On November 26th, 250 million people across India participated in a nationwide strike in solidarity with the farmers of Punjab and Haryana, making it the largest organized protest in history. This strike was organized as thousands of farmers began to march on the capital of New Delhi to demand that the government abandon the implementation of three new agricultural laws. The peaceful protests have been met with extreme police brutality; tear gas and water cannons have been used against protestors, and whatsmore, the majority of the farmers protesting are elderly and are simply concerned with their own livelihoods, thus the state-sponsored police violence is extremely unwarranted and cruel.
The three new agricultural reforms were adopted in September by both the upper and lower houses of India’s parliament, the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha respectively, despite mass public outcry and disapproval from those in the major agricultural districts of Punjab and Haryana. Individual farmers and agricultural organizations or unions have been protesting since these bills were introduced, mostly by peacefully blocking railways and highways. Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, the government has grown increasingly violent over the past few weeks, adopting more brutal and repressive tactics. But why are farmers and other Indian nationals protesting these new reforms and what are the larger issues at play here?
The agricultural sector in India
Roughly 60% of the total Indian population of 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and inhabitants of the Punjab and Haryana in particular have historically depended on farming. These two states, located in the northern part of the country close to Pakistan, are known for having prime agricultural conditions, as much of the land is made of low-lying flood plains and elevated uplands, allowing for extremely fertile soil. Roughly ⅖ of the population in Punjab operates in the agricultural sector and traditionally crops like wheat, rice, corn, cotton, and sugar cane have been the most prominent. Not only is farming central to the survival of many communities in this region, agriculture is also a very important cultural practice that allows people to connect with their history and maintain cross generational ties.
Seeing as such a large portion of the greater Indian population engages in agriculture, the national government has always been conscious to address the needs of farmers as a prominent voting bloc. In the 1960s, then prime minister Indira Gandhi implemented massive agricultural reforms during the period now known as the Green Revolution, which emphasized the need to industrialize the agricultural sectors throughout India, but especially in Punjab. The reforms were successful in addressing famine throughout the country by increasing overall output of grains and other goods, however there have been significant negative effects caused by this massive industrial project, which will be addressed later.
More recently, to appeal to this large farming population, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the Hindu nationalist, ultra-right wing party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), announced in 2014 that under his government all crop prices would be fixed at a minimum of 50% higher than production costs. This provision was part of a larger economic policy that has been supported by the government for years, known as the Minimum Support Price (MSP), which pledges the government to buy farmers crops at a set price to ensure that the agricultural industry is supported. Farmers are thus able to sell their goods for stable and determined prices at government-controlled wholesale markets, or mandis, and do not have to worry about market-driven prices.
What are the provisions of these new agricultural reforms?
The three new bills would ultimately undermine the farmers ability to rely on stable government-regulated prices and would leave them at the mercy of individual buyers, companies, and the free market. The first bill, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection Agreement) on Price Assurances and Farm Services Bill, supposedly “protects and empowers farmers to engage with agri-business firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters or large retailers for farm services and sale of future farming produce at a mutually agreed remunerative price framework in a fair and transparent manner.” Many farmers are worried that this new emphasis on the farmers’ economic relationship with individual buyers rather than with the government would mean the end of MSP, however the government has yet to officially confirm whether this is the case. The next new piece of legislation which is technically an amendment is The Essential Commodities Act (Amendment) which details new restrictions and practices related to the stockpiling or hoarding of goods for sale at a later date. Before, only the government and specific agricultural bodies could engage in stockpiling practices, however the amendment allows companies and traders to do so as well which could lead to price inflation and hurt independent farmers through increased competition. Lastly, The Farmers Produce, Trade, and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill is similar to the Empowerment and Protection Agreement in that it further eliminates restrictions and opens up the agricultural markets to more actors. Previously, farmers could sell their goods through Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), which are government-regulated trade areas meant to protect independent farmers from big retailers. Now however, sales can occur outside of APMCs meaning that these business interactions would be widely unregulated and farmers would be up against huge agri-companies, creating an uneven economic playing field.
The larger picture: state-sponsored discrimination
The violence against these farmers and their families is part of a bigger and more disturbing picture. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana face issues on multiple different levels: first, many are persecuted by the state because of ethno-linguistic and religious differences, as many are Sikh or Muslim. While perhaps the most visible example of religious conflict is the Hindu-Muslim divide, there is also a long and dark history of persecution against Sikh people in India. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was killed by two of her Sikh bodyguards after she ordered a direct assault on the most important religious site for Sikhs in Punjab. Her assassination sparked a wave of anti-Sikh violence and over the course of a matter of days, thousands of Sikhs were murdered, homes and business were targeted and burned down, and many Sikh women were raped. The Indian government does not formally recognize this as an instance of genocide, but instead has referred to it as a singular riot.
Discrimination against minority groups has continued and even increased under Modi and the BJP, due greatly to their extreme Hindu-nationalist values that marginalize any non-Hindu members of Indian society. The BJP is the political offshoot of the Hindu-supremacist militant group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has been active since the mid 20th century and was responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Over the past decades, RSS has perpetuated numerous acts of violence against Muslims and other minority groups, but under Modi, Hindu-nationalists have become increasingly emboldened and have had their values legitimized by the most prominent figure in Indian politics.
Impacts on health
Next, many of these farmers experience both physical and mental health issues related specifically to their line of work. As a result of the aforementioned Green Revolution, new fertilizers and pesticides were introduced with the goal of boosting production, however such pesticides have been extremely harmful in the long-run, causing cancer and other major illnesses as well as polluting water supplies and ground soils. As agricultural conditions have declined in the long-run after the Green Revolution due to damaged soil, lower productivity, and climate change, farmers in Punjab and Haryana have increasingly struggled with poverty and debt. Many farmers in Punjab, especially in the Malwa region, are landless meaning they do not have ownership over the land and instead have to rent from others. The cost of renting land has been steadily increasing over the years while crop output has been declining, thus many farmers go into debt to pay off the land leases. Struggling with debt, climate-related health and safety concerns, and the pressure of providing for their families, many farmers have turned to drug use or have committed suicide. Between 2000 and 2019, the Government of Punjab reported that 3,300 Punjabi farmers committed suicide. To make matters even worse, COVID-19 has impacted many communities in the region and is becoming an even more visible issue in light of the protests: the protestors, many of whom are elderly and thus more vulnerable, are at a greater risk of contracting the virus as they are in close proximity to each other.
At the moment, it is uncertain whether the BJP will genuinely negotiate or compromise with the farmers protesting, however even if the concerns brought up by these three new agricultural reforms are addressed, the farmers of Punjab and Haryana still face considerable obstacles. Issues such as poverty, environmental degradation, and state-sponsored discrimination against minorities will continue to affect the farmers, their families, and ultimately India as a nation. The international community must speak up about this issue and signal their solidarity with the farmers, otherwise the Indian government will continue to ignore the economic grievances of the Punjabi and Haryanvi people.