Hundreds of thousands of India’s farmers have been camping on the roads leading to New Delhi in an unprecedented protest that has lasted more than two months but has not been given its proportional share of attention, either from the media or the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for its merit and legitimacy. The farmers have demanded that the federal government withdraw three new agricultural laws that were passed in a tearing hurry in Parliament last September, which the farmers insist will ruin them while crony businessmen make gains.
“We are not going to go back until they repeal these laws. For us, it is a life-and-death situation,” says 62-year-old Harpal Singh at Singhu, which has become the epicenter of farmer protests and borders Delhi and the neighboring state of Haryana. He seems unfazed by the bitter cold of this region’s typically harsh winter, whose thunderstorms and rain have contributed to the hardship and subsequent deaths of over 140 protesters, according to the farmers’ estimation. National broadcast media outlets have been on overdrive to paint protesting farmers like Singh as “anti-national” and “secessionists,” while the prime minister has not addressed the farmers even once since November 26, when they began arriving at Delhi’s borders from villages across the northern and northwestern states.
Singh says that, as with all such crowded events, the most difficult part is to get access to toilet facilities. The rest is fine, he adds stoically, confirming that the communal kitchen at Singhu works from early morning until late night, using water from a tube well the protesters have dug. They sleep in makeshift tents with blankets and heaters donated by supporters. He had come three weeks ago to this venue, which is one of the three main sites of the ongoing strike and is playing host to an uncountable number of men, women, and children of all ages, from infants to octogenarians. The other protest sites are Tikri and Ghazipur. “The new laws are not good news for farmers, mainly for those like me, who own just a few acres of land,” he explains. This is why the protesters are not returning to their villages even after the government agreed to put the laws on hold for the next one and half years during their talks with farmer leaders.
Although the country’s agricultural trade system has many problems, the new legislation is considered counterproductive by many noted economists, including the likes of Jean Drèze and Kaushik Basu. The new laws, for the first time in India, allow for wholesale purchase of farm produce outside the state-owned regulated markets in states where those markets (organized under the Agriculture Produce Market Committee, or APMC) are the mainstay for farmers. Drèze, a Belgium-born naturalized Indian citizen who has collaborated with the likes of Amartya Sen, Nicholas Stern, and Angus Deaton, says the new policy effected in the name of reforms will push farmers from “the frying pan to the fire.” Basu, a Cornell professor and former chief economic adviser of India as well as former chief economist for the World Bank, is worried that in its new bouquet of laws, the government hasn’t put in place any risk-mitigation provisions to protect small farmers, but only those to help “friendly” capitalists.
The new markets or “trade areas” that are proposed will fall under the control of the federal government. Buyers at these unregulated markets will not need licenses, and will also be exempt from paying any taxes or fees. The traditional APMCs are run by state governments through licenses, and buyers have to pay taxes and fees to purchase agricultural produce.
Farmers fear that, given such a choice, fewer traders will buy produce from APMCs, which will die a natural death as more and more buyers choose the tax-free new markets run by corporations. Once that happens, farmers aver, they won’t get the minimum support price (a form of market intervention by the government in case there is a sharp fall in prices of select agricultural produce) that APMCs offer, and corporations will fix and manipulate prices. This will result in distress sales, leaving farmers at the mercy of corporations, they contend. Worse, they are also worried about a provision in the new laws that prevents farmers from approaching the courts to seek redress of their grievances against corporations or even state and federal governments.