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Why are Farmers Protesting in India?

As Rihanna, amongst other celebrities, tweeted about the Indian farmer’s protest, there has been a sudden rise in attention to what has been referred to as one of the largest protests in this century with over 250 million people protesting worldwide. However, there is still confusion on why farmers have been protesting and it’s fallout- from unlawful arrests, suicides and a supposed international conspiracy. This article gives you, dear reader, a background into why farming is such a critical industry in India and what the farmers have been protesting against. 

Agriculture in India

Agriculture as an industry in India employs roughly 50% of the population, largely in the form of small, informal, family-run operations, primarily in the northern states of Haryana and Punjab. Since the 1960s and ’70s, the Indian government’s aim to improve food security has meant that there have been several programmes to help boost agricultural productivity, particularly in providing high-value yield seeds and chemical fertilisers at a subsidy on the supply side, and government-run wholesale markets (known as mandis) on the demand side.

These regulations have long been considered a form of protection for farmers, especially due to the economic and socio-cultural value they have held in the Indian Independence movement and in helping India to reduce dependence on imports and food aid post-independence. Due to the disparate nature of farming, these regulations on the supply and demand side have helped provide a barrier to big agro-business from forcing farmers to undersell their crops.

The Minimum Support Price (or MSP) in particular, has been a popular measure. The MSP is a set price, established by the government, at which some crops (especially water-intensive crops like rice) are bought for government ration shops and food subsidies. Even though these prices are not for every crop and that there are limits to how much the government can buy, they tend to set the market rate at which private companies buy their crops. Despite its anti-competitive nature, they have been critical in ensuring that farmers are able to sell their crops at a reasonable price, thus offering protections.

However, these protections also come in the background of the reducing value of agriculture. Over the past 60 years, agriculture has gone from being 50% of India’s GDP to 15% and the excessive use of chemical fertilisers in the ’60s and ’70s has led to decreasing land fertility and reduced output. It is estimated that this, along with many other reasons such as changing monsoon patterns, increasing costs of farm equipment (and subsequent debt) has led to a rising number of farmer suicides, with an estimated 28 people per day who are dependent on farming as an income source dying by suicide in 2019. These conditions have created a perfect storm for agitation amongst the farmer community.

Why are they protesting?

Between June and September 2020, three bills were passed in the upper and lower houses of the Indian Parliament and given assent- becoming Acts of Parliament. These Acts (collectively known as the Farm Acts or Farm Bills) are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. The aims of these bills are varied, but one of their outcomes is to modernise farming by encouraging private bodies and agro-businesses to trade with farmers directly, removing the wholesale mandi system and reducing the scope of MSP’s, along with cutting other subsidies that the government has traditionally provided to the sector such as crop insurance and tax exemptions.

Many economists have claimed that this privatisation is necessary for the face of reducing productivity and incomes discussed above. By encouraging more private bodies to be involved within the lagging agricultural sector, the hope is that agricultural incomes receive a long-needed boost from removing the governmental middle-man.

However, those involved in the agriculture sector believe that privatisation will have a devastating impact. Due to its small-scale and widespread nature, it is very difficult for farmers to contest against prices set by profit-oriented agro-businesses if the MSP has been reduced. There is also the fear that allowing agri-businesses tp buy and sell farmland will maintain (or even increase) productivity, at the cost of mass unemployment without a social security net within the population. The removal of the mandi system would also decrease the transparency within the entire system possibly leading to a loss of financial security that was previously guaranteed.

This is the central motivation behind the protests that began in August when these bills were being debated in localised areas but culminated in the nationwide protests in the Indian capital of Delhi, amongst other areas since 26 November 2020 with over 250 million people protesting around the country; and as of writing this article are still ongoing. These protests have been the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (Joint Farmers Front) and have been supported by the key opposition party (the Indian National Congress), along with several other political parties. The key demands of these protestors is the full and total repeal of the Farm Acts, along with making MSP a legal right that is enforceable across all states, instead of the more disparate legislation that is ongoing.

Along with the scale of the protests, these protests have also garnered attention due to the escalation of protests on 26 January 2021, also known as Republic Day in India which marks the day that the Indian constitution was incorporated. Protestors riding tractors deviated from pre-determined protest routes and stormed the historic Red Fort building, clashing with police and leading to multiple arrests and even violence in certain areas. This was specifically in response to the 10th round of failed talks with the incumbent government to achieve their goals but was condemned by the Morcha.

What have the consequences been?

This event led to a surge in publicity from international media with celebrities such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg voicing their support, and equally vociferous response from politicians and their supporters on Twitter discrediting their tweets as fake news, international propaganda, or even going as far as alleging that celebrities tweeting in support of the farmers were a part of an international conspiracy theory. 

However, within India, the response has been much more severe, with multiple cases of police brutality against farmers within their protest sites, along with some farmers and activists committing suicide to martyr themselves at protests sites. Arrests against those who have been protesting under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which had been previously used to silence protestors in the other controversial citizenship protests in early 2020, have also been made. Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit (lower-caste) labour rights activist has been jailed for allegedly inciting people to attack the police and allegedly assaulted within custody. Most recently, Disha Ravi, a climate activist has also been arrested without bail for circulating a protest toolkit that could assist protestors and farmers. The suppression of opposing voices has been referred to an “unprecedented attack on democracy” by the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal and has left many journalists and protestors worried about speaking out and contesting the actions of the incumbent government or the Farm Acts for the fear of serious repercussions, which has been an underlying thread in many anti-government protests.

As of writing this article, the Supreme Court of India has put a call to the public for suggestions on how to resolve this conflict until 20 February 2021. Prolonging these protests is costing farmers who are not able to earn their living, but also can make the incumbent government appear weak or ineffective, unable to satisfy the basic needs of one of the biggest slices of their population.

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