Hundreds of thousands of farmers have converged on New Delhi in the past weeks to protest the passing of a series of farm bills by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, culminating in a nationwide general strike on Tuesday, December 8. The bills, which farmers say they were not consulted on, were pushed through parliament in September. Some protesters, the majority of whom are from the states of Punjab and Haryana, travelled over 600 miles to protest the new bills. The farmers say that the bills, which the government stated are a series of market reforms to increase farmers’ income, would allow big corporations to take over small farms due to decreased prices. Farmers also said that they felt this was the ‘beginning of the end’ for a guaranteed minimum price for crops.
Nearly sixty per cent of India is reliant on agriculture to make a living, and thus farmers are a massive political demographic. Many of the 146 millions of farms in India are small, averaging only three acres. Protesters have been blocking major roads and have been met by violence from police officers, including being subjected to pepper spray and water cannons amid an enduring cold wave. The government has said that they are willing to meet with the protesters but are not willing to repeal the laws.
There were three new bills passed in September, including The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. Some argue that many aspects of the bills will be advantageous to farmers, including the de-regulation of some crops to allow corporations to purchase greater quantities, deals between corporations and producers that will mitigate risk by promising a guaranteed price, and greater options to sell their products outside of Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) regulated markets. However, farmers are concerned that the decrease in regulations will allow corporations to exploit farmers, and that the bills are a move to allow large businesses to take over small family farms. The new bills also include a clause that would limit the ability of citizens to challenge disputes in court as long as they were done in ‘good faith.’
The prime minister’s position is that the new legislation will allow farmers greater freedom to sell directly to corporations and set their own prices, but farmers argue that sales outside of the state-run market will allow the corporations to set prices below the current value. Harjinder Singh, a farmer from Gujarat who grows wheat and cotton, said that farming had become “untenable” in his state because “farmers had no access to a state-run market that subsidizes their crops.” The government hopes to attract more business to the sector and make agriculture more efficient. Despite the involvement of over half of the population, agriculture accounts for only 16 per cent of India’s GDP. While the government has stated that they will not repeal minimum prices for essential crops, many farmers are worried that these protections will disappear.
Yogendra Yadav, the national president of the political party Swaraj India says that despite the existence of a minimum price agreement, it is inaccessible to as many as 80 per cent of farmers. Devinder Sharma, an agricultural expert and author, agreed that minimum prices are necessary as “there is no evidence in the world where the market price has benefited farmers.” Others, such as Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute, argue that such government measures are necessary as there are too many farmers in India.
Protesters have stated they have brought enough supplies for six months and are determined to continue protesting until the government meets their demands. The All-India Motor Transport Congress, a transport union has stated that beginning December 8, they will begin striking in solidarity as farmers are ‘fundamental.’ Some members of Modi’s government and the alt-right are classifying the protesting farmers as “anti-national,” an increasingly common term for those who disagree with government policies.
In the future, the government should consult farmers and unions about their needs and what they need from the government and ensure that they are encouraging discussion and feedback before passing bills that could have a negative impact on the livelihood of half the population. The government must also cease reacting violently to citizens exercising their right to peacefully protest.
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