war, famine, high price rise and natural calamities (1). In short, this means that since the central government will not be regulating the price and supply of these products, the price will naturally increase and will only be added to the list if it satisfies any of the above mentioned stipulations (1). The bill helps farmers' incomes by adding commodities that have more than 100% increase in retail price for perishable items; and more than 50% increase for non-perishable items to the ECA list (1).
While this appears beneficial to farmers, the main caveat seems that since less regulation is in place, the possibility of hoarding and creating ‘artificial demand’ are likely to make it easier for big agricultural companies to monopolize the prices of goods (1).
These bills were passed seemingly in support of the farmers...
However, with close examination, they in fact exacerbate the current struggles farmers face with regard to indebtedness and food distribution. Studies have shown that in India, farmers have died from suicide at an alarming rate, exceeding those of the general population (5,6). In 2019 alone, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics showed that more than 10,000 Indian farmers died by suicide (7). Conclusive studies claim that these suicides have no correlation to mental health, rather, they are attributed to the socio economic struggles they face with indebtedness (6). Numerous studies also show indebtedness as the predominant factor in farmer suicides, so much so that the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra ranks debt as the primary cause following addictions, environmental, and price issues (5).
Another factor associated with indebtedness is cash crop cultivating--meaning that farmers commit to produce crops that are higher in cost, primarily to be exported, as opposed to food crops that are designed to sell locally at a lower cost (5). The issue at hand with cash cropping is, if one of the high cost crops fail, the farmer is more prone to debt since they have already invested in production (5). With pre-negotiated production contracts under the Farmers’ Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, farmers are now at an even greater risk of debt in the event of crop failure.
Credit: Simran Jeet Singh (Twitter: @simran) https://twitter.com/simran/status/1353897428567654400/photo/1
To repeal these new agricultural laws, farmers who are mainly Sikh from Punjab and Haryana went on a peaceful march ‘Dilli Chalo’ across New Delhi. To date, the farmer’s protest is one of the largest mobilizations bordering between Delhi and the state of Haryana (8). Protesters blocked the highway, placing their tractors to camp outside in harsh weather, to cook and serve food for the rest of the community. While peaceful demonstrations were in motion, the police, however, met the farmers with violence, attacking peaceful protesters with tear gas, water cannons, and batons, unraveling hostile tension. As of the time of publication, there are approximately 150 deaths--majority due to harsh weather in the cold and an additional 18 deaths from suicide (7). Multiple rounds of negotiations took place with the government, so far resulting in deadlock, leaving farmers desperate, depressed, and with such a consistent level of precariousness it is compelling some to take their own lives (8).
The rise of social unrest is prevalent, and has compelled many farmers to stand against injustice. Harjinder Singh, a farmer from Gujarat has travelled more than 600 miles to join the protest because the government does not subsidize their crops in Gujarat (8). He says:
“I’ve got 100 acres there, and now I’ve turned it into a breen land because of the government’s rude policies”. (8)
Balwinder Singh, a 50 year old farmer joined the camp from Meerut, a city 50 miles from Delhi when he heard the outbreak between the protesters and police officers (9). He says:
“The police attempt to remove the protesters last night was an assault on the dignity of farmers” (9)
What is more appalling is the violation of civil liberties amidst the movement. While protestors are leading with peaceful intentions, Indian authorities are responding to the farmers by cutting power and water supply to their camp sites (7). Around campsites in Ghazipur and Singhu, authorities are intercepting water supplies preventing them from entering; and recent reports indicate that India temporarily suspended mobile internet services in order to “maintain public safety” (10). Many argue that this is quite the contrary--one farmer, Sandee Sharma claimed that the authorities are trying to “create a panic” while another Bhavesh Yadav said that it was “killing democracy” (10).
Not only is the state taking such actions against protesters, but efforts in curbing independent reporting is large. Labour activist Nodeep Kaur was arrested on January 12 for protesting against non-payment and harassment of workers which, according to her, draws significant parallels to the farmers’ protest (11). The campaign against Kundli Industrial Area (KIA), a firm she worked for, began in December; and it used Singhu as a platform to voice concerns of labour issues that KIA later denied (11). Nodeep has been denied bail and her custody continues until February 8th (11). Two other journalists, Mandeep Punia and Dharmendra Singh of Online News India, faced repercussions for filming police refusing a resident entrance to the protest site near Singhu Border (12). They were arrested under the charges of alleged harm to public officials (12). While Mr. Singh was released, Mr. Punia has been denied bail and is sent for 14 day judicial custody (12). The Executive Director of Caravan, Jose, said, “This is an attack on free and independent reporting. The Government wants only its official version to be published” (13). Last year, India dropped to 142nd in the annual World Press Freedom Index (14).
Albeit peaceful demonstrations are at the core of these protests, there has been a recent case of disruption at the Red Fort where a tractor rally resulted in clashes, ultimately taking one life and leaving multiple officers injured (15). Some misguided protesters deviated from the designated routes (starting from Singhu border crossing, Tikri and Ghazipur) and ended up at Red Fort, a narrative the government is using to undermine the significance of the farmers’ movement (16).
One farmers’ union leader accused the police of provoking the disruption. Kawalpreet Singh Panu tells AFP news agency that “When you attack a peaceful protest, then difficulties for the government will surely increase. This won't stop here. Our movement and message have only become stronger" (15).
Many farmers’ unions worry that these disruptive acts are counterproductive to their theme and intentions of protesting (9). Farmers’ leaders said in keeping with the theme of peace, the January 30th, one-day hunger strike was designed to coincide with the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi (10). Union leader Darshan Pal says “The farmers’ movement was peaceful and will be peaceful” (10).
Climate Change Crisis:
Climate change is expected to exacerbate the consequences of India’s new agri bills for farmers. A doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations is expected to warm India by 2.33 to 4.78 degrees Celsius (17). Increasing associated heat waves would produce variability in summer monsoon precipitation, which is important for crops such as sugarcane and rice (18). Although the total amount of precipitation is not changing, the number of rainy days in India is evidently decreasing, contributing to an increased frequency of droughts (18). Overall, it is predicted that an increase in annual average temperature will reduce land productivity for most Indian crops (19). By 2080, India could experience a 40% decline in agricultural productivity (17). These adverse effects of climate change will disproportionately impact small and marginal farm households (19) who are already most burdened by India’s new farm bills.
Smallholder farming has been made internationally imperative by the United Nations in their declaration of the decade of family farming (20). This recognition identified smallholder family farms as a pivotal part of the transition to sustainable agriculture world wide (20) demonstrating the importance of supporting India’s small farms. Smallholder farmers (residing on less than 2 hectares of land) account for 86.2% of farmers in India, but cumulatively own only 47.3% of arable land (21). Smallholder farms tend to be family-operated and rooted in traditional practices which foster cultural and social connections to the environment (22). As such, smallhold family farms must first feed their families before surplus can be sold for income; however, with an average of 0.6 ha of land for each of the 126 million family farms, surplus is difficult to acquire (23).
For agricultural practices to be sustainable, they must be i) economically viable for producers; ii) socially fair to communities; and iii) environmentally friendly. Smallholder farming in India is environmentally friendly, as traditional practices often involve mixed crop-livestock, biological pest management, and crop rotation; however, it is not economically viable or socially fair due to lack of economic incentives and government policy support (22). A recent study suggests that for smallholder family farming in India to be sustainable it needs i) retention of local youth; ii) enhanced non-farm employment opportunities, especially those that are women-centric; iii) promotion of community-supported agricultural initiatives; and iv) enhanced market access & value chain development for local plant food resources (23). The bills recently passed in India fail to address these needs and continue to prioritize the success of intensive, high-input commercial food production. As explained above, the newly enacted Farmers Agreement of Price Assurance Bill and Farm Services Bill do not benefit small farmers, most likely contributing to the high suicide rates amongst farmers in India and preventing India’s necessary transition towards sustainable farming.
Why should we care?
Upon reflecting on the bills, it seems that they are legislated mostly with the intention of supporting private business owners rather than the farmers themselves. While India has shown a seemingly broken democracy across the world, curbing civil liberties and freedoms of expression and such, it more importantly teaches us to reflect on our global food security system and to pay respect to our farmers. This protest is a call to action, and asks us to pay attention to the global impact of our planet, compelling us to create a major shift in the future of our food systems. This protest, central to its roots, forces us to reflect and remind us to respect the origins of our food production, and the significance of the role that farmers play in our food systems. In order to dismantle the current systems that are in place, it is imperative that we pay attention to the voices of the farmers, the importance of equality and food justice.
How can you show support?
To follow new updates, visit https://www.kisaanekta.co/ ; or follow instagram accounts such as @sikhexpo, @trolley_times_official, @punyaab and twitter accounts such as @amaanbali and @punyaab.
Visit https://www.kisaanekta.co/donate to show solidarity by donating to organizations
that are helping the farmers’ protest.
Canadian residents can head over to https://kisaan.support/ to send an email to representatives in their own riding about supporting the farmers’ protest. Simply add in your name and postal code, and the website will automatically generate a list of representatives in your riding and send them the email.
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