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Why Indian farmers are angry over agricultural reforms

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
October 2, 2020

Thousands of farmers have taken to the streets to protest against new agriculture laws that the government says will boost growth. Critics say the reforms could lead to the exploitation of farmers by big corporations.

Activists belonging to various farmers rights organisations burn the effigy of Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yediyurappa during an anti-government demonstration to protest against the recent passing of new farm bills in parliament, in Bangalore on September 28, 2020
Image: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, India's parliament passed three controversial agriculture bills, sparking farmers' protests across the country.

The three bills – the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Service Bill 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020 – became laws after they were signed by President Ram Nath Kovind.

The government says the new laws will liberalize farm trade, give freedom to farmers to sell their produce outside regulated markets and enter into contracts with buyers at a pre-agreed price.

"The country has freed its farmers from many restrictions. Now, the farmer can sell his produce to anyone, anywhere," PM Narendra Modi told a videoconference on Wednesday.

Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said last month the legislation would reform India's deeply stressed agriculture sector and will give farmers the freedom to market their produce. The government hopes that its new policy will double farmers' income by 2022.

Opposition parties, however, dubbed these laws "anti-farmer." Shiromani Akali Dal, which was an ally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), decided to quit the government alliance over the issue.

Critics say the reforms could lead to the exploitation of farmers by big corporations.

Read more: Farmers' protests spotlight worsening agrarian crisis in India

Large-scale protests

Despite PM Modi's assurance that agriculture reforms are beneficial for the farmers, protests have erupted in different parts of the country.

In the past few days, farmers' protests have turned violent in some parts of the country. The northern state of Punjab has become an epicenter of farmers' agitation. Last week, a province-wide call for strike halted all public services, with protesters blocking roads and highways.

Farmers' associations say the legislation does not guarantee acquisition of farm produce at the minimum support price (MSP), thus leaving them at the mercy of corporations that are now expected to enter the country's troubled farming sector.

"The government does not know who it is dealing with. This is my land and I will not allow anyone to meddle with it," Rakesh Kumar Bains, a farmer in Haryana state, told DW.

Darshan Pal Singh of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee is of the view that the new legislation promotes contract farming and gives them no protection. "We don't know what will happen to farmers who cultivate crops on small lands and sell their produce in the local market," told DW.

Read more: Angry, distressed farmers march to India's parliament

Indian farmers take to streets

Modernizing the farming sector

Indian farmers have held huge rallies across the country in the past few years to protest against the government's "neglect" of the agriculture sector amid increasing privatization. Agriculture experts say that millions of India's small-scale farmers have lost their incomes due to falling prices of their crops and rising transportation and storage costs.

More than half of India's farmers are reportedly in debt, with 20,638 committing suicide in 2018 and 2019, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau.

After Modi came to power in 2014, he promised to double farmers' income by 2022, however, the situation hasn't improved. The government is under pressure to bring private investments to the agriculture sector that has stagnated over the past decades.

Amitabh Kant, the CEO of NITI Aayog, a government institution for catalyzing economic development, wrote in an article that the reforms would usher in an era of modernization and prosperity for Indian farmers.

But Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab state, thinks that these reforms are crafted to benefit the capitalist allies of the BJP at the cost of poor farmers. "We won't let it happen," he told a protest rally recently.

Two-thirds of India's 1.3 billion-strong population depend on farming for their livelihood, however the agriculture sector makes up only around 17% of the nation's total economic output, amounting to about $2.3 trillion (€1.96 trillion).

Read more: Farmer hangs himself from tree at New Delhi rally