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What’s at Stake for India’s Protesting Farmers?

February 1, 2021
The Express Tribune

These protests are significant because they expose tensions within the Indian economy

Usmaan Farooqui

Last week, a massive demonstration in India turned violent as hundreds of farmers clashed with police in the capital of New Delhi. The scuffle — which occurred after protesters occupied ramparts of the historic Red Fort — overshadowed the significance of Republic Day, a national holiday which marks the day the India’s post-colonial constitution came into effect 71 years ago.

This is the only instance of violence in a nearly six month long protest against three new agriculture laws passed by the Indian parliament in September 2020. The laws seek to deregulate the agricultural sector, but unions say they will hurt small farmers by incentivising large, private businesses.

These protests are significant because they expose tensions within the Indian economy where the agricultural sector’s contribution to the GDP has been declining for years despite employing around 41% of the workforce. At stake in efforts to repeal the new laws are the economic rights of poor farmers in India.

But the protests, in as much as they are a response to the private sector’s perceived encroachment in agriculture, also bring attention to a growing global trend toward industrial farming. In doing so, the actions of thousands of farmers can both dismantle the myth that large farms feed the world while also highlighting the unsustainable nature of our food systems.

First, it’s important to note the precarity small farmers in India live with daily. According to the 2016 national agricultural census, small and marginal-sized farms — defined as holdings less than two hectares — make up around 86% of Indian farms but cover only 47.3% of the cultivated land (which has been shrinking). A National Sample Survey Office report estimates that the average Indian farmer earned Rs 6,426 per month ($110) in 2013 with household expenses of Rs 6,223 ($107).

What little breathing room a small farmer has is protected by two Indian agricultural practices which have been around for decades. The first is the minimum support price (MSP), a guaranteed rate at which the government buys certain approved crops directly from farmers who are particularly susceptible to fluctuations in the agricultural market. Additionally, an Indian law from 2003 prohibits the sale of produce outside wholesale markets approved by individual state governments. Known as “mandis”, these markets, with their open auction sales, are meant to protect small farmers from being exploited by middlemen and large retailers.