Seeds of Resilience
The enormity of this protest is unlike anything the world has ever seen before; its longevity and extent make it one of the largest protests not just in Indian history, but in world history.
Torrential rain. Bitter cold. Lack of food, water, and toilets. Death due to exhaustion, suicide, or illness. The opposition pinning them as domestic terrorists. Faced with these challenges, millions of India’s farmers have nonetheless flocked to the streets of New Delhi and its surrounding villages to protest agricultural laws passed in late 2020. These laws expand the role of the private sector while simultaneously decreasing government protection of farmers. The enormity of this protest is unlike anything the world has ever seen before; its longevity and extent make it one of the largest protests not just in Indian history, but in world history. Many of these protesters are from Punjab and Haryana, two regions of India that are densely populated with Sikhs. Protesters explain that their resiliency and fervor in the frontlines of the protest stem from their Sikh beliefs about sacrifice. This communalistic attitude coupled with the harsh realities the laws would impose have aided the farmers in their demands to get the new agricultural laws repealed.
Understanding why this protest is so large requires an understanding of India’s agricultural industry and how it differs from the agricultural industry of the U.S.
India’s agricultural industry sustains over half of India’s 1.3 billion people. They lead the world in milk and bean production and are second in the production of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, vegetables, fruit, and cotton.
Despite India’s high agricultural productivity, the means of agricultural production contrast from other major agriculture-producing countries. Unlike the large farms that mass-produce goods in the U.S., the farmers of India’s Punjab and Haryana regions mostly cultivate grains on small, family-run farms.
Given how small most Indian farms are, fluctuating supply and demand can gravely affect the success of a farm. For years, India has used the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Yards, more commonly called mandis, to protect farmers from drastically fluctuating prices and corporate exploitation. These regulated markets provide protection for farmers and attempt to ensure that both the buyer and seller make a profit without damaging the success of the other. The government has implemented minimum set prices (MSPs) on goods to ensure that economical shifts don’t allow prices to drop below a sustainable amount in the APMC yards. Mandis seem like the perfect solution for many small farmers at face value, but there is still a fair share of conning and monopolization that occurs within the markets. Farmers would like access to the opportunity that the private sector could provide, but they don’t want to risk losing government protection.
We return to September: The Indian Parliament convened, and amidst a busy agenda, passed legislation that attempted to address the needs of Indian farmers. As a solution, the Indian government envisioned the involvement of the private sector in the agricultural industry without government intervention as the solution to the farmer’s problems in mandis. They passed three agricultural bills, all of which are the direct reasons for the now months-long protest in New Delhi.
The first bill is the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill 2020. It intends to ensure that legal agreements are made between private contractors and farmers so that contractors cannot swindle farmers into being paid less than promised. The government argues that this new bill will allow private investors to propagate the agricultural economy while ensuring farmers aren’t harmed.
However, in interviews by Faye D’Souza, an Indian journalist and news anchor, protestors expressed their concern that lengthy legal contracts will enable private investors to control farmers instead of protecting them.
These laws could allow for repeated exploitation of farmers through minor legal clauses that have huge impacts.
The second bill, the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, allows farmers to sell their goods outside of the APMC yards and state boundaries without taxation. This step towards free trade aims at increasing the allowed territory for sale of goods, but farmers stress that there could be long term effects resulting from such stark changes. Although the lure of completely free trade can seem enticing, sale outside the mandis does not have the MSPs or government subsidies that provide crucial protection for small farmers. Farmers instead see the bill as the government’s attempt to exit the agricultural industry and remove essential protection. This law will increase the presence of private markets while simultaneously decreasing and possibly eliminating APMC yards.
The third legislation passed was an amendment to the Essential Commodities Bill (ECB), which allows the government to gain control of the production, supply, and distribution of specific goods until falling prices are normalized (for example, last March the Indian government gained control of mask and hand sanitizer products to ensure that sellers did not outrageously drive up prices). This law reduces the impact of wholesalers who hoard goods to drive up demand and subsequently rise prices of goods. The amendment affects Indian farmers and producers because it removes certain products, such as cereals, pulses, potato, onion, and other everyday-use items from the list of essential commodities. The government argues that the removal of these items takes a step towards boosting farmer’s incomes, but in reality, it will only increase the hoarding and black market sale of essential goods.
Family-run farmers are the lifeblood of India’s agricultural industry. The passage of these bills, in the eyes of the protestors, leaves small farms at the mercy of the exploitative private sector without protection from the government.
One farmer interviewed by an Indian journalist remarked: “The situation will be similar to the British rule and we will be servants under big industries.”
The streets of New Delhi are filled with farmers furious at a government ceasing to provide protection. Detrimental legislation such as the bills mentioned makes a huge impact. One farmer told a reporter: “They [the government] will have to understand that the inflation is going to rise to a great extent...you will either die by suicide or you’ll end up in debt.” These laws will affect livelihoods.
The enormity of this protest has made headlines around the globe. The sense of community that these farmers have utilized to create this massive protest is what makes the event so significant. Whole families attend; to nourish demonstrators, women make roti on grills and yogurt lassi drinks for men protesting on the front lines. People take shifts to protest, care for other protestors, eat, and worship in the tents set up nearby.
Demonstrators want the Indian government to understand the grave economic impact that the legislation will have upon its country's farmers. Vikas Rawal, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi studying agrarian distress told the New York Times: “The laws are a shoddy attempt at liberalization. You just enacted them without thinking of farmers.”
Above all, the message from the protestors is clear: they will not relent until the laws are repealed.