On September 27, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved three new bills to further the privatization of the agricultural sector in order to stimulate growth.
Farmers from all over Punjab have come together to storm Delhi in protest of these new bills, and they have taken to blocking main roads and highways in New Delhi. When they first reached Delhi in their march, they were met at the city limits with severe police brutality, tear gas, and water cannons. They have since garnered the support of the BJP’s political opposition, and have additionally received the support of over 250 million people participating in solidarity — making this the largest protest India, or the world, has ever seen.
One of the three new bills allows farmers to expand the ways they can sell their crops and, rather than selling through a middleman, they will be able to sell to whomever they choose. As the transactions made through middlemen were taxed, the removal of that process will lead to lower tax revenue. Another of the bills allows farmers to sign contracts with retailers or businesses with pre-set prices on their goods and services. The third bill ends government regulation of certain crops and food items, allowing buyers to hoard and store these food items.
The government is claiming that these new bills are better for farmers, who will be able to negotiate higher prices with private players. Their intent is to provide more autonomy for farmers and allow for more investors into the agricultural sector, thus stimulating the economy. Despite these intentions, the implementation is rushed and it is clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — India’s ruling political party — didn’t consider the negative consequences of these bills.
The agricultural sector makes up for more than 50% of India’s workforce, and provides for almost 17% of India’s GDP. Despite being a key part of the Indian economy, farmers have faced much exploitation under oppressive government policies. Their plight has only been exacerbated by climate change, droughts, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the Green Revolution introduced monocropping and intensive agricultural processes, soil erosion and water waste due to these practices permanently, and exponentially, damaged the aridity of the land. Suicide rates among farmers have also risen; in 2019, 10,281 farmers committed suicide, accounting for 7.4% of India’s total suicide rate. In Punjab specifically, suicide rates over the last five years have increased by over 12 times.
Indian farmers have consistently felt ignored by the government. This is especially clear in how the government has ignored their requests for loan waivers and better irrigation systems during major droughts. The government’s focus on industrialization ignores the surplus of farmers, a majority of whom own less than 5 acres of land. Their needs are not acknowledged by the BJP in these new bills and leave many to question how to provide for themselves and their families.
The government’s focus on industrialization ignores the surplus of farmers, a majority of whom own less than 5 acres of land.
One grievance about these bills is that they would dismantle the minimum support price (MSP) system. The MSP is a system in which the government essentially subsidizes crops, and ensures that if prices of some crops drop, the government will act as a safety net for farmers.
In response to these fears, PM Modi tweeted on September 20, “I said it earlier and I say it once again: System of MSP will remain. Government procurement will continue. We are here to serve our farmers. We will do everything possible to support them and ensure a better life for their coming generations.”
But, a tweet promising this is not enough. Protesting farmers are demanding that the BJP guarantee in writing that the MSP will not be dropped and that the government will still procure rice and wheat. The MSP is a huge form of protection for small farmers, as free market prices are generally lower than government-set prices. It is especially important during the pandemic, in which India has seen a huge economic decline. This is something that the BJP should have addressed when releasing these bills.
These bills more directly harm small farmers, who don’t have access to storage facilities and are already struggling to find bargaining power in a competitive market. The reduced role of middlemen, stated in the first agricultural bill, will increase transportation and storage costs for these farmers that may not have the means to finance this. And, these costs are not just in terms of storing and transporting goods — these actions also take time and resources that small farmers don’t have access to.
Additionally, the idea of contract farming may seem attractive and helpful, however in cases of disputes between farmers and big businesses, there is a clear imbalance of power that places small farmers at a disadvantage.
The farmers are demanding that the BJP repeal these three acts in entirety. They have faced consistent hardships and government suppression, issues intensified by COVID. While the intentions of these bills was to promote deregulation and allow them to work in a more privatized setting, a more equitable and just reformative strategy would have included the voices of farmers — the community these policies directly affect — so that transformative change could occur.
While the intentions of these bills was to promote deregulation and allow them to work in a more privatized setting, a more equitable and just reformative strategy would have included the voices of farmers — the community these policies directly affect — so that transformative change could occur.
Rural farmers, comprising a large portion of India’s agricultural sector, have been exploited for too long, while facing a multitude of crises. What little land they hold has been heavily impacted by climate change and droughts. The government consistently ignores their demands for fair prices and wages, and has instead focused on lofty goals of industrialization.
In an attempt to institute neoliberal market reforms in the agricultural sector, Modi has inadvertently set off what may be the biggest proletarian revolution in the world.
Last updated 12/11/20
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