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Farmer protests in India: What you need to know

By:
Jeevan Sangha (@jeevanksangha)

Farmers across India are protesting in response to controversial agriculture bills that have left them vulnerable to big corporations.

Two of the three bills have been passed in Rajya Sabha amidst criticisms from opposition parties, “saying they were against the interests of small and marginal farmers”, and a refusal to have these reforms reviewed and studied by a parliamentary committee. 

While many of us have seen images of the widespread protests around the country, the language can be very confusing to navigate — especially if you aren’t well-versed in farmer politics.

For those of us who’ve had trouble understanding what’s happening, here’s what you need to know: 

The protests have been sparked across the country, and most prominently in Punjab and Haryana (commonly referred to as the ‘grain bowls’ of India), in response to 3 controversial bills: (1) The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020, (2)  The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill 2020 and (3) The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020. 

Before we jump into what these bills mean for the farmers in affected states, it’s important to look at how the system currently works.

Ideally farmers would grow their crops, take it to the mandi (vegetable market), set their own prices, and sell directly to the consumer.

In reality, the average farmer takes whatever they yield and brings their product to state-regulated Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis. Here, licensed middlemen (known as arhatiyas) purchase produce from the farmer and then sell to local vendors or larger food processing companies. 

The arhatiya tradition goes back generations. Many have long-lasting relationships with farmers, and are willing to provide advances for farmers in order to sustain themselves. 

Once their produce is bought by middlemen, farmers can physically go to markets in which the product is sold to the consumer and see what their produce is being sold for in a process called price discovery.  

A vital element of this system is Minimum Support Price (MSP), this is the price at which the government will purchase excess produce that is not being purchased anywhere else. 

“Between 85% and 90% of wheat and paddy that is sold in the markets in Punjab and Haryana is procured by government agencies at MSP” which makes up a large portion of the procurement in all of India. 

The MSP is essential, given the landscape of Indian agriculture. 

According to The Indian Express, 86% of all agricultural land holdings are small and marginal, which means it can be difficult to yield a substantial crop accounting for the myriad of volatile factors that go into farming (weather, soil fertility etc). 

The MSP is not profitable for farmers, but is enough to ensure that they do not lose money on the little that they are able to produce. 

While the system is far from perfect, the MSP is a component that provides a small amount of protection for farmers in India -- many of who suffer crippling debt and crop insecurity.

In these new reforms, governments will now allow corporations to purchase directly from farmers, outside of the physical area of the APMC mandi.

The idea behind this, is to let the free market take control and allow the forces of supply and demand dictate market prices. 

However, if minimum support prices for crops are not promised, it could further push people into debt and poverty.

Prime Minister Modi argues this is an opportunity to increase bargaining power for farmers, to provide them the ability to set their own prices directly with big corporations, and liberate them from the clutches of exploitative middlemen. 

This is also intended to open up the market for innovation of farmer technologies, advancing the sector as a whole. 

While this system may sound good in theory, farmers anticipate harmful practical ramifications of such radical changes to the already flawed APMC system.

In the APMC system, up to 8.5% of transactions in Punjab between farmers and arhatiyas consist of market fees and levies. In the reform, these same fees will not apply to transactions that occur outside of the physical space of the APMC mandi -- thus incentivizing interactions directly between the farmer and wholesalers. 

While this will initially seem like a bargain, farmers are worried that big corporations will come in, buy their product in bulk and exploit them, because the government is no longer there to regulate transactions. 

It is predicted that contract farming will flourish between farmers and big corporations, but since 86% of all agricultural land holdings are small and marginal, it will be extremely difficult for farmers to match the demand of these companies, likely pushing them further into debt. 

Pushing APMCs aside will also mean wild price fluctuations throughout the country, and will make it increasingly difficult for farmers to discover the market price of their own goods, creating leverage for wholesalers. 

Most prominently though, is the fear that these reforms are a step closer to abolishing the Minimum Support Price altogether, leaving farmers wholly vulnerable to deep economic, and personal turmoil. 

Farmers are concerned that food processing companies will strong-arm them into selling below MSP, and that soon, this free market parallel will make the MSP obsolete. 

Despite claims from the Prime Minister that the MSP is not going anywhere, protesters are pushing for a clause in the new reform amendments that make MSP a legal requirement outside of APMCs, in order to provide them a small blanket of economic security. 

Fears around the harms of implementing these reforms are not irrational given that these reforms have already been carried out in Bihar and Maharashtra

These reforms have had detrimental consequences for farmers. Many Bihari farmers have incurred the costs of travelling to Punjab to sell their produce due to the unlivable pricing in their own state. 

However, the suffering of farmers in India, and particularly agriculturally centered states, is not a new issue. 

Farmers are the backbone of the country, yet they are intensely victim to skyrocketing agricultural costs (including fertilizer and fuel costs raised by Modi) which force farmers to fall further into debt, sparking rampant suicide in the country

“Over the past five years, farmer suicides in Punjab increased by more than 12 times, according to government data. Three to four farm deaths are reported in the local news almost every day.”

These pre-existing weaknesses of the agricultural system in India have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The strict lockdown in India left farmers jobless for about three months. 

Farmers, with no way to sell their crops, began setting their crops on fire, sowing them back into their fields and even dumping them on the roads.

As debts increase, families are left with fewer options, fewer people to ask for money and the future of their families on their shoulders. 

During this precarious time, farmers are taking to the streets to advocate for themselves. To fight against reforms that they feel do not represent their best interests. 

As members of the diaspora it’s important for us to take the time to understand the movements that are rising in the places we come from. To continue reading and supporting from wherever we are. 

The farmers back home are our people, just as much as our communities outside of India are. They are why we are here today.

For ways to empower farmers in India, check out this thread from @boli.lyrics with resources that are supporting our farmers:


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