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Mass Farmer Protest in India, as Farm Leaders Push Their Cause Forward

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EIRNS—This week, a massive farmer protest is underway in New Delhi, with protests across the nation. An estimated 300,000 farmers are in the capital. The focus of their action is three farm laws from months ago, aimed at deregulating agriculture into the “free market” mode favoring transnational, corporate control. Following the failure of the fourth round of marathon talks yesterday with the Modi government in New Delhi, leaders of protesting farmers have demanded a special session of Parliament to repeal the new farm laws, and threatened to block other roads of the national capital if their demands are not met. “If government does not fulfill our demands, we will have to take more steps,” said farmer leader Gurnam Singh Chadoni addressing a press conference in Delhi, Times of India reported today. Both sides, however, have agreed to meet on Dec. 5 to prolong their talks. Meanwhile, a number of state governments not ruled by the national Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), expressing their displeasure at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to boost the economy, have lent support to the farmers.

As of this writing, tens of thousands of farmers are waiting patiently with their tractors and trailers at road entries to New Delhi. Most of these farmers came from the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The farmers have partially blocked the roads, slowing regular traffic coming into the capital. No report of violence has emerged yet, though video footage shows authorities using water cannons to control the farmers’ routes.

For decades, discontent has been brewing in India’s farmlands. The recent outburst by the farmers, however, has its source in the Modi government promulgating three ordinances last June relating to agricultural marketing. Subsequently, the administration rammed through these ordinances in the Parliament and transformed those into legislative bills without adequately discussing the ramifications of these bills.

Briefly speaking, one bill relaxes restrictions governing purchase and sale of farm produce, the second relaxes restrictions on stocking of farm produce under the Essential Commodities Act (ECA), 1955, and the third introduces a dedicated legislative measure to enable contract farming based on written agreements. Previous laws typically mandated that purchase of certain “notified” agricultural commodities (mostly grains) be through government-regulated markets (mandis) with the payment of designated commissions and marketing fees. Traders and intermediaries (commission agents) typically require a license to operate in these mandis.

Although farmers are opposing all three bills, the first bill has drawn the ire of most farmers. In India, the government sets the support price for all major grains and some pulses. Government buys a significant amount of grains for distribution to the economically-weaker families and also for export. In every Indian state, farmers are required to bring their produce to mandis. These mandis are maintained by state governments and they collect taxes from the licensed traders and intermediaries—a substantial revenue source for some states, like Punjab. It is not surprising that most farmers assembled in Delhi are from Punjab, partly encouraged by the non-BJP Punjab state government.

On the other hand, small farmers, due to their financial constraints, donot carry their load to the mandis and traditionally sell their products directly to nearby bulk buyers. Farmers are concerned that with the new restrictions in place, they would not be able to sell all their produce at the mandis and the corporate buyers — engaged in the food processing industries — will move in, buying below the government-set price.

The farmers are also concerned about the third bill which enables contract farming based on written agreements. This cannot be a major concern, since the entire sugar and dairy industries have been working well for a long time with contract agreements. In addition, some of the products, such as potatoes, peppers and such, which are used for food processing are of different quality than those that find their place on the daily food table.

The second bill concerning the ECA is often reported as a tool used to thwart private investment in post-harvest storage, warehousing and processing, especially because these controls are implemented somewhat arbitrarily by the respective state governments. The new bill would relax those controls.

At the heart of the ongoing farmer protest, however, lies a problem that is now decades old. One government after another had virtually ignored major capital investments in furthering the agricultural revolution, keeping India’s agricultural productivity uneven and well below that of China, Japan, South Korea etc. Lack of such investments has not only kept most of the farmers economically vulnerable, but it is also threatening fertility of their agricultural land.

There is yet another reason for the mass demonstrations. In addition to the farmers, there is a growing concern among many that Prime Minister Modi has embraced “corporate India” as his anchor for future economic development. Farmers, in particular, are concerned that a large-scale “invasion” by the corporate sector in the agriculture, with the blessing of the Indian government, will undermine their control over their own land and livelihood. [rma]