Why are Farmers Protesting and Why Does it Matter?

By Jeeva Bhavana and Ashutosh Pradhan (ap@vinzai.com), founder of Purarbharan Foundation

The Origins:

The on-going protests could be said to be farmers’ spontaneous reaction to the three farm bills passed by the Parliament in September 2020, that 1) “allow” farmers to sell directly to the private sector instead of to the APMCs (Agriculture Produce Market Committees) – the government-regulated farmers’ markets; 2) allow the private sector to enter into direct contracts with farmers; and 3) remove all the regulations on the private sector as to selling and buying price. The government claims that these laws will “liberate” farmers, freeing them of the hegemony of the APMCs, allowing them to negotiate directly with the open market and get the “right price” from the private sector.

It is common belief that the APMCs are havens of unscrupulous middlemen where instead of serving farmers’ interests, their weaknesses are actually exploited. So it would seem that farmers should be pleased to circumvent the APMC system. So why are they protesting?

The Reasons:

  • The government claims that the APMCs will continue to function. However if the private sector sets up its own markets, they will certainly wipe out the APMCs over a period of time. At that point, the farmers will be at the mercy of the private sector…and farmers know quite well that the private sector’s bottom line is not mercy but profits, and thus will drive down prices and compel farmers to sell off their produce at unviable rates. The APMC system assures farmers a MSP (minimum support price or a government-regulated base price) safeguarding particularly the small farmers from the market vagaries of supply-demand based pricing. The end of APMCs sounds the death knell of MSP and ushers in cut-throat laissez-faire economic models that the private sector thrives on, but that will certainly spell ruin for small farmers’ financial security.
  • About 86% of the farmers in India are small-holding farmers (with less than 2 acres of land). The inadequacy felt by the small farmer when standing up to a large faceless corporate is immense. Under the new laws and despite their numbers, small farmers will have virtually no bargaining power against the private sector. Also, the law specifies that in case of problems, the farmers can neither take their claims to court nor sue any of the government agencies. For all intents and purposes, farmers are stripped of their fundamental right to due process in case of dispute.
  • Given that the private sector has no obligation towards the welfare of farmers, but only to its shareholders and to its profits, social justice and economic equity in food production will be undermined. The private sector has historically indulged in routine corruption and we cannot expect that to change. Corporates have been responsible for land-grabbing, price distortion, disastrous monocropping, etc and have proven on multiple occasions that they cannot be trusted to improve farmers’ lives in any way.
  • Many farmers see the laws as the latest effort to industrialize the agricultural sector by allowing agribusiness giants to gain more control of it. Under the guise of “liberating” farmers, the laws could swing the door open to a blizzard of market forces that the average Indian small farmer is ill-equipped to take on. The farmers fear, and rightly so, given the history of agricultural corporatization in the US and Europe, as well as India’s own Green Revolution since the mid-70s, that industry interests will destroy the remaining indigenous crop and seed diversity, replacing them with manipulated, patented hybrid crops that warrant the widespread use of expensive and harmful chemical inputs, leading to never-ending cycles of bank loans, not to mention soil erosion, water depletion, biodiversity loss, etc. 

The Needs and Potential Solutions:

It must be noted that for various historical, social, political and geographical reasons, regions outside the Punjab and Haryana have fallen short of making best use of the MSP system. While some commentators remark that farmers from these states are the only ones protesting the dismantlement of the MSP, it is important to argue in favour of promoting and extending the MSP across all states. MSPs are the perfect policy tool to ensure seed nativity, realign crop diversity, retain/utilise geographical advantages and address the cause of a more even distribution of resource extraction. Market forces devoted and committed to profit alone cannot match the equity achievable via a well thought-out national MSP implementation that is coordinated across regions/states.

Bright successes of the cooperative movement need to be studied in depth as inspirations for fair and robust systems for farmers and their production. Amul is an example of a first-rate model of collective economic activity (even if built upon one of the worst and most unethical farm-products). Lessons from the cooperative sector and from FPCs (Farmer Producer Companies), should become springboards toward organising functional collectives at local levels, rather than tendering large-scale sell-outs to unipolar corporates. Air & water pollution, access to groundwater (which is a common good), climate resilience, disaster-preparedness…all of these parameters must be of equal priority with economic resilience for solid and forward thinking governance.

40 percent of the Earth’s land is now given over to agriculture. Agriculture and Environment are so intertwined as to be indistinguishable. Environmental Justice, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” requires that farmers – particularly those with the smallest holdings – have a seat at the policy-making table, for no better reason than that their livelihoods depend on it. We thus urge the government to engage in meaningful consultation with farmers while drawing up the laws, giving farmers adequate say in policy decisions that will impact their lives with such magnitude. And yet there is another reason that is perhaps equally important, and that is thwarting the growing agricultural corporatization of India’s farmland, the greatest threat to environmental devastation in an already vulnerable nation.