Indian farmers, many of whom have been involved in protests for more than six months against new agricultural laws passed by the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are angry. Some have called their protest the largest such mobilization in human history. That may be a stretch, but its movement certainly poses the greatest challenge to Modi, India’s most popular leader for more than three decades.
The protests, which began with sit-in strikes and road and rail blockades in Punjab and Haryana, have attracted worldwide attention because of their size. The largest march on January 26, Republic Day, involved hundreds of thousands of farmers traveling in tractor convoys to New Delhi. Despite ruthless attempts by the Indian government to crush them, the protests have only grown in size and scope. If they continue, as is likely because the government is unwilling to get involved, they could grow into an even larger and broader agitation of various groups that are being hurt by Modi’s government.
At the center of the protests is the opposition to three agricultural laws that were rammed by the legislature at the end of last year. There has been minimal consultation, although the Modi government claims the laws will free farmers from the clutches of state-run markets and give them more opportunities to sell their produce. That in turn means better prices for them.
However, farmers claim that the new laws will make a bad situation worse. They acknowledge that state-run markets have problems – including the fact that there aren’t enough of them, infrastructure is often poor, and they are exploited by middlemen – but they argue that the new laws will ensure the gradual dissolution of state operated markets and leave the farmers to the regional monopolies, which determine the prices.
The farmers are calling for the laws to be repealed completely, something Modi has been reluctant to admit, perhaps fearing it would make him look weak. Still, he agreed to abolish most of the law’s controversial clauses and offered to suspend them for 18 months. In a chaotic democracy like India, suspended laws rarely make a comeback.
Nevertheless, the protests continued. While the new agricultural laws may have triggered them, they were never just concerned with the letter of those rules. The main concern is that the government intends to dismantle a 50-year-old system of public procurement of plants. This system offers farmers a certain level of price guarantee in an otherwise uncertain and volatile agricultural market. Farmers have asked for a legal guarantee to protect this system.
The procurement system was introduced in the 1960s when the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, as well as some regions in adjacent Uttar Pradesh, experienced an agricultural revolution. The revolution that came to be known as the Green Revolution increased efficiency and production. It was not carried out on the initiative of the farmers, but by the government fiat. There have been incentives for farmers to move away from traditional crops to grow more rice and wheat, and it is farmers in the same regions who are protesting today.
Before the Green Revolution, India faced acute food shortages after independence. The regions where most of the staple foods were produced – rice and wheat – had gone to Pakistan during the partition of 1947. Meanwhile, the country’s population grew nearly 40 percent between 1941 and 1961, and agricultural productivity had not kept pace. India was therefore dependent on food aid from the United States under its public law 480 program.
But after Indian criticism of the US bombings in Vietnam, the Johnson administration cut this aid. The decline was due to two consecutive periods of drought, after which India’s agricultural output contracted by 20 percent and food inflation rose by more than 20 percent. The memories of the Bengal famine in the 1940s, in which an estimated 3 million people died, were still fresh.
India was desperate to get an adequate supply of grain. It was about high-yielding seeds – with technological support from US authorities – combined with subsidies for fertilizers, pesticides and electricity to pump groundwater for irrigation. As an incentive for farmers to produce more wheat and rice, minimum support prices (MSP) were set at which the government would buy products if private actors did not. The aim was to increase productivity quickly.
The results were spectacular. Yields in Punjab improved by more than 30 percent (aided by better monsoons). New Delhi procured huge quantities of wheat and rice from MSP and distributed the grain to the poor in India at subsidized prices. Punjab and Haryana have been called India’s breadbasket. Today, they still provide more than two-thirds of the food served to 800 million Indians as part of the government’s food security efforts.
The Green Revolution also came with enormous environmental costs. Subsidized electricity was used to pump large quantities of groundwater to grow water-intensive rice and sugar cane in regions with limited rainfall. In the northern state of Punjab, more than twice as much water is required to produce one kilogram of rice than in its more natural habitat in the eastern state of West Bengal.
The states of the Green Revolution are now facing a particularly acute water crisis. In some regions of these countries, the groundwater could run out completely in the next 20 years. The apocalyptic air pollution in and around New Delhi in early winter is partly a consequence of the Green Revolution. The overuse of fertilizers and pesticides has led to soil degradation and groundwater poisoning.
These environmental problems are already severe and will get worse with climate change. Meanwhile, it is the farmers themselves who are suffering the worst of the consequences. Punjab and Haryana have one of the highest groundwater arsenic poisoning in India – the likely cause of a high cancer prevalence rate. The states of the Green Revolution also bear the highest exposure to premature deaths from air pollution.
The farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh have known for some time that turning away from the crops of the Green Revolution is inevitable and in their own long-term interests. Several government committees arguing that the cost of the MSP subsidy is unsustainable have also recommended crop diversification. Modi himself emphasized the need to deviate from water-intensive plants in these regions.
However, farmers believe that the new laws provide the government with the perfect cover to expedite this transition and pass its costs on to them. Many believe that under the new rules, private markets will emerge outside of state-run markets. Once that happens, the government will take a back seat and move away from sourcing rice and wheat under the MSP system. As the production of both exceeds demand and is left to the market, prices will plummet. For this reason, they also strive for a legal guarantee for MSP.
Of course, the new laws do not contain any provision that specifically changes the public procurement system. Modi and his ministers have repeatedly reassured farmers that the MSP regime will continue. But these promises did not convince the farmers. A number of broken and unfulfilled promises, including doubling farmers’ incomes, mark Modi’s tenure.
Modi’s style of politics, characterized by a penchant for spectacle and politics by revelation, does not create trust. His attempt to ban 86 percent of Indian currency in 2016 by removing certain denominations of bills from circulation allegedly aimed at taxing undeclared income and combating terrorism. It was packaged as a kind of “take from the rich and give to the poor” step. But it has hurt India’s poor the most as they rely on cash for their daily livelihoods, while the rich have found creative ways to store their unrecorded money. India’s poor and farmers are still affected by the effects of this move.
In the meantime, Modi formulated a new topic for his policy last year: self-reliance. Large swathes of the population believe this means they are left to their own devices to solve their problems, much like migrant workers did when Modi announced India’s COVID-19 lockdown with four hours notice.
Farmers who still rely on public procurement for a living fear that they too will be left on their own to make the transition recognized by the Paris Agreement, which is increasingly having to happen due to climate change. The agreement also stipulates that such a transfer need only take place for the affected workers. Unfortunately, the Modi government focused on the first part, regardless of the second.
From now on there is a very uncomfortable calm. The government has stopped dealing with the protesters while the protesters say they are not going anywhere. Farmers are prominent and stationed in large numbers at the borders of New Delhi, promising to be there in the long run.
However, there is no doubt that the protesters pose a significant challenge to the hegemony of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party. Despite controlling much of the media, the government is concerned. In her most recent attempt to silence the press, she has now redoubled efforts to neutralize independent news and votes, with state elections only a month away. In short, Modi does not focus on the political problem, but rather on taking control of the narrative.