By Harshita Chitti Rao Devavarapu
Known for its size and diversity, India is one of the largest countries in South Asia and the largest democracy in the world. Despite having a multitude of cultures, languages and lifestyles, one commonality that unites the multiple strands of Indian identity is the economic enterprise of agriculture. Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for the Indian population and the harvest is celebrated through various festivals by all religions and cultures. Producing legumes, jute, spices, rice, sugarcane and many more crops, 70% of rural households are dependent on agriculture while 82% of farmers are small scale marginal farmers.
After gaining independence in 1947, India suffered economically due to famines and insufficient food supplies. The newly formed Congress government of the time attempted to industrialize the agricultural industry with the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s. With the help of advisors from the United States, the wheat and rice crop yield improved to the point of a huge agricultural surplus. The intense turmoil and uncertainty had created the foundation for India’s agricultural system. In the original system, farmers used to auction and sell their crops in markets called mandis to secondary retailers dependent on competitive pricing based on the government set “minimum support prices.” However, farmers remain a vulnerable community, as agriculture’s share in the economy has dropped from almost 50% to only 15% in the recent years. Even within regulated systems, farmers’ income is perpetually unstable as different retailers collude to lower prices within the mandi. Consequently, these structural issues formed the basis on which the farming community plead for reform.
Contrary to the farmers’ request to strengthen state infrastructure, Prime Minister Modi enacted three farming bills in September 2020 aimed at reducing public procurement by dissolving the mandi system and the minimum support prices. The three bills dismantle different parts of the state protection of agriculture and allow for corporate buyers to enter the system and potentially dominate the price setting mechanism. The first bill creates space for trade to happen outside the regulated mandi. The second bill allows for contract-based farming deals with little to no oversight from the government. While the third bill demolishes the previously set storage limit of wares for secondary retailers.
Together, these bills legitimize the unregulated portion of trade occurring outside established markets and contributing to the creation of a dual market system. These parallel trade spaces allow for unregulated corporations to enter into unprotected and unprofitable deals and farming contracts with farmers. In the long term, this is extremely detrimental to the already vulnerable farming community as it leaves them completely dependent on the conditions set by corporations. On the other hand, the government postulates that this reform would allow for economic growth through direct private investment that would eliminate the need for middlemen.
Protests against these bills started in August 2020 when multiple farmers, primarily from the Sikh community, marched to the city of Delhi and set up temporary camps around the area. As a means of protest, they occupied and blocked National Highway 44, one of the busiest land routes into the capital city. The protests were mostly peaceful, yet the government intervened with force, allowing police to use tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters. Despite the government’s attempt to disband the movement, the farmers remained resilient and hopeful in their fight for change.
While protests have persisted for roughly 15 months, many other systemic issues plaguing Indian society have been brought to the forefront such as entrenched caste discrimination, infighting, and classism within the agricultural community. These issues were exemplified by a brutal incident where a Dalit farmer’s hand was cut off by another protester for allegedly defiling a holy book by touching it; yet, local law enforcement failed to intervene. Similarly apathetic, local bureaucracies and politicians continue to remain ambivalent and disconnected from their community; exemplified by a recent incident in Uttar Pradesh, where eight people were run over and killed by a car while protesting. Witnesses in the area alleged that the car was part of a local politician’s entourage and that his son was in the car. This politician had previously spoken against the farmer’s protests and made inflammatory remarks.
Up until November 2021, the Indian government waited with reluctant patience, hoping for the protests to fizzle out. But on November 19th—in an unprecedented action, Prime Minister Modi repealed the three neoliberal-based farming acts and finally broke his long silence on the protests. Though this repeal surprised and shocked many, it injected a measure of hope into both the farming community and larger pro-democracy circles. Hope that sustained peaceful protest can in fact elicit active and positive change within not just the critical sector of agriculture, but across Indian society. For this hope to grow into further societal progress, Indian leaders will have to cultivate their democratic soil with the same care and attention that farmers put into their crops.