Thousands of Indian Farmers Crowd the Capital to Protest New Agricultural Laws

Farmers crowd tractor while listening to fellow protesters speak. (Theguardian.com)

In New Delhi, India, thousands of agricultural workers are taking to the streets to protest recent agrarian reforms. Some of them are journeying—by car and on foot—from nearby states like Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Holding signs that say, “Hands Off Our Farms,” “No Farmers? No Food,” and “We Are Farmers, Not Terrorists,” they are blocking off streets in 24-hour strikes. 

India’s parliament passed three agricultural reform bills in September 2020. The first act, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, enabled electronic trading and fee-free trade in areas like factories and silos. Previously, trade could only occur in specific areas called market gardens. The second act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, dealt with contracts and dispute resolution. The third act, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, concerned commodities like foodstuff, drugs, and fuel. It allowed the Indian government to regulate supplies in cases of war, famine, natural disasters, or price hikes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the passage of the acts a “watershed moment.” Government officials claimed the acts would give farmers more autonomy. Government justifications were two-fold: officials maintained the bills would open up trade and allow farmers to sell directly to private businesses—potentially via contracts at high agreed-upon prices.

While reactions to the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill were largely positive, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill were met with strong opposition from India’s populace. Critics claimed the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill could prevent farmers from challenging large corporate entities in the courtroom. Officials from the Indian National Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party, the third largest party, are among the most outspoken of the bills’ dissenters.

The Bill tasked an Appellate Authority, or appointed government officers, with dispute resolution in a three-step process. Many protesters have expressed concern that the bills will leave agricultural workers vulnerable to corporate exploitation in court cases. They fear government officials are increasingly looking to side with company owners against agricultural workers.

Agricultural workers form a significant portion of the Indian populace and national interest. India’s most recent census, performed in 2011, indicated that agricultural workers comprised more than one-half of India’s then 480-million total workforce. Now, estimates indicate that close to two-thirds of India’s population—1.3 billion people—are economically dependent on farming.

Agricultural workers have wanted farmer-friendly reforms for years. In 2017, the Standing Committee on Agriculture suggested a number of reforms, including a couple regulating agricultural produce market committees. Reports were positively received, but a year later, the Committee noted that many reforms had not been implemented. 

Many agricultural workers expected government policies to address Minimum Support Prices (MSPs), or market interventions meant to protect people from sharp price drops. MSPs were notably absent in the reform bills, exasperating protesters’ displeasure.

Perhaps the fact that India’s agricultural workers have sought change for so long only to see reform bills fall so short of expectations has fueled their willingness to protest. Indeed, protests probably would have occurred even earlier in the absence of lockdowns in reaction to Covid-19. Now, protests show no signs of stopping, while New Delhi remains a hotspot for the pandemic, potentially causing an increase in the test positivity rate.  India has close to 10,000 Covid-19 cases as of this moment—the second-highest global total, second only to the U.S.

Government officials have tried to meet with farmers and farmers’ unions behind the scenes—probably hoping to lower Covid-19 infection rates and quell further unrest. Hours of talks later, however, protests continue. Police officers have tried to block off urban areas, but protestors have camped out in rural areas and around the city’s outskirts.

Police officials have reportedly fired tear gas and water cannons at crowds. However, protestors have reportedly pelted officers with stones and committed acts of property destruction.

Many farmers have said they will not stop protesting until guaranteed MSPs and the ability to take companies to court. Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar led a seven-hour negotiation. But while he promised “MSP will continue,” no MSP-inclusive reform amendment has been approved yet.