Indian Farmers Protesting Against Agricultural Reforms
On the streets of New Delhi, Indian farmers are protesting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's policies to reshape the farming industry. Protestors are demanding that the Prime Minister repeal recent farming laws that would minimise the government’s role in agriculture and open up the marketplace to private investors. Tens of thousands of farmers and their families have come out in unprecedented numbers, making it one of the largest sustained protests in the country. These protests have also impacted businesses across Northern India at a time when India’s economy is already ailing.
The farmers' protests have garnered widespread international attention and support, from high-profile celebrities such as Rihanna to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, and hashtags like #istandwithfarmers flooding social media. With such international backlash against the Modi government's plans, the question remains: why has the government failed to support the interests of India's farming communities? What do these controversial reforms truly mean for farmers, and what should be done to make India’s agricultural policies more inclusive of their needs?
New reform plans
The new laws, often referred to as the Farm Bills, were passed by the Indian government in September 2020 and will deregulate the buying and selling of agricultural goods, exposing farmers to the uncertainties of an open market. The Indian government has promoted the laws as a way to provide new market opportunities for farmers and encourage private investment, meaning that there will be greater space for corporations to deal directly with farmers themselves. According to the Modi government, the reform initiative would mean that farmers would benefit and draw investment to a sector that makes up nearly 15 per cent of India's economy and employs about half of its workforce. Yet, farmers are sceptical.
Farmers fear that the removal of state protections is dangerous and will leave them at the mercy of corporate greed. It is feared that the government’s aim of ‘liberalising’ Indian agriculture will gradually drive out small and marginal farmers by creating private monopolies in the market. From the perspective of farmers and farmers’ unions, these laws will allow large agri-businesses to have disproportionate power in this arrangement. There are also concerns about ensuring that minimum prices are protected from exploitation. Moreover, farmers are also wary that the new laws may deny them legal recourse if deals between themselves and corporations sour. For many Indian farmers, their land is their sole source of income. With around 86 per cent of farmers in India being small landholders owning less than two hectares of land, such strong opposition to the laws is therefore hardly surprising.
Lack of consultation
What makes these reform initiatives so contentious is that Indian farmers were sidelined during their creation. Indeed, the laws were implemented without consulting major stakeholders most affected by these measures. This becomes particularly problematic once one understands the raft of delicate sensitivities associated with farming in India, as it is frequently reported that farmers commit suicide due to the yield pressures they face. Regrettably, India has one of the highest farmer suicide rates globally. It is feared that the passing of these laws will drive even more people to despair. The government is insistent that the farm laws are for the benefit of farmers, and that protesters have been misled. Yet, by opting out of the initial consultation stage during the introduction of these laws, the Indian government failed to properly address any misinformation regarding the proposals from their inception. In a bid to reconcile with the farmers, the government has recently offered concessions on the minimum support price and implemented tax-based safeguards for private market yards. However, this was sharply rejected by farmers who want to see the laws repealed entirely. It seems trust between government and farmers has eroded altogether.
Economy in tatters
Farmers have always been instrumental to the Indian economy where agriculture supports over 40 per cent of the population. As India suffered the effects of COVID-19, it is the farmers who have sustained India’s rural economy. Its economy has weathered successive misfortunes, with the pandemic plunging its GDP to the lowest among the G20 nations, shrinking by 23.9 per cent in the April-June quarter of 2020. However, the economy had been slowing for quite some time before the pandemic. On assuming power in 2014, the Modi Government expedited the economy’s decline by imposing a rushed demonetisation process and poorly managing tax reform. These policies, much like the farming laws, were implemented without any consultation with relevant stakeholders. Therefore, the inability to consult with experts across the political, economic and ideological spectrum appears as a recurring theme of the current regime.
Despite being regarded as the world’s largest democracy, India frequently struggles to fully engage with the will of its population. Often, India’s democracy has been seen as more procedural than substantive; frequent electioneering may present the appearance of a vibrant democracy, but this may not translate into equitable voting at the ballot. Though regular elections take place and India possesses democratic institutions, including the courts and the bureaucracy, the question remains – do these democratic processes afford equal access to all citizens, including the poor?
In the case of farmers, social and economic adversities can be innumerable. For instance, women belonging to suicide-affected families are particularly vulnerable to poverty. A decrease in farming income is likely to have a disproportionately greater and more adverse impact on the lives of women. They are often left to fend for themselves due to deep-rooted ideas of patrilineal inheritance which preclude women from owning land. In light of these sobering realities, the Modi government should consider the assortment of stakeholders, including female farmers who actively led and participated in the protests, and address their concerns when trying to assist farming communities.
In spite of the numerous and harrowing stories of the suffering of Indian farmers, countless men and women continue to make their voices heard in the capital. Certainly, Indian farmers deserve the right to earn a decent living. They are the driving force behind the ‘rice bowl’ that feeds one of the world’s largest population of nearly 1.5 billion people. If the nation is to truly recover and expand, its people need to be part of the solution. The Modi government must recognise the need for the inclusion of major stakeholders in the decision-making process and make real efforts to win back public trust. Moreover, farmers should be properly supported to ensure their welfare is considered just as important as the valuable food crops they cultivate and harvest.
Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, and has an interest in human security and international diplomacy