The Delayed Triumph of the Indian Farmer Protests

 /  Dec. 5, 2021, 2:55 p.m.


What ever happened to the Indian farmers? According to Google Trends data, worldwide searches for “Indian farmers” have fallen by nearly 90 percent since January 2021. While global interest, mainstream news coverage, and social media discussion of the Indian farmers has fallen precipitously, the reality in India tells a far different story. After more than a year of protests, Indian farmers finally achieved their goal on November 19th, 2021, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repeal of the three Farm Bills passed by the Indian Parliament in the summer of 2020.

Persisting despite mass death in India due to the COVID-19 pandemic, harsh weather conditions, and occasional violent flare-ups—such as a recent Jeep attack which left four protesters dead—Indian farmers have protested against agriculture reform since November 2020. More than 680 protesters have died. So what was it all for?

Competing Views

The agriculture reform, passed in September 2020 by the Indian government, consisted of three Farm Bills, and Indian farmers are fiercely opposed to all three components. The first bill allowed private buyers to enter the agricultural market and buy goods that farmers previously sold to the government at a fixed price. The second created a structured framework for farmers to sell their crops to private buyers through the removal of government fees, regulations, and levies on sales and by permitting online trading of farmers’ produce. The third allowed private companies to store large amounts of crops at a time, which would likely have led to the growth of private sector agricultural warehouses in India.

Broadly speaking, the debate over the Farm Bills reflected two deeply different views of the Indian agricultural sector: the modernization view and the safety net view.

Supporters of the Farm Bills believed that the reform would help modernize the Indian agriculture sector. They argued that Indian farmers are inefficient due to excess government subsidies, pointing to government policies that provide free water, fertilizer, and subsidized credit for farmers. Some also claim that this government support for Indian farmers reduces incentives for energy‐​efficient practices. As a result, those who bought into the modernization view saw the Farm Bills as a first step in a much longer process of reducing the government’s role in India’s agricultural sector. Mihir Sharma, an Indian economist, wrote, “What’s at risk [with the Farm Bills] isn’t just a couple of laws, but India’s commitment to the transition to a more environmentally sustainable and equitable growth model.” 

The millions of protesters against the Farm Bills, largely consisting of farmers from the Punjab and Haryana regions in India, subscribed instead to the safety net view of the agricultural industry. These individuals argued that, without government support acting as a safety net for farmers, the farmers’ income would be at the whim of exploitative private buyers.

Right now, one of the most significant forms of government support for farmers in India is Minimum Price Supports (MSP). Through MSP, the government purchases crops from farmers, guaranteeing that certain crops can be sold for a minimum price. This program provides farmers with a reliable source of income, especially during times of lower demand. 

The Farm Bills did not mention MSP at all; in fact, considering the Farm Bills alone without the surrounding political context would suggest that the bills would have merely provided farmers with another option by opening the market to private buyers. Introducing more buyers into the market should hypothetically boost demand for farmers’ crops, leading to higher prices and income for Indian farmers. 

The chief fear of the farmers, though, is that the Farm Bills would have been a first step towards the dismantling of the MSP system by slowly making it easier for corporations to enter the agriculture market. Indeed, the Indian government is not legally obligated to maintain the MSP system, meaning that farmers have to trust the government’s word that it will continue to guarantee the price of key crops like rice, wheat, barley, and cotton. Some argue that removing MSP would leave farmers at the mercy of large corporations: a national survey from 2019 revealed that farmers received far lower prices than the government-guaranteed MSP for their crops in major private crop markets. This is particularly concerning because 85 percent of Indian farmers have small holdings of land, so the negotiating power of any individual farmer is low compared to a large private buyer. 

Farmers also harbor concerns about the framework for selling to third-party private buyers. It allows farmers to create contracts to sell fixed amounts of crops to private buyers; however, it does not mandate that companies sign a written contract with the farmer, leaving room for private buyers with greater influence to breach the terms of contracts. Furthermore, the dispute-resolution mechanisms prescribed by the Bills involve the use of local courts, whose fees are often too expensive for smaller farmers to afford.

Protests and Government Crackdown 

Farmers in India voiced their concerns with an unprecedented wave of protests. Smaller scale farmer protests, concentrated in Punjab, began in August and September 2020, as groups of farmers blocked railroads. By late November, tens of thousands of farmers had camped out and surrounded Delhi, the capital city. The strength of the movement reached a climax in December 2020, where there was a nationwide strike of more than 250 million people, including farmers, laborers, and students to protest the Farm Bills. By mid-December, protesters had blocked roadways into New Delhi, the seat of the country’s government. After a series of failed negotiations in January, the protesters continued to camp out despite rising cases of COVID-19 in India, with both sides refusing to back down.

In response to the protests, Prime Minister Modi adopted a brutal two-pronged approach: an online crackdown and a physical crackdown.

A large part of the government’s online crackdown involved direct orders from the Indian government for Twitter to remove accounts related to farmer protests. Notably, Twitter initially refused to comply with the government’s request, citing its commitment to free speech and expression. However, Twitter’s refusal was short-lived: on February 12, 2021, the platform blocked nearly 97 percent of the accounts flagged by the government. Many of these accounts were flagged for using the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide and other messaging that referenced fears among Indian farmers that the farm bills would hurt their income. To justify these censorship activities, the Indian government took advantage of its newly passed 2020 Internet Rules, which give the government sweeping powers to moderate content on social media platforms. The rules have prompted concerns from civil rights groups, who worried that forcing social media sites to comply with government censorship and surveillance would chill free expression online.

The online crackdown was not limited to social media censorship; according to the human rights group Amnesty International, the Indian government has repeatedly suspended Internet access in prominent protest sites and surrounding districts. In response to these reports, the Freedom House, a non-profit that releases annual reports on political freedom internationally, reduced India’s Freedom on the Net score in 2021 from 51 to 49 out of 100 and now classifies India as “Partly Free” instead of “Free.”

The government’s physical crackdown involved widespread arrests and police violence. The most publicized arrest was that of Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old climate activist, who allegedly shared a “protest toolkit” via social media that outlined strategies for demonstrating farmers. The Indian police took advantage of the Unlawful Activities Prevention act, or UAPA, to justify its crackdown on the farmers, whom it saw as fomenting sedition and disloyalty within India. Dozens of farmers were injured due to violence from police. In October 2021, eight protestors died from a Jeep attack allegedly linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, which is the current ruling political party in India and the party of Prime Minister Modi.

Continuing Challenges

Despite the government’s drastic response, Prime Minister Modi ultimately gave into the farmers’ demands and admitted that the Farm Bills, though passed with good intentions, were a mistake. Some have speculated that the sudden change was driven by electoral necessity; the recent Jeep attack led to a drop in the BJP’s popularity in Uttar Pradesh, a region that is key to the BJP’s hold on power and which will hold a major election in 2022. 

The repeal of the Farm Bills does not mean the end of the Indian farmers’ woes. The unrelenting protests of the farmers, the violent response of the government, and the cavernous differences between the modernization and safety net views of the Indian agricultural industry suggest that there is little common ground between the two sides of the Farm Bill debate. However,, there is one point that both sides agree on: the Indian agriculture sector needs reform. One year before the Farm Bill debate erupted, in 2019, 10,000 Indian farmers committed suicide—a trend that has been worsening for the past decade as many farmers are burdened by debt and poverty. Even the MSP program, which the farmers vehemently defended through their protests (and which the farmers have vowed to continue protesting until it has been formally codified into law) is incomplete: while millions of farmers do benefit from the program, a majority of farmers produce crops not covered by the program, often leaving them in debt when they are unable to fetch fair prices for their crops on the market. Furthermore, MSP does not cover key nutritious crops such as leafy vegetables, lentils, chickpeas and sorghum, leading to surpluses of vegetables in regions with lower demand that end up rotting.

While not directly related to the Farm Bills, there are also environmental issues plaguing India’s agricultural sector. Particularly in the Punjab and Haryana regions, farmers practice stubble burning, where they burn the remaining plant after harvesting rice so that they can quickly sow wheat before winter arrives. This practice, which the government has not taken any steps to regulate, has been estimated to contribute up to 40 percent of the air pollution in Delhi, adding to pollution-related disease and death in India. Furthermore, inefficient agricultural usage of water contributes to a growing water shortage in India.

The repeal of the Farm Bills is a major victory for Indian farmers. However, from both an economic and environmental standpoint, India’s agricultural industry is still in need of major reforms. 

Farming Moving Forward

Now that tensions have begun to de-escalate between the Indian government and the farmers, Modi has an opportunity to negotiate productive farm reforms that balance the needs of farmers and the rest of the Indian population. One possible reform is to establish a farmer cooperative similar to the Amul cooperative of 3.6 million milk producers in India. This could improve the bargaining power of farmers and boost efficiency in the farming sector, something which the Amul cooperative was successfully able to achieve in the milk production sector. Due to the massive size of India’s farming sector, this could mean making several smaller cooperatives segmented by region or product.

Any such negotiations should include representatives of Indian farmers from each state in India; the Farm Bills demonstrated that the farmers’ chief concern is less the content of the bills and more a lack of faith that the government will keep its promises. At the least, Modi should take advantage of this opportunity to get Indian farmers to trust him—and the Indian government—more.

The image used in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International License. It has not been altered from the original, which was taken by Aklesh Mishra and can be found here.

Sukhm Kang


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