Agricultural Reforms in India
In the past few years, Indian farmers have risen to the scene, amplifying their concerns against the hyper-nationalist agricultural reforms in India, and the year 2020 ended on a similar note for Indian farmers. In September 2020, the Indian parliament introduced three agricultural bills that triggered nationwide shutdown and protests, coupled with strikes and clashes against the directives of Indian parliamentarians.
As these bills were directed to liberalize the agricultural sector, Indian farmers felt betrayed in these troubling times when the pandemic had already slowed down much of the economic machinery. Projecting a positive outlook, the Indian government stressed that with these bills in motion, farmers could sell their agricultural produce outside the regulated markets at a pre-determined price with the buyer, ensuring their freedom.
Denying this narrative, farmer unions explicate that with the implementation of these laws farmers would not be able to secure minimum support price (MSP) that works as insurance for farmers to cover their costs and ensure extra profits against volatile price fluctuations in the agricultural market.
It is part of the biggest food procurement program that India runs. Based on MSP, markets were set up in the 1950s, so that the exploitation of farmers could be subdued and a fair income to be generated for farmers. The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) announces MSPs annually for nearly 22 agricultural commodities.
For selling these staples to the poor at heavily subsidized rates, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) procures these staples at expensive MSPs from farmers; the Indian government compensates losses of the FCI. In this way, the poverty-stricken community of India is facilitated. Agriculture is mainly a state subject, but the center, concurrently exercising its jurisdiction in this matter, has introduced exceptional changes in agro-practice.
The drive that backs Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to revolutionize agriculture largely derives its rationale from the economic burden that this food procurement program has incurred on the state’s resources. With the guarantee ensured through MSPs, farmers are encouraged to produce more. This results in an overflow of supplies of rice and wheat, pressurizing FCI to purchase and store it in its warehouses.
The economic burden looms large because of the ever-expanding costs, primarily due to storage/maintenance costs and the yearly increase in MSPs. Even the surplus of this produce cannot be exported to other counties at a profitable rate, primarily because the costs that these staples incur are higher than the prices in the international market, making it less competitive.
Beneficiaries of this food procurement system are the majority of well-off farmers who are situated mostly in northern India, mainly Punjab and Haryana. They would be largely affected if these controversial bills start to operate in India because they will be left at the mercy of bigger corporations like Walmart Inc., which operate on a profit-maximizing spectrum that would prove unfavorable to the feudal lords of India.
In a counter call for a strike, Bharat Bandh saw almost tens of thousands of farmers heading towards Delhi, blocking major highways and railroads across the country — and vowing to halt transportation networks until the agricultural reforms are repealed. Makeshift camps have been set up by these vociferous entities around the capital, Delhi. Farmers even had a one-day hunger strike on 14th December, amid such strife weather exacerbated by worsening air pollution.
Highlighting the facts, it would seem that India is one of the world’s largest agrarian economies, with more than 70% of its 1.3 billion population directly or indirectly associated with agriculture while accounting for nearly 15% of its $2.7 trillion GDP. The 1970s “Green Revolution” has turned India from a nation facing daily food shortages into a large exporter of food.
Farm incomes, however, have remained, more or less, stationary for the past several decades and the agro-sector is in desperate need of investment and modernization. Aside from that, farmers are facing immense clampdown not only due to callous policies of Modi but from nature as well. Water scarcity, flooding, and increasingly volatile weather caused by climate change have taken a heavy toll on farmers, not to mention the debt burden as well.
Suicidal Rates in India’s Agricultural Sector
Farmers have been taking their own lives mainly because of the debt burden they owe from their inability to pay back government loans. Despite contrasting government claims about their living standards, farmers have been living in such extreme stress and anxieties that since 2013, over 12,000 suicides are reported every year in the agricultural sector alone.
More than 300,000 farmers have taken their lives since the 1990s, and nearly 10,000 in 2019 alone. These figures are eye-opening facets of the agricultural sector in India. Apart from ridiculing the basic purpose of MSP, these laws have made an old-age role of market committee system pointless.
Agricultural marketing committees, all over India, play a pivotal role in connecting buyers and sellers through informed choices in conjunction with the market dynamics of the land while, at the same time, giving oversight to provincial governments about the interests of both farmers and consumers.
This system, which primarily works with an administrative fee, came to a halt under these repressive laws. Secondly, these laws would give breathing ground for contract farming to take place. This form of farming would prove detrimental for the status of a farmer, as he will be reduced from owner to a sharecropper of land.
The Deleterious Effects
Many farmers in India own less than 5 acres of land and the produce from such lands is their only means of subsistence. The social and economic security of farmers is completely neglected as a result of these laws. Under contract farming practice, giant agri-businesses conglomerates are empowered to take over the majority of operations in the conventional setup of agriculture.
From setting pre-determined prices of the agricultural produce to pro-actively looking after the nature, scale, and timing of crops, the corporate sector is taking away freedom from the owner of the land and reducing him to a bonded laborer. The responsibility to provide inputs shifts to corporate agents, while owners of land just have to provide labor and land for cultivation.
In this way, the whole supply chain of the land, from farming to the selling of agricultural produce, is given to the corporate sector, leaving farmers with no rights to make decisions. Apart from that, these corporate stakeholders own storage and transportation facilities which help them maintain their influence over the entire sector.
Expressing their frustration at some major domestic companies and retailers, like Reliance Industries and Adani Enterprises, farmers’ leaders have clearly started to boycott these companies and their products. Similarly, multinational companies like Cargill, Nestle, Monsanto, etcetera are of similar stature and have earned the rebuke of Indian farmers alike.
The Resurgence of the Khalistan Movement
PM Modi’s has declared the protests to be a part of an extended conspiratorial retort coming from those who oppose his government and its rulings. He shrugged these protests off by alleging them to be part of a bigger scheme associated with anti-social, leftist, or Maoist elements.
Taking this stance further, it was implied that these protests had the backing of similar people who instigated Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protests earlier in 2020, which were against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 that stripped thousands of Muslims of their citizenship.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the Khalistan Movement, which wielded strength in the 20th century India and whose remnants can only be found in the Sikh diaspora, had links to the farmers’ movements of that time.
This notion was revitalized recently when the Sikh diaspora, which resides in Western countries, mainly Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, not only protested in front of Indian embassies of their respective countries but also used their influence to direct their representatives in the respective governments to raise the issue with their Indian counterparts.
While Canada alone has 18 Sikh MPs in the government, representing a Sikh community of more than 600,000 people, India only has 13 in Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament. The Sikh diaspora and farmers’ protests have signaled to the world, especially India, that the once-moribund Khalistan Movement is gaining momentum again.
The disputes between the center and farmers’ union have not come an inch closer to a resolution, and if Modi continues to push a nationalist paddle, there will be no amicable conclusion of this predicament.
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