India’s farmers won’t stop protesting until Modi’s unfair agricultural reforms are repealed

Narayan Gaikwad, 73, a farmer from rural Maharashtra has sent 250 postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling on him to repeal the three farm bills passed hastily in September 2020. (Sanket Jain)

Narayan Gaikwad has sent 250 postcards to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and intends to send 300 more. Written meticulously, he wants to draw attention to the massive agrarian crisis that has been taking place in India for decades while calling for the repeal of three agriculture-related reforms hastily passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020.

“Farmers rarely get a fair price for their produce and these laws even take away from the minimum price that we should get,” says the 73-year-old from Kolhapur district in western India’s Maharashtra state. “It’s not only important to protest, but also to make people across the villages aware of these laws.”

Ever since the passage of 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, working people have responded with one of the biggest protest movements in Indian history.

For over two months, tens of thousands of farmers – mostly from the northern states and agricultural hubs of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan – brought together by over 40 farm trade unions and organisations have marched on India’s capital, New Delhi. Small protests began across India in September, and before assembling in Delhi, farmers staged a rail-roko andolan (blockade of trains) in Punjab.

On 26 November 2020, it is estimated that over 250 million farmers, workers and supporters across India took part in what is being touted as the biggest general strike in history to protest against Modi’s anti-farmer agricultural reforms.

Facing the biting cold and unusually heavy rains, at least 60 protesting farmers have lost their lives due to extreme weather conditions. Many of the protesters that marched to Delhi are still camped just outside of the city and say they will stay there until their demands are met.

The government says that its reforms will allow farmers to sell more produce to more places and encourage private investment in agriculture. However, the farmers say that these bills – passed without due consultation – give unprecedented power to corporates in agriculture by deregulating the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce and diluting existing state support systems.

As of 22 January, cabinet ministers have held 11 rounds of talks with farm union leaders. The unions have rejected the government’s proposal to halt the farm laws for 12-18 months, and have said they will accept nothing short of a total repeal of the laws. On 26 January – India’s Republic Day – farmers staged a tractor rally on Delhi’s 50 kilometre-long Outer Ring Road, where some clashes broke out between police and farmers, leaving one farmer dead (at the time of publication).

Resisting the corporatisation of farming

An estimated 40 per cent of India’s population works in agriculture but over the years, the sector has endured one crisis after another, from climate change-induced droughts to a high number of farmer suicides – in 2019, for example, 42,480 farmers and daily wage labourers died by suicide caused by a combination of factors including rising farm debts, the ever-increasing cost of living, water scarcity and crop failure. The coronavirus has simply added an extra layer of devastation.

Farmers in India sell their produce to licensed intermediaries or buyers either through auction or tenders done via an Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). The new Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act enables farmers to sell outside of these APMCs, directly to private players. With no taxes on sales outside of the APMCs and no obligation to report these transactions, critics say the government is promoting deregulation – tipping the balance of power heavily towards agri-corporates. “The APMC represents regulated trade. If next to the APMCs, I introduce a large area of unregulated trade, what do you think will happen?” asks P Sainath, a veteran journalist and the founding editor of People’s Archive of Rural India.

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With over 86 per cent of farm holdings in India comprising less than two hectares, it is smallholder and marginal farmers – who often lack state-support or adequate resources – that will be hardest hit by the power being handed over to agri-business. “When you go to an unregulated area you know all the small people will get smashed, including small traders. The aim is to let the APMC die of suffocation,” Sainath explains.

Procurement in the APMC allows for a minimum support price (MSP), which is set by the government for 23 commodities. But there is no mention of the MSP in the new laws. “If there’s no MSP, the farmers will be ruined,” says Chandra Shekar RD, organising secretary of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). Akkatai Teli, 67, a farmer also from Kolhapur district, agrees. “With these laws, farming will become corporate, and these corporates will make us landless.”

This is not an unfounded fear. One of the reforms – the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act – promotes contract farming, where, typically, farmers commit to provide agreed quantities of a specific agricultural product. The new law will provide a framework for written agreements between farmers and buyers. However, written contracts are not mandatory, and in the case of an unwritten contract there is no provision for penalising a company if it violates the terms and conditions of business. “If a corporation says my produce is not of the required standard and refuses to buy it then who will I sell the crop to?” asks Teli. “This creates a debt cycle. A farmer might be forced to sell their land to clear this debt.”

Vijay Jawandhiya, an activist and farmers’ leader based in Maharashtra, says there have been many examples of underhand practices in contract farming, a practice which predates the reforms, but within the APMC model: “First they [the corporates] take a blank cheque from the farmers. If they deposit the cheque in case of no procurement, and it bounces, then they can file a criminal case against the farmers.”

He also says that in case of a business rejecting a farmer’s harvest, there are not enough measures to protect the farmers. For example, there is nothing to stop the corporates from recovering the cost of seeds and fertilisers from farmers who fail, for reasons beyond their control such as drought, to provide the agreed amount of produce.

Another bone of contention is that the reforms will allow the government to regulate food items in exceptional circumstances (such as war or famine) and impose stock limits if there is an extraordinary price rise. This, farmers say, could open a pathway for agribusinesses to stockpile agricultural commodities, as the amendment removes previous limits put on stockpiling essential commodities. “We have to sell our crops within a few days of harvesting because we don’t have cold storage to preserve them. When you remove several essential commodities out of the list, the corporates will simply hoard them to make more profits,” says Gaikwad.

The reforms also prevents civil servants and “any other person” operating in “good faith” to be prosecuted for carrying out their legal duties, a move that Sainath, in an opinion piece for The Wire, describes as “among the most sweeping exclusions of a citizen’s right to legal recourse in any law outside of the Emergency of 1975-77”. Gaikwad agrees: “In the case of a dispute, we can’t even go to the civil courts now. How will a farmer get justice?”

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Opposition to the Modi government

Ever since he became prime minister in 2014, Modi has been met with numerous protests over his relentless focus on economic growth over human and labour rights, and the shrinking democratic space created by his Hindu nationalist political agenda.
By passing the farm reforms in the middle of a pandemic that has so far killed over 150,000 people in India, the far-right Modi government not only encroached on the right of state governments to govern agricultural policy, it has also forced farmers to risk their lives by assembling to protest. Looking at Modi’s theatrical announcements over the past six years, however, no-one is surprised.

Between 2019 and 2020, the government was met with several general strikes as it rammed through controversial labour law reforms in an attempt to liberalise the economy and boost investment. After fierce resistance from the trade unions, the government passed four new labour codes (subsuming the 29 pre-existing labour laws) after just two hours of debate in the upper house of Parliament. These reforms will make it difficult for trade unions to strike as it has mandated a 14-day notice period. With new legalisation for fixed term contracts and easier retrenchments, trade unions are deeply concerned about this attack on permanent workers and job security.

“With fixed-term contracts, you are pushing people into poverty. You cannot find a single law supporting the working class in India,” says INTUC’s Shekar.

This assertion is supported by Modi’s disastrous demonetisation policy. At 20.00 on 8 November 2016 the government made a surprise announcement that India’s two highest denominated notes (1000 rupees, worth approximately US$14, and 500 rupees) would cease to be legal tender in four hours’ time. The aim was to stop undeclared money and counterfeit cash, but it devastated the informal economy, which employs over 80 per cent of Indians, leading to the loss of five million jobs. Agriculture which predominantly operates on cash transactions was also badly affected.

There are other examples of Modi’s undemocratic legal reforms and heavy-handed implementation. In December 2019, hundreds of thousands of people in cities across India began protesting against the new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which discriminates against Muslims, and many were met with brutal police violence. On 23 March 2020, the Modi government declared a 21-day-lockdown (which lasted roughly 10 weeks), again with just four hours’ notice. Hundreds of thousands of internal migrant workers were forced to walk hundreds of miles to their villages as the government closed state borders and suspended buses and trains. As many as 91 million daily wage earners lost their jobs within a month.

Modi has implemented a trail of anti-worker policies that have harmed the nation, but he has totally misjudged his fight with the farmers. With the mammoth responsibility of feeding a nation of 1.35 billion people, India’s farmers will not simply be written off as “traitors” and “anti-nationals”, as opponents of the BJP are often tarred. As Sainath points out: “Do you want agriculture led by community or agriculture led by corporates? You cannot have both.” For the farmers, determined to ensure the repeal of Modi’s agriculture reforms, there is only one acceptable answer.

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