What was Behind the Indian Farmers’ Protests?

What was Behind the Indian Farmers’ Protests?

Extreme nationalism and anti-Muslim hatred are mounting in India, all at the expense of its democracy. It is being led or coddled by the sitting Government of Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But the Indian farmers’ protests tell another story about an attack on freedom: the government’s efforts to de-regulate agriculture on behalf of its favoured corporations are a threat to the lives and livelihoods of huge numbers of farmers.

A long-simmering dispute involving Indian farmers has boiled over more than once in recent years.  In June 2020, India adopted what became known as “three farm laws,” which came into effect that September. These laws – protesters argued – empowered big corporations at their expense. Hundreds of thousands of farmers descended upon Delhi, camped on its borders and protested for a year. Elsewhere farmers protested in provincial capitals and local districts. They were met with water cannons, tear gas and brut force, and the police eventually sealed Delhi’s border with barbed wire and barricades

The farmers resorted to other methods, including obstruction of railways, toll plazas, shops, dairy shipments. They also organized a “farmer’s parliament” a few meters from the Indian Parliament to air grievances and debated the issues, winning support from Parliamentary opposition leaders. The farmers’ protest grew to among the largest peaceful protests in India’s history, and eventually, Modi announced the repeal of the three laws and the demonstrations were suspended on 11 December 2021.

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The laws were indeed far more beneficial to the corporations than the farmers. For example, they would have created a Conciliation Board that granted the Sub-Divisional Magistrates (officers of the state civil service) unilateral resolution of disputes. This, in effect gave corporations an enormous structural advantage over farmers in any dispute before the law. 

More importantly, the Government intended to dismantle the Minimum Support Price (MSP), which protects small farmers from sudden fluctuations in the market. Such a deregulated market would place farmers at the mercy of corporations, which could dictate lower prices. Indeed, even before the laws were adopted,  emergency ordinances passed through parliament without proper debate. These were seen as highly suspicious, and indicative of a fait accompli in favour of corporate interests. This was especially because the corporations (which are closely aligned with the Government) had already built large grain silos in Punjab in preparation for their anticipated market domination. 

Of India’s population of 1.4 billion, some 60 percent, rely on agriculture for their livelihood, with 80-90 percent of Indian farmers being smallholders. Some 650 million people (8 percent of the world’s population) would be put into a state of severe precarity.

Further, one of the three infamous laws – an amendment to the Essential Commodities Act (1955) – was to allow private businesses to stock food items such as onions, cereals, pulses, potatoes and edible oil, which are part of the daily needs of ordinary Indians. This would have allowed private actors to hoard food, create scarcity and ultimately raise prices.  In a country where 68 percent of people live on less than US$ 2 per day, such price rises would have made access to food more difficult for most of India’s population.  

The laws also opened the door for contract farming in India which is generally used for cash crops such as cotton, cocoa, jute, and oil crops which are not part of the daily diet of farmers or the population – thereby raising the spectre of food insecurity.  While cash crops might raise the farmers’ incomes, they would spend more on their food, add demand, and increase prices again. 

Canada is an interested actor implicating short-term export-driven interests against long-term Indian (and South Asian) development, stability and welfare.  

Canada’s positions have been inconsistent. On the one hand, Prime Minister Trudeau is believed to have been the first world leader to express support favouring the peacefully protesting farmers.  On the other hand, in contrast to the farmers’ demands, Canada has persistently challenged the validity of the MSP, raising scores of questions, notably at the Committee on Agriculture at the World Trade Organisation. 

In the Greater Toronto Area, lessons about the farmers’ protest have been taught in schools, drawing objections from the Indian Consulate and supporters of the Government of India.  In addition, hundreds of Canadian farmers of Punjabi origin in British Columbia held demonstrations in solidarity with the Indian farmers. At the same time, Canadians protested in front of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, placed shoes on Parliament Hill in remembrance of farmers who died during their protest in India, and protested in other parts of Canada, notably in Toronto and Montreal

Canada is an interested actor implicating short-term export-driven interests against long-term Indian (and South Asian) development, stability and welfare.  Diasporic politics also play a role.  With India rising in importance globally, closer attention seems merited to help ensure against disruptions that generate tensions and could cause social and economic disputes to combust. Extreme nationalism only adds fuel to such situations.   

It has been clear there is a longstanding need for agricultural reform, as conditions in the sector are poor, and enhanced quality of life depends on advancing beyond subsistence or small-hold scale. At the same time, India struggles with some 190 million undernourished people at risk, even in case of minor disruption. Indeed, the conditions of farmers are so poor that between 1995 and 2018, a staggering 400,000 farmers and agricultural labourers committed suicide in India; in 2019 alone, some 10,000 suicides were reported. The social challenge is enormous and begs for careful management and a humanitarian spirit.

Various economists have suggested different kinds of reform. The diversity of situations also requires calibrations as each region is performing differently. Like S.S. Johal (one of India’s most prominent agricultural economists), some have suggested ways to reduce farmers’ debts, augment their incomes, maintain stability and modernize carefully – but with little up-take. In the meantime, uncertainty persists amid global disruptions and insecurity. 

Nationalist politics adds a separate source of tension that risks combining with economic dislocation in terrible ways.  In this, Modi and the BJP are playing with fire in ways that may prove uncontrollable. Such politics should be disavowed or actively undermined rather than promoted or exploited for short-term political gain.   

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