Image: Nandhu Kumar (Unsplash)

The passing of agricultural reforms in India this September has led to a rise of protests among local farmers especially in the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Haryana. The conflict has exacerbated the already tenuous farmer suicide crisis in the country since the 1990s. Protestors have shown up in the millions, what is being called “the largest labour strike in human history”, to fight against the agricultural bills that will allegedly cut off local farmers from government support and lend them to exploitation by private corporations. 

In 1991, India implemented neoliberal agricultural reforms that relied on liberalising, globalising, and privatising the industry with the intention to raise a significant number of people out of poverty. The recent agricultural reforms can be seen as an extension of the 1991 reforms to boost free-market ideology within the agricultural sector and reduce remaining government support for the industry. 

In the late 1960s, India implemented the ‘mandi’ system which established the minimum support price (MSP) to safeguard farmers and ensure a minimum profit for the farmer’s produce. Mandis are regulated by the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) which provides the physical marketplace in which farmers can sell their produce. The mandi system depends on government support and has a more socialist approach to agricultural regulation. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the first of the three controversial agricultural reforms, seeks to allow farmers to bypass the APMC and mandi system so that the sale of agricultural produce is open to the free market. According to neoliberal theory, the sale of goods on the free and open market and minimal government regulation should encourage competition and drive profits. The states of Punjab and Haryana disagree with this law because it will significantly reduce the inflow of tax their state governments receive from the mandis. Farmers are against this reform because their guarantee of MSP falls away, thereby increasing their economic instability. If the MSP, which is currently not enshrined in law, completely fell away, local farmers are inherently subjected to sell their produce at low prices to large agricultural corporations. Milind Sathye, a business and law professor at the University of Canberra, argues that the fact that farmers in other states such as Rajasthan and Maharasthra are not protesting the reforms highlights the political power dimension. Since mandis are government regulated, there is a political incentive to earn tax on agricultural products, once the mandi system falls away, the middlemen operating the mandis will lose their commission of 2-2.5%.  

The second and third reforms are the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. The second Act outlines a safeguarding framework by which farmers can enter contractual agreements with buyers such as agribusiness corporations and wholesalers to promote ‘fairness and transparency’. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are protesting this reform because the deregulation will facilitate their exploitation by big firms seeking to make large profits without concern for farmer livelihoods. The third Act limits the number of agricultural products that are considered ‘essential’, thereby removing cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions and potatoes from the list of essential goods. The deregulation of these staple food items could lead to hoarding, an increase in prices, and an increase in rural poverty.

The agricultural sector in India is the main source of income for almost half the citizenry. Almost three-quarters of all rural households in India are dependent on the industry to sustain their livelihoods. According to a 2016 research paper, more than 16 000 Indian farmers commit suicide due to the pressure of harsh socio-economic conditions rather than assumed mental health illness. In a 2019 report by the National Crime Record Bureau, 7.4% of all people who died from suicide in India were employed in the farm sector and were usually motivated by inescapable debt. Protestors have blocked off major intersections and set off large fires to fields to gain government attention. They have been met with resistance from the Indian police including the use of water cannons and batons. Images of victims of police brutality, specifically that of an elderly Sikh man with a bandaged eye, have been circulating across social media garnering mass support for Indian farmers. 

Despite the ongoing protests, some experts uphold the belief that the new farming laws could help India become a food-exporting ‘powerhouse’, and by extension increase their regional and international powers in agricultural production and global supply chains. These assumptions do not address the millions of Indians who continue to suffer from malnutrition and experience food shortages. According to the 2018 Global Nutrition Report, approximately 46.6 million children in India are malnourished. 

It seems as though the projected success of these reforms are measured by the financial gain of massive companies and political recognition, instead of the quality of life of individual farmers and their families, especially considering the fatal economic effects of COVID-19 on the middle to lower-class citizens. There are ongoing negotiations between farmer unions and the Indian government. Will Prime Minister Modi continue to sow seeds of sorrow for Indian farmers or repeal the reforms?

Nirvana Govender is a postgraduate student at the University of Pretoria completing her Honors degree in International Relations. She is a tutor in the Political Sciences Department. She is also the co-creator of the grassroots community organisation, Get Involved. Please follow her page (@getinvolved_gbv) on Instagram to help support her organisation.

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