You’ve probably not heard, but the protests going on in India right now constitute history in the making. In fact, with over 5 million marching to Delhi, and another 250 million taking part in strikes, this is the largest organised strike in the history of the world. But why are the Indian farmers protesting, and what can you do? Read on to find out.
In the past week, farmers have marched from the states of Punjab and Haryana to Delhi, blocking almost all entry points to the capital in protest. Indian farmers are protesting against agricultural bills that are against their interests, despite the government claiming that the reforms will not hurt farmers. Police and paramilitary troops were deployed, in some places using tear gas shells and water cannons, against farmers who were arriving in tractors and on foot. These farmers have set up camps at several locations on the city’s border, and are planning to stay for as long as it takes for the authorities to repeal the law.
In June this year, the government introduced three ordinances: the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance. The introduction of these ordinances effectively brings in private players to—thereby disrupting—India’s agriculture sector.
In the words of one activist on the ground, Gauravdeep Singh, “the farmers fear that once the private grain markets are established, the traditional grain markets will become history. The farmers will have to depend on corporations and private firms. This privatisation also means that once the state mandis (markets) and government are not bound to buy the crops, the private players will eventually be able to regulate the prices on their own terms”.
Most crucially, the farmers fear losing the MSP (Minimum Support Price) guarantee that they get now. But more broadly, these ordinances allow big players and companies to “capture the farming which will [in turn] harm the small and marginal farmers”. These small and marginal farmers own less than 5 and 2.5 acres of land respectively. But these plots add up. According to Singh, in Punjab, and probably for North India, over 50% of farmers hold land of fewer than 5 acres.
— Asim Riaz (@imrealasim) December 8, 2020
On the first ordinance, he explains that what used to happen was that state markets would buy produce from farmers to sell to buyers. With the new ordinance, any corporation can purchase directly from the farmers. This, he says, appears to be a good idea when you read it. But in reality? Farmers fear that corporates will end up setting prices on their own terms when the state markets eventually become redundant because the corporates have taken over the buying. There’s even more reason to be fearful because the MSP clause is absent, and because similar things have happened before in other industries.
On the second ordinance, the concern is that allowing the corporates to engage in contracts with the farmers puts farmers at the mercy of corporates. If there is a flood situation, Singh explains, and the farmers cannot produce top quality products, the corporates may not pay the farmers. This means that with this ordinance, farmers have less security on payments. (For additional context: with the MSP guarantee, farmers owning five-acre plots only earn 50,000 Rupees after half a year. That’s not even US$1,000. And now they won’t even have security on less than that amount?)
With the final ordinance, Singh explains that corporates are given the liberty to store as much as they want in their warehouses. Previously, in India, there was a law that prohibited buyers from storing for more than what is required, because these are essential items. Now, with this ordinance, corporates could sell the produce on their own terms during shortages, causing inflation.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Here’s the major issue, according to Singh. “When the government is not bound to purchase, then crops will be sold to private players and meet the same fate as maize, moong, basmati, cotton sunflower crops. This will push farmers under more debt and they will be forced to sell their small land to clear the debts and gradually their lands will be purchased by their borrowers and they will further sell it to big business houses, who always have [their] eye[s] on farmlands.
These are not just assumptions, the farmers have faced similar things in the past too. Imagine an already under debt poor farmer dealing with private firms who can exploit anyone on their own terms. If they do so, do you think that farmer will stand a chance in any legal battle against private players?”
Gurnam Singh Charuni, one of the main leaders of the protests, put it this way. “We don’t trust big business. Free markets work in countries with less corruption and more regulation. It can’t work for us here.” The government has said that the state mandi system will continue, but the farmers remain suspicious.
Singh highlights that Punjabi farmers have reason to be suspicious. Indeed, these ordinances are only the tipping point. Punjab particularly has faced many crises. A water crisis that goes back at least four decades is one. Loan sharks and corporate acquisitions is another. Singh says that the central government has betrayed Punjab again and again.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE, AND WHAT YOU CAN DO
This may sound like a far-away issue. But here’s the thing: as this tweet highlights… many of the products we use are from India. 70% of the world’s spices come from India. India is also the 3rd largest producer of pharmaceuticals in the world. And the largest producer of cotton in the world. Not to mention common household products like basmati rice, wheat, barley, lentils, cashews, black tea, coffee, onions, peppers, vegetables, kidney beans, chickpeas, curry, naan, etc. And without Punjab, India would have no agriculture.
And there are lessons to take away from the protests in India too. Not only are they very much led by elders and women, but they are also non-violent. Protestors on the ground are, as Singh reiterates, non-violent. It’s not just passion, power and anger, he says. It’s about intellect, and about being calm.
So what can you do? Singh reports that on the frontline, farmers are prepared for at least half a year. With gas cylinders, pots and pans, food, water tanks, blankets, clothes… everything. Many organisations are supporting the farmers, and they are being served well. What’s important, then, aren’t donations. People in India, he says, need to come forward on the streets. People outside the country need to help build international pressure, using social media. “Your voices are being heard by the international media,” he says. “So when all those people are listening to your voices, it’s very important for you to speak up. It’s all about speaking up right now.”
And to speak up, you’ve got to know your stuff. Follow frontline activists like Gauravdeep Singh, and online activists like Aditi Mayer. Share their posts, and read more, especially about agricultural issues, which deeply intersect with sustainability. (PS: on that note, check out Dr. Vandana Shiva’s—she’s a brilliant, well-respected environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate from India—work, and this interview with her via Atmos. We promise you won’t regret it.)
Help us keep our content free
It seems like you enjoyed our content and are on your way to better understanding how to be more conscious. As you’ll know, we’re on a mission to make sustainability accessible, mainstream and sexy. And we would not be able to do it with you. We would love you to support us even further in our GITNB movement by helping us create even more content to keep inspiring you and the rest of the world. Aside from being able to enjoy even better reads, you’ll also receive a GITNB t-shirt consciously made from upcycled fabrics in partnership with a Cambodian social enterprise supporting women. For a small donation you will make a huge difference.SUPPORT US HERE