Chest-deep in ground, Rajasthan farmers in Jaipur India protest government's land acquisition attempt. Photo credit: Pandit Amandeep on Unsplash

Protests in India signal frustration with lack of protection for the country’s most vulnerable farmers

Tens of thousands of farmers have been camped out in India’s capital of New Delhi for weeks now in protest against new agriculture laws they say could destroy their livelihoods.

Farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh – which are highly agricultural states – have made it clear that they have no intention of clearing out the city’s borders until the government retracts a set of farm bills passed by Narendra Modi’s government last year.

The demonstrations, which consisted of about 250 million people at its peak, began in December. Now, protesters are currently gathered along New Delhi’s three borders. While some bought their tractors, the remaining demonstrators came by foot. Others blocked roads and set up makeshift camps.

Early on during the protests, police brutally cracked down on the demonstrators, firing tear gas and water cannons at them. Some even went so far as to damage roads to prevent protesters from entering the city. Photos and videos of the attacks went viral and elicited worldwide sympathy for the farmers.

Despite the international scrutiny, the Modi government has yet to address the farmers’ demands. As a result, frustrated protesters have resorted to taking down telecommunication masts or cutting off their power supplies.

A system with no guarantees

Woman farmer in rice paddy field India. Photo credit: Nandhu Kumar

The three laws passed by India’s government last September collectively sought to remove taxes and other government-imposed financial burdens on farmers in order to encourage private investment with big corporations. It also claimed to provide a legal framework that protects farmers who enter into working contracts with private business.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that, in doing so, the new laws gave farmers more autonomy to set their own prices and sell directly to supermarket chains and other private businesses. “Reforms will help draw investment in agriculture and benefit farmers,” said PM Modi at the annual meeting of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in New Delhi.

PM Modi also emphasized at the conference that incorporating the private sector carries out “The aim of all the government reforms is to make farmers’ prosperous.”

However, farmers were not satisfied. In fact, they distrust the government now more than ever.  Because the new set of laws fail to mention India’s minimum price guarantee, it removes the  safety net for farmers who sell specific crops like wheat or rice.

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The minimum price guarantee allows crops to be bought from farmers by the government at a set price that is not cannot be changed under any circumstances. Consequently, it protects farmers if crop prices were to fall drastically.

The pricing system was first established in 1966 in order to avert food shortages. First, it was introduced for wheat then eventually expanded to include other crops. In the food system, the government bought crops from farmers then sold it to the poor under a public distribution system.

Though the government declares the minimum set price twice annually and has verbally reassured farmers that it will continue to exist, farmers say that is not enough. They want written affirmation so that private corporations do not take advantage of the foreseeable loophole. Moreover, there is no law making the minimum set price mandatory. So even if the government buys agriculture at the set price, it is not obligated to do so. What is more, private lenders are also not legally obligated to abide by the price, which still leaves farmers susceptible to exploitation.

Flawed operations

Farmer in Goa walks with the day’s harvest of fruit. Photo credit: Jess Aston on Unsplash

In addition, the system hasn’t really worked in farmers’ favor for quite some time. In fact, just six percent of farmers in India succeed in selling their crops at the minimum set price. In the 1960s, India established its Agricultural Produce Market Committee — a marketing board established by state governments to ensure farmers are shielded from exploitation by large retailers and that retail prices do not reach exceedingly high levels.

The system worked until about 1991. Afterwards, market facilities began to shrink. By 2006, they were less than one-fourth the growth in crop output. In other words, market facilities could not keep up with production and regulations set by the committee.

Due to poor market infrastructures, farmers had to look elsewhere. It resulted in a system of transactions that robbed farmers of the opportunity to decide where and to whom to sell and allowed middlemen to take advantage of them. Essentially, what started off as a service to farmers became a means of revenue generation.

It is important to note that agriculture is still the largest source of livelihood for most Indians. The industry employs more than half the country’s work source. Now, because of the pandemic and a recent locust invasion, most of these farmers are dealing with crippling debts.

Sara Elroubi is based out of Queens and covers current affairs and social justice issues.

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