On January 26, even as India celebrates its 72nd Republic Day with a grand parade in New Delhi, showcasing its military might and plural culture, tens of thousands of farmers will simultaneously be participating in a 50 kilometer-long tractor rally in the Indian capital to press for the repeal of agricultural laws enacted by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Tens of thousands of farmers have been camping outside New Delhi for two months now, braving winter and rain to protest the laws. Police have put up barriers and dug up roads to prevent them from blocking access roads to the capital. But such efforts have failed to halt the mass mobilization. Police have used water cannons and tear gas on the protesting farmers, but they have refused to back down.
Nine rounds of talks between the government and farmers leaders have taken place so far. They have made little headway in defusing the crisis.
Last week, the Supreme Court ordered an indefinite stay on the implementation of the farm laws. It appointed a four-member committee to end the impasse. But the farmers groups have said they will not appear before the panel as its members are allegedly biased: all of them have publicly supported the farm laws in the past.
The court initiative therefore appears to be a non-starter.
In the crosshairs of the protesting farmers are three farm laws: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, all of which were recently enacted by the Modi government.
The new laws permit, for the first time, trade in agricultural produce outside the government-regulated mandi (market) system. It allow farmers to sell their produce outside the government mandis to any licensed trader at mutually agreed prices. It also allows farmers to stockpile grain for future sales and lays down rules for contract farming.
The government has presented these laws as reforms that will open up the agricultural sector to greater private investment, new technology, and larger markets. Farmers will be able “to sell their crops in mandis as well as to outside parties,” Modi has said.
According to the Indian prime minister, with private investment pouring into the agriculture sector, storage and warehousing facilities will improve. The legislation will also open up new opportunities for farmers and make them more prosperous, he said, claiming that it would be small and marginal farmers who would draw “maximum benefit” from the new laws.
Economists are not convinced.
“With capital investments flowing in without any regulation and in the absence of any rights-based safety net enshrined for farmers,” the new laws will provide “a free run for large companies,” says Devinder Sharma, an agricultural economist and food policy analyst.
Farmers fear that under the new laws they will have to do business with powerful corporations rather than the small private traders they have dealt with so far. They are apprehensive that their capacity to negotiate prices on equal terms will be diminished, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by the big corporations.
The fate of the minimum support price (MSP) is the key question in the contentious debate. Hitherto, the government would announce MSPs for many crops. It would purchase some of them in large quantities from the mandis at the MSP. The MSP system assured farmers a minimum income.
Agriculture Minister Narender Tomar has repeatedly said that the mandis will continue to function and the MSP will continue.
Farmers are unconvinced. They believe that in the new system government agencies will buy less from them in the mandis, rendering the MSP guarantee irrelevant.
Past experience shows that removal of the MSP system devastates farmers.
In 2006, laws similar to the ones enacted by the Modi government were put in place in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The market was opened up in agriculture but it failed to draw private investment. The government mandi system collapsed. With the markets not offering higher prices for their produce, farmers were impoverished. Millions were forced out of agriculture and became migrant laborers.
The much anticipated prosperity of Bihar’s farmers as a result of its market-driven reforms in agriculture has not materialized as yet.
India is a country of farmers; agriculture employed 59 percent of the country’s workforce in 2016. Although the contribution of agriculture to India’s GDP has declined over the decades, its importance as a sustainer of lives and livelihoods remains strong. Around 70 percent of rural households depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood.
The impact of the farm laws will therefore be immense.
Importantly, 82 percent of those engaged in farming are small and marginal farmers. Critics fear that under the new laws they will be at the mercy of corporations – and thus the new laws will ruin them.
As contentious as the content of the new laws is the manner in which the Modi government went about enacting them. In June of last year, the government promulgated the proposed legislation as ordinances under the pretext of the pandemic-prompted lockdown of parliament.
It was introduced in parliament in mid-September and was signed into law a fortnight later.
Although the laws have far-reaching implications for the lives and livelihoods of millions of Indian farmers, the government rushed the bills through parliament without discussion or appraisal. Farmers groups were not consulted.
The timing of the enactment of the laws is significant. The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging across the country. It is likely that the Modi government was hoping that by enacting the controversial laws when people were preoccupied with the pandemic and the economic problems the lockdowns generated, it would not have to deal with mass protests.
Clearly, the government miscalculated.
Not only have mass protests raged for months; the protesting farmers are also camping at the gates of Delhi. The protests erupted in Punjab, but they have spread to other states as well.
The government’s strategy so far has been to divide and discredit the protestors. It has labelled the farmers as anti-nationals, secessionists, Maoists, and terrorists. The government has accused them of obstinacy. It has tried to tire them out by engaging them in talks that are leading nowhere.
The farmers have repeatedly asserted that only a repeal of all three laws is acceptable to them. They seem to be prepared for the long haul, to protest for as long as it takes to get the government to rethink the farm laws.
The problem is that Modi is not one to rethink or revise his moves, as such a course of action for him would be a defeat, a loss of face.
The only way out of the impasse is for the government to allay the anxieties of the farmers on the MSP. Sharma suggest bringing in a fourth law making MSP “a legal right for farmers, ensuring that no trading happens below it.”
The Modi government would need to reach out meaningfully to the protestors, to listen to them and engage with them. But it has little experience in this regard. Its standard response to those who disagree with its views or criticize its decisions and actions has been to diminish and malign them. Its approach to protests has been to crush them through use of force.
That does not bode well for the protesting farmers or their demands.
The Modi government has said that the farmers’ proposed tractor march in New Delhi will “disrupt” Republic Day celebrations in the capital. It has projected the march as an attempt to “malign the nation globally.”
It is beefing up its police presence to prevent the farmers’ tractor march from entering New Delhi on Republic Day.
The possibility of a violent showdown cannot be ruled out.