Indian farmers, many of whom have been engaged for more than six months in protests against new agricultural laws passed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, are angry. Some have referred to their protest as the largest such mobilization in human history. That may be a stretch, but their movement certainly poses the most potent challenge yet to Modi, India’s most popular leader in more than three decades.
The protests, which began with sit-ins and road and railway track blockades in Punjab and Haryana, have now gained global attention for their size; the largest march on Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day, involved hundreds of thousands of farmers driving into New Delhi in tractor convoys. Despite ruthless attempts by the Indian government to crush them, the protests have only grown in size and scope. If they continue, as is likely given the government’s unwillingness to engage, they could grow into an even larger and broader agitation of different groups aggrieved by Modi’s government.
At the heart of the protests is opposition to three agricultural laws that were rammed through the legislature late last year. There was minimal consultation involved, although the Modi government claims that the laws will liberate farmers from the clutches of state-operated markets and provide them more avenues to sell their produce. That, in turn, will mean better prices for them.
Farmers, though, contend that the new laws will make a bad situation worse. They concede that the state-operated markets have problems—including that there aren’t enough of them, the infrastructure is often poor, and they face exploitation at the hands of middlemen—but they argue that the new laws will ensure the gradual disbanding of state-operated markets and leave farmers to the mercy of regional monopolies that will dictate prices.
The farmers demand a full repeal of the laws, something Modi has been hesitant to grant, perhaps worried that doing so would make him look weak. Still, he has agreed to do away with most of the contentious clauses of the laws and has offered to suspend them for 18 months. In a chaotic democracy like India, suspended laws rarely make a comeback.
But the protests have nonetheless continued. Although the new agricultural laws may have set them off, they were never only about the letter of those rules. At their core is the fear that the government intends to dismantle a 50-year-old system of public procurement of crops. That system provides farmers a degree of price guarantee in an otherwise uncertain and volatile agricultural market. Farmers have demanded a legal guarantee to protect that system.
The procurement system was established in the 1960s as the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, and some regions in adjacent Uttar Pradesh, underwent an agricultural revolution. The revolution, which came to be known as the Green Revolution, increased efficiency and production. It was carried out not through farmers’ initiative but by government fiat. It came with incentives for farmers to move away from traditional crops to grow more rice and wheat, and it is farmers in those same regions who are protesting today.
Prior to the Green Revolution, post-independence India faced acute food scarcity. The regions that produced most of its staples—rice and wheat—had gone to Pakistan during the 1947 Partition. Meanwhile, the country’s population increased by nearly 40 percent between 1941 and 1961, and agriculture productivity had not kept pace. India was thus dependent on food aid from the United States under its Public Law 480 program.
But after Indian criticism of U.S. bombings in Vietnam, the Johnson administration curtailed that aid. The cutback came on the backs of two successive droughts, after which India’s agricultural output shrank by 20 percent and food inflation shot up by more than 20 percent. Memories of the 1940s Bengal famine, in which an estimated 3 million people died, were still fresh.
India was desperate to achieve food grain sufficiency. It turned to higher-yielding seeds—with technological assistance from U.S. agencies—combined with subsidies on fertilizers, pesticides, and electricity to pump groundwater for irrigation. As an incentive for farmers to produce more wheat and rice, minimum support prices (MSP), at which the government would buy produce if private players did not, were set. The aim was to achieve rapid increases in productivity.
The results were spectacular. Yields improved by more than 30 percent in Punjab (aided along by better monsoons). New Delhi procured huge quantities of wheat and rice at MSP and distributed the grains to India’s poor at subsidized rates. Punjab and Haryana began to be referred to as India’s breadbasket. Even today, they provide more than two-thirds of the food issued to 800 million Indians as part of the government’s efforts toward food security.
The Green Revolution also came at a huge ecological cost. Subsidized electricity meant that groundwater was pumped in large amounts to grow water-intensive rice and sugar cane in regions with limited rainfall. It takes more than twice the amount of water to produce a kilogram of rice in the northern state of Punjab than in its more natural habitat in the eastern state of West Bengal.
In turn, the Green Revolution states now face a particularly acute water crisis. Some regions in these states could run completely out of groundwater in the next 20 years. The apocalyptic air pollution seen in and around New Delhi in early winter is also partly a consequence of the Green Revolution. The overuse of fertilizers and pesticides has caused soil degradation and groundwater poisoning.
These environmental problems are already severe and will get worse with climate change. It is farmers themselves, meanwhile, who suffer the worst of the consequences. Punjab and Haryana have among the highest levels of arsenic poisoning of groundwater in India—the likely cause of high rates of cancer prevalence. The Green Revolution states also carry among the highest burden of premature deaths due to air pollution.
The farmers of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh have known for a while that a shift away from the Green Revolution crops is inevitable and will be in their own long-term interest. Several government committees, arguing that the cost of the MSP subsidy is unsustainable, have also recommended crop diversification. Modi himself has stressed the need to transition away from water-intensive crops in these regions.
Yet farmers feel that the new laws provide the government with the perfect cover to jump-start this transition and push its costs onto them. Many believe that, under the new rules, private markets will emerge outside of state-operated markets. Once that happens, the government will take a back seat and move away from procuring rice and wheat under the MSP system. Since production of both is in excess of demand, left to the market, prices will crash. That is why they also seek that MSP be made a legal guarantee.
To be sure, the new laws do not contain any provision that explicitly alters the government procurement system. Modi and his ministers have time and again reassured farmers that the MSP regime will continue. But these promises have not convinced farmers. A slew of broken and unfulfilled promises, including that of doubling farmers’ income, mark Modi’s time in office.
Modi’s style of policymaking, characterized by a penchant for spectacle and policy by revelation, does not inspire confidence. His move to ban 86 percent of India’s currency in 2016 by taking certain denominations of bills out of circulation was purportedly aimed at taxing undeclared income and combating terrorism. It was packaged as a “take from the rich and give to the poor” kind of step. But it ended up hurting India’s poor most of all since they rely on cash for their day-to-day living, while the rich found creative ways to stash their unaccounted-for money. The poor, and India’s farmers, are still reeling from the effects of that move.
In the last year, meanwhile, Modi has articulated a new theme for his policy: self-reliance. Large parts of the population think that this means that they are being left to their own devices to deal with their problems, much as migrant workers were when Modi announced India’s COVID-19 lockdown with four hours’ notice.
Farmers, who still depend on government procurement for their livelihoods, fear that they, too, are being left on their own to make the kind of transition that the Paris Agreement recognizes will have to be made more and more due to climate change. The agreement also outlines that such a transition has to be just for the impacted workforce. Unfortunately, Modi’s government has focused on the first part with little regard for the second.
As of now, a very uneasy calm persists. The government has stopped engaging with the protesters, while the protesters say they are going nowhere. Farmers are stationed prominently and in large numbers at the borders of New Delhi, promising that they are in it for the long haul.
There is no doubt, however, that the protesters pose a significant challenge to the hegemony of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Despite controlling large sections of the media, the government is worried. In its latest attempt to muzzle the press, it has now redoubled efforts to “neutralise” independent news and voices with state elections only a month away. Rather than focusing on the policy problem, in short, Modi is more intent on gaining control over the narrative.