Amidst Delhi’s rain and cold, India’s farmers continue their protest against the central government’s agricultural laws. The movement, which commenced in November reached a violent showdown on January 26th, which marked 72 years since India’s Constitution was adopted. While the Indian prime minister was saluting his officers and the latest warplanes were flying over the parade ground, the farmers were defying the police and breaking barricades as their tractors stormed through the capital. In the frenzy, the police responded with tear gas and bamboo sticks to restore law and order, which even some leaders of the farmers’ unions accepted had gone completely out of control.
The ongoing protests emanated from three acts, which constituted the Central Government’s Farm Bills, introduced in September last year. The government’s defense of its bills centered around the conviction that by 2022, the prosperity of farmers, supported by corporate investments, will be compounded. The bills allow private buyers to purchase farm produce, independently of the supervision of mandis (state-regulated Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC)). State intervention in retail prices will also be curtailed, should the laws get enforced.
For decades, the government has guaranteed prices to farmers. But the new agricultural laws give farmers more freedom to sell directly to buyers and sell to other states. Opposition to the bills stem from the farmers’ conviction that the laws rob the mandis of their regulatory powers. They escalate the increasing power asymmetry between corporate houses and the masses of Indian farmers, paving the way for corporations to exploit the agricultural workers. Particularly disturbing to the protesters are the clauses of the act which bars farmers from seeking legal recourse over contractual disputes.
The agitation garnered support from agricultural laborers, many of whom own little or no land and belong to Dalit (or oppressed) castes. These labourers come from families who have been exploited for centuries by high-caste landed farmers. Female farmers have also been at the forefront of the farmers’ movement, the largest since independence. For over three months now, the movement has claimed more than seventy lives; many have succumbed to the freezing winters of the capital, while some have committed suicide.
Farmers apprehend that the effects of the bills will resonate those of the Green Revolution in the 1950s, which generated more problems than solutions. The benefits of the Green Revolution were skewed towards rich farmers. Bumper productions resulted in falling prices. Farmers were then guaranteed procurement through state-run mandis at Minimum Support Prices which were always declared in advance. This state procurement was crucial for the survival of poor farmers, who constitute nearly eighty percent of the agricultural population. With a partial laissez-faire stance, the present bill has reduced this state guarantee to the farmers.
For many years now, farmers have been demanding an increase in the minimum guaranteed prices. Instead, the new laws diminish state-regulation, leaving any prospect of minimum prices dwindling. Various academicians and economists have supported the bills while some, including economists from the World Bank have voiced objections. Around eleven rounds of negotiations have ended in deadlock. In January, the Supreme Court put the three farm laws on hold, ordering the constitution of a four-member mediation committee to steer negotiations. But the leaders of the movement rejected any court-appointed mediation committee.
It is hardly tenable to justify the violence unleashed on Republic Day. The protesters did not follow the government cap at 5000 tractors, which left some wondering if the tractor show had been a tool to gain entry into the capital. Spokespeople of leading farmers’ unions, like Samyukt Kisan Morcha and Krantikari Kisan Union, however have not condoned the violence. They continue to urge that the movement be peaceful.
Given the state of India’s farmers, it cannot be denied that corporate infiltration will have a derogatory impact, which will far exceed the problems which the capital-intensive farming of Green Revolution harbingered. It is imperative for both parties to agree to a peaceful settlement of the dispute. In the 1950s, a model of mixed-economy allowing private-public partnership was seen appropriate for India. Sixty decades since then, Indian economy perhaps needs a similar approach. With the large number of landless and poor farmers, any attempts to allow private players and reduce government backing in India’s largest sector may drive farmers to despair.
The National Crime Record Bureau has reported that in 2018 and 2019, more than half of India’s farmers were in debt, with 20,638 committing suicide. A more inclusive assistance from the government, which caters to the needs of both rich and poor farmers, is imperative. Instead of a drive towards capitalist agriculture, increasing the minimum prices, a move towards democratic decentralization, purging panchayat and rural-level bodies of corruption – a more innovative model of community-based agriculture and incentives to the poor farmers may increase agricultural productivity.