A multitude of farmers, mainly belonging to the Sikhs religious minority and from the major agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana, rose to demand the repeal of three new laws introduced in September 2020 by President Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party. The three ordinances passed by Modi are part of a plan to make India a $5 trillion economic power by 2024 and have the ultimate aim of deregulating the agricultural market, so they are perceived by the protesters as a serious threat to their livelihood, as well as favouring large private farms. If adopted, these ordinances would facilitate contract farming, i.e. the direct sale of agricultural products to private buyers, by-passing current state regulations on markets (known as 'mandis'). In addition, they would make it possible for wealthy buyers to stockpile agricultural reserves, to be sold at a later stage when prices rise, as is happening during the pandemic period.
Over the last 30 years, the agricultural sector that still supports more than half of India's 1.4 billion citizens has lost its leading role as an engine of the economy, currently contributing only 15%. Yet the agricultural sector continues to support a large share of the population, even more so during the current pandemic period, which has severely affected the urban economic sector and forced millions of workers to return to rural areas. According to the most recent census conducted by the Register General of India, agricultural workers alone made up more than half of the country's workforce in 2011, a figure that has grown exponentially to date.
The government's commitment to support India's agricultural sector dates back to the 1960s, as part of the so-called 'Green Revolution', during which the government pursued a process of modernisation of the sector, in order to solve the severe food crisis then underway by increasing the production of rice and wheat. However, from the period of the 'Green Revolution' to the present day, the agricultural sector has progressively experienced a worsening of its condition, to the point of causing high indebtedness among farmers and creating what has been described as a veritable suicide crisis. More than half of all farmers are in debt, a phenomenon that, according to India's National Crime Records Bureau, has resulted in 20,638 suicides between 2018 and 2019. Further worsening the already precarious state of the sector are the laws introduced in September 2020.
The development process of the food market was originally closely linked to the production of surplus in agricultural activities, so the markets themselves diversified with respect to the activities carried out in the different Indian states but maintained a common skeleton. In general, 'mandis' are wholesale markets present throughout the country, where farmers can trade their products with traders through open auctions and a transparent pricing system, often characterised by a 'minimum support price', i.e. a minimum price set by the central government on certain products. Once the products have been auctioned, they are then passed on to a secondary market for further sale. The laws passed in September by the Modi government aim to change this system: they permanently remove the existing restrictions on the sale of agricultural products in mandis, eliminating all state regulation and making it possible for farmers to trade directly with private individuals, while at the same time lifting the ban on trade between different Indian states. The government's aim is to stimulate economic growth through private-sector investment, but the new rules give no guarantee that there will be a minimum price for each product, nor do they protect the existing minimum support price in any way.
Farmers fear that they will progressively lose bargaining power over the selling price of their produce and will be deprived of the guarantee to maintain an adequate standard of living. The Modi government's Minister of Food Processing Industries, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, resigned in September, describing the laws as 'anti-farmer' and voicing her party's opinion that the new regulations would destroy markets and weaken the country's economy.
On 26 January 2021, hundreds of farmers protesting on the outskirts of New Delhi drove their tractors through the barricades set up by the police, clashing violently with the police. The farmers' unions - with the approval of the central government - had originally planned a peaceful march through the streets of the city, to take place on what is known in India as Republic Day, the day the Constitution was signed. However, the farmers' decision to start the march a few hours before the scheduled time led to the intervention of the police, who used tear gas and batons to restore order. The next day the protesters returned to the camps set up on the outskirts of New Delhi, where farmers have been living since November 2020, while the Joint Farmers' Front, which represents many farmers' unions in India, issued a statement strongly condemning the clashes and distancing itself from the protesters who resorted to violence on that day.
According to the representative body of farmers involved in the protests, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, a total of about 147 farmers have lost their lives since the start of the protests, some of them due to suicide, road accidents and exposure to cold temperatures. The Indian authorities have not yet released any official information on the matter, but one measure they have put in place since the events of 26 January was the immediate blocking of internet services due to an alleged need to maintain public order. India has actually become one of the countries in which this measure is increasingly implemented, finding legitimacy in a law dated 2017: the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rule allows the government to extend its power of surveillance over citizens for "matters of public safety".
In mid-January, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the temporary suspension of the three laws under protest, in order to allow time for peaceful negotiations. In the following days, the Modi government itself announced its willingness to extend the suspension of the laws for a period of between 12 and 18 months, to reach an appropriate compromise between the parties. However, this was not enough to calm the protests, fuelled by the Indian farmers' strong desire to see the three laws permanently repealed.
Translated by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Sara Scarano