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Why Indian Farmers Have Hit the Streets in Protest Amidst a Global Pandemic

In September of 2020, the Parliament of India passed a set of three farm bills outlining the new changes to the national framework of agriculture and farming. These new bills were signed into law by the Lok Sabha (the House of the People), the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), and Ram Nath Kovind, the President of India. Less than a month following the assent of the bills, and despite the current health crisis, headstrong farmers from across the country began protesting on the highways of Delhi and demanding repeal of the new changes – why this unrest?

To understand the motives of the farmers, we must first understand the previous framework for farmers before the introduction of the 2020 bills. For decades, the government has supported farmers through Minimum Support Pricing (MSP), accompanied by the ‘mandi’ system of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC). MSP is set on several crops by the central government, and these minimum prices guarantee insurance for farmers when they sell their crops. These crops are then procured from the farmers by government agencies at these promised MSP prices which cannot be altered. The concept of MSP safeguards the revenues of farmers across India and protects them from situations where crop prices fall drastically. The mandi system, essentially, is a system of agriculture markets established by states – called ‘mandis’ – which is the only place where agricultural commodities can be auctioned and sold. As we can see, the pre-farm bill system protected farmers to a certain extent, and given that 60% of the Indian population works in agriculture, the new proposed bills caused unease amongst the large farmer population, leading to the ongoing protests swarming India. 

The new farm bills are composed of three individual provisions. These include the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and lastly the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. In short, they expand the scope of trade areas, allow farmers to sell to anyone at any price, and end the imposition of stock-holding limits. Prime Minister Narendra Modi states that this gives farmers more freedom to sell directly to buyers without a middle man, and sell to other states or large grocery chains. Supporters of the bills also say that farmers will get better prices through competition and cost-cutting on transportation, and allows farmers to enter agreements with agri-businesses or large retailers on predetermined prices. The root of the protests lies in the fear amongst farmers that this will dismantle the current MSP and mandi systems in place and work against small farmers. In the long-term, large firms may have the upper-hand and be able to dictate terms and drive down prices. 

Although the government persistently affirms that these new laws will accelerate industry growth, attract private investment, and increase farmer incomes due to market competition, the thousands of farmers protesting on the streets of India readily disagree, and are fighting for legal assurance of protection against large corporate firms. The key demand of the farmers, who are setting up blockades around New Delhi and going on hunger strike, is the withdrawal of these three laws which deregulate the sale of their crops. The response of the government so far has been to suspend the imposition for up to 18 months, in hopes that the farmers may “come to the negotiating table with confidence and good faith”.

Despite what is being discussed within the government behind the scenes, the powerful cohorts of farmers from the states of Punjab, Haryana and more will continue to persevere with their “Delhi Chalo” demonstrations, and won’t cease until repeal. 

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