During the last four months, Anjana Balsane has travelled more than 1,900 miles. She has attended protests with as many as 100,000 other farmers, who often chant “Kaale krisi kanun wapas lo,” or “Take back the black farm laws.”
“How could I follow social distancing when the new farm laws will kill us anyway?” asks Anjana, sixty-five, in a frail voice.
Since September 2020, when the far-right government in India led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi hastily passed three farm laws without due consultation, tens of thousands of farmers across India have taken to the streets.
These laws give unprecedented power to corporations by deregulating trade and undermining the existing state support systems that serve farmers. The three laws are: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act.
In India, farmers sell their produce to registered buyers through auctions or at mandis (market yards). The first law enables farmers to directly sell their produce to private traders. With no taxes and no mandate on reporting these transactions, farmers fear this will deregulate trade throughout the country.
At the official, state-monitored markets, farmers are paid a Minimum Support Price, or MSP, set by the government for twenty-three commodities. The new bills make no mention of the MSP, stirring farmers’ fears that they will lose this bare minimum support once these markets are dismantled.
Anjana told me about her recent experience of selling soybeans to a private trader in her village in the Nashik district of Western India’s Maharashtra state. She says she was paid $41 for 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds) of soybeans, down from $53 in 2020.
“For every 100 kilograms of soybeans we sell, we have to give seven kilograms to the trader as a commission,” Anjana says. With this deceitful practice, she lost more than 40 kilograms of her product as a commission—an amount that would have otherwise accounted for an additional $20 in her pocket.
“If there’s no MSP, what will the poor farmers like us do?” asks Anjana, who has been tilling two acres of land for more than twenty-five years.
For the past eighty days, around 300,000 farmers have protested at the borders of New Delhi, India’s capital. In late January, after several thousand farmers stormed Delhi’s Red Fort, a Mughal-era monument that’s become a symbol of the Indian state, the government began cracking down on the protesters, deploying barricades, trenches, barbed wire, batons, water-cannons, and Internet shutdowns.
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The protests at Red Fort quickly became international news. On February 2, the pop singer Rihanna tweeted, “Why aren’t we talking about this?” Several other activists, entertainers, and international celebrities such as Greta Thunberg, Mia Khalifa, Ilhan Omar, Meena Harris, Vanessa Nakate, and John Cusack soon began expressing solidarity for the protesting farmers. On February 16, The New York Times even published a full-page advertisement signed by more than seventy global human rights organizations supporting the farmers’ protests.
In response, Modi’s government called this international solidarity a “global conspiracy to tarnish India’s image.”
Pro-government media channels have accused protesters of being mainly elite landholders. But in reality, more than 40 percent of India’s population works in agriculture, and a majority of these workers are small and marginal farmers.
According to an official report, the average monthly income of a farm household in India during 2012-13 was $88. But with an average household size of 5.1, the per-capita income comes down to a mere $17. Moreover, over 86 percent of farmers in India own less than two hectares of land.
Sandeep Gadag, age forty, lives in a remote village in Maharashtra’s Palghar district, where he practices organic farming and masonry on an acre. On January 25, I met him at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan sports grounds, where more than 20,000 farmers from twenty districts in Maharashtra had gathered for a three-day sit-in solidarity protest on January 24.
“They say they won’t take away the land,” he tells me, highlighting how one of the new laws will encourage contract farming without mandating written contracts. “But with contract farming, you [corporation owners] will ask us to use costly chemical fertilizers. After five years, if we want to abandon the contract, then we won’t be able to farm traditionally because the land has already been polluted with chemicals.”
Gadag thinks local farming practices will inevitably change as corporations, on the whole, prefer signing contracts for cash crops. “With smaller landholdings, what they [corporations] will do is contract the land in bulk and slowly take away everyone’s land.”
Vijay Jawandhiya, an activist and farmer based in Maharashtra, says, “If the corporate owners reject the harvest, then there’s no mention they can’t recover the cost of the seeds, fertilizers from farmers.”
Farmers fear that this recovery could come at the cost of selling their land. In 2019, 10,281 Indians dependent on farming died by suicide.
Farmers fear that this recovery could come at the cost of selling their land. In 2019, 10,281 Indians dependent on farming died by suicide. These numbers highlight the severity of the nation’s agrarian crisis.
The third new law amends the Essential Commodities Act of 1955, which was implemented to prevent the hoarding of essential commodities, including cereals, pulses, potatoes, onions, and oils. It would make it easier for agribusiness to stockpile these items by removing the procuring limits, except in rare circumstances like war, famine, extraordinary price rise, and natural disasters. “This will give corporate owners the power to hoard the essential items, after which they will increase the price,” says Anjana.
The public procurement of grains, which are then sold at a subsidised price to the poor, became a standard practice in several developing countries after they gained independence from colonial rule. In India, the government stockpiles grains from farmers through its procurement agency, the Food Corporation of India. As of July 8, 2020, the agency had a massive stock of 81 million metric tons of wheat and rice.
In recent decades, economically developed countries and international agencies such as the World Trade Organization have pressed developing countries to cut back their procurement policies. In 1995, India signed the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Agriculture and committed to reducing some of its farm subsidies to as much as 10 percent of the value of production. In 2018, however, the United States warned India that its subsidies were still too high, and that reforms were needed for the country to comply with the demands of global capitalism.
But, today, India’s protesting farmers are wary of unfettered free markets and the government’s promises of “doubling farmers’ income by 2022.” As Jawandhiya says, “With these laws, Narendra Modi is not freeing the farmers. He wants to free himself from the promises he made.”