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Why the world should watch the Indian farmer protests very closely

Indian farmers have been protesting reformed laws for three months straight. They are preparing for more months to come. Food policy analyst and journalist Devinder Sharma, who visited the protest site, argues why these protests concern us all.

Amid the ongoing farmers’ protests, with tens of thousands of farmers entrenched at the gates of New Delhi for nearly three months now, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly defended the three contentious new farm laws. The reforms are necessary, he argues. Speaking in Parliament, he said: “We have tried to understand what the farmers’ concerns are with clause-by-clause discussions. We understand that there is no harm in amending the laws if they can harm the farmers’ business.” 

While the Prime Minister ruled out the possibility of withdrawing the three new central laws, farmers fear that these laws will bring them under corporations, which will cut into their income, take away their lands and eventually drive them out of agriculture all together. As the already iconic farmers’ movement – perhaps the biggest farmers protest seen anywhere in the world – spreads across the country, with ‘mahapanchayats’ (large congregations) setting up a new template for show of strength, agitated farmers remain steadfast on their demand for repealing the ‘three black laws’.

A matter of life and death

As the stalemate continues, farmers are getting ready for what appears to be a long-drawn battle ahead. After having weathered the cold winters in tractor-trollies and tents, they are now preparing to face the harsh summers with heat waves intensifying as temperatures rise in the next few months. Nevertheless, the determination and resolve to stay put till the laws are withdrawn sees no signs of waning. More so when I see a large number of women at the centre stage, protesting along with their male counterparts. “These laws are nothing but a death warrant against farmers. Therefore, it is a life and death question for us,” said a visibly agitated Sukhwinder Kaur, wife of a small farmer from Punjab, whom I met recently at the Singhu border on the outskirts of New Delhi, one of the protest sites. And then she added: “I don’t want to see my husband committing suicide. Enough is enough.”

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These laws are nothing but a death warrant against farmers. Therefore it is a life and death question for us. I don’t want to see my husband committing suicide. Enough is enough.
Photo via Twitter: @azad_godara

Pushing farmers out of business

In a battle of perceptions, the real issue is not what amendments are needed to make the laws acceptable to the farmers, but to understand what prompted them to put everything at stake and emerge out of their farms to launch what is now seen as a historic and unprecedented movement. What is being conveniently overlooked in the polarised debate is the acknowledgement of a harsh reality. For several decades now, Indian farmers have been deprived of their rightful price, with an economic system aiming to keep food prices low and push small farmers out of agriculture, as to provide for cheap labour in the cities. Therefore, in reality, it is the compound anger built over the decades that is finding a vent through the opposition to the new laws.

In the epicentre of the protests – comprising the north-western states of Punjab and Haryana, the country’s ‘food bowl’ – farmers fear the new laws will make the regulated mandis (markets) become redundant, which will result in phasing out the price assurance they have been traditionally getting (since the days of the Green Revolution) through the mechanism of the Minimum Support Price (MSP). Every year, India announces MSPs for 23 crops but predominantly procures only wheat and rice to be distributed at a subsidised price to meet the food and nutrition needs of two-third of the population – approximately 800 million people – under the National Food Security Act.

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Farmers fear the new laws will bring them under corporate control, depriving them of an assured income by denying them a guaranteed price.
Photo via Twitter: @RockySingh

For the rest of the crops, the MSP remains more or less on paper. Since only 6 per cent of farmers across the country get the benefit of the MSP, the other 94 per cent have remained dependent on markets. Farm income for this 6 per cent of the farming community is relatively higher than those dependent on markets. In any case, if markets were benevolent, there is no reason why India should be faced with terrible agrarian distress. This is what actually worries farmers; they fear the new laws will bring them under corporate control, depriving them of an assured income by denying them a guaranteed price. Making matters worse in years to come.

“Get big or get out”

The issue of the denial of an assured price resonates strongly with farmers in America and, for that matter, in Europe. Left to face the brutality of the markets, farmers in the rich developed world too, have borne the brunt. If the markets were so good, and despite receiving monumental subsidies, I see no reason why American farmers should be saddled with a record-high debt of $425 billion in July 2020. With suicides in rural areas being 45 per cent higher than in urban areas, American farmers are increasingly faced with worrying levels of mental stress. Rural communities have been left devastated, and there is a kind of eerie silence that greets you.

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The farmer’s share of income in every food dollar the end consumer paid has come down to less than 8 per cent.
Photo via Twitter: @Its_mannkaur

Ever since Earl Butz, Agriculture Secretary at the time when Richard Nixon was the President of America (early 1970s), made that infamous statement asking farmers to “get big or get out”, small farmers have quit agriculture in large numbers. To illustrate, 93 per cent of the dairy farms have closed down since the 70s. As market dominance increased, the farmer’s share of income in every food dollar the end consumer paid has come down to less than 8 per cent. Farm incomes, when adjusted for inflation, have actually been on a steady decline. To prop up farm incomes, a study by Centre for WTO Studies in New Delhi shows that American farmers receive an average of $62,000 subsidy support every year.

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Dependent on subsidies

In Europe, it is no better. Unable to cover the costs of production, and faced with the vagaries of markets, small farmers have increasingly quit agriculture. The European Commission acknowledges that despite the importance of the food sector, farm incomes are 40 per cent lower than the non-farm sector. That is why the basic intention of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been to support individual farmers, supplementing farm incomes. Nearly 57 per cent of the average farm income comes from subsidy support.

It is clear that free markets haven’t helped increase farm incomes. No wonder farmers everywhere are stepping up and asking for a fair price for their produce. What the protesting Indian farmers are demanding – making a guaranteed price a legal right for farmers – therefore will resonate globally. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Also read: 4 things you should know about the Indian farmer protests

Photo in header via Twitter.

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