India’s farm protests turned violent last week. But why are farmers protesting in the first place?

India’s farm protests turned violent last week. But why are farmers protesting in the first place?

New laws have rattled a crucial political bloc. Saksham Khosla and Aidan Milliff explain in an article first published here in the Washington Post.

February 5, 2022 | Washington Post Monkey Cage | Saksham Khosla and Aidan Milliff
Indian advocates from Punjab state attend a sit-in protest near New Delhi on Wednesday.
Saksham Khosla and Aidan Milliff
February 5, 2021
The Washington Post

Last week, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed soldiers parading through New Delhi to mark India’s 72nd Republic Day, a rally of farmers and their tractors turned violent mere miles away. Some protesters broke through concrete barriers and clouds of tear gas to enter the capital and march on the historic Red Fort, waving flags associated with Sikhism from its ramparts. Protest leaders quickly condemned the violence as the work of “anti-social elements.”

This week, the protests caught the attention of global notables including Rihanna and Greta Thunberg, who tweeted their support. Diljit Dosanjh, a popular Punjabi singer, released a ballad about Rihanna in appreciation. Indian celebrities and India’s External Affairs Ministry dismissed the statements of “foreign individuals” as “neither accurate nor responsible.”

The issues behind the protests, however, run deeper than a global Twitter feud. Here’s what you need to know about India’s recent farm laws and why thousands of farmers from the country’s “grain bowl” oppose them.

India and China are taking new risks along their border. It will be hard to restore peace.

Why is India’s government changing agricultural policies?

Agriculture employs nearly half of India’s workforce, but contributes only 17 percent of its gross domestic product. Over 20 percent of farmers live below the official poverty line, and farm sizes are shrinking, further limiting productivity and exacerbating income inequality. Failing crops and rising debt loads are linked to an epidemic of farmer suicides.

India’s farms are not globally competitive: They are less productive than farms in comparable middle-income economies like China, Brazil and Russia. There are also substantial environmental costs, as water-guzzling crops like wheat, rice and sugar cane continue to deplete India’s groundwater levels.

This puts the government in a bind: India’s farmers wield substantial political influence, but the industry is on an unsustainable path, both for farmers and for the broader Indian economy.

The government passed three laws last September to deregulate agricultural markets, remove stockpiling limits and provide a legal framework for contract farming. Modi hailed the moves as a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture, and a key steppingstone to fulfilling his administration’s pledge to double farmers’ income by 2022.

Who is protesting, and why?

Farmers from neighboring states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have peacefully camped on Delhi’s borders since November, blocking major thoroughfares into the capital to protest new laws liberalizing India’s agricultural markets. Rallies in support have stretched across India, and even to major cities in the United States. Many protesters are Sikhs, members of a religious minority in India that comprises a majority of Punjab, and a sizable minority — 5 percent — in Haryana.

Right now, the government pays these farmers, who mostly grow wheat and paddy rice, a guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) when they sell their crops at regulated government markets (known as mandis). Punjab and Haryana farmers benefit extensively from this system, as the government pays MSP for massive quantities of their crops to meet the needs of the national food security program.

The new legislation makes it simpler for private buyers to purchase directly from farmers — for India, this amounts to an unprecedented deregulation of agricultural trade.

Farmers see a two-pronged attack. First, they fear that private buyers who sidestep mandis will coordinate to set lower prices. Second, they allege that the new laws pave the way for the government to ultimately dismantle the MSP system, which some call unsustainable. Farmers would see less long-term stability, and could be at the mercy of big business.

Farmers also fear that the changes will let corporations manipulate prices by hoarding crops, and take advantage of weak enforcement capacity to negotiate pro-corporate contract-farming arrangements. Protesters also criticize the decision-making process, noting insufficient parliamentary debate and deliberation. Several state governments argue the laws are a violation of Indian federalism, because the central government is legislating on an area under states’ purview.

What does the government have to say?

India’s farmers are a powerful electoral bloc — that may explain the Modi government’s willingness to negotiate with protest leaders, offering to suspend the changes for 18 months and make amendments. This flexibility is a stark contrast to the harsh recent treatment of protesters against a purportedly anti-Muslim amendment to India’s citizenship laws.

The government maintains, though, that new agricultural policies are critical for increasing competition, boosting farmers’ incomes, attracting private investment and countering the distortions of middlemen. Officials assert that the laws underwent multiple consultations with farmers — though India’s agriculture ministry has not produced details of those discussions.

What happens now?

A Supreme Court injunction has temporarily paused implementation of the laws, but the farmers continue to demand total repeal instead.

The government appears to be pursuing a two-track strategy. In a testament to the economic and social power of India’s farmers, it is negotiating to make at least marginal policy changes.

But the government is also playing a harder game. In a move reminiscent of the 2019 reorganization and subsequent crackdown in Jammu and Kashmir, government officials cut Internet access at a number of protest sites.
India’s government also appears to be capitalizing on the presence of Sikh farmers in the protests to claim that the movement has been infiltrated by Khalistanis — in the 1980s and 1990s, these Sikh separatists fought and lost a brutal insurgent conflict against the government. Modi’s government points to the presence of Khalistan flags and separatist slogans at solidarity protests in the United States led by members of the Sikh community.

Moves to define the non-Hindu protesters as “anti-India” or unpatriotic aren’t entirely surprising. Political science research shows that appeals to Hindu nationalism, which Modi’s party champions and which grew more popular in response to Sikh nationalism during the Khalistan insurgency, are a tool the government uses to shape public opinion, though they don’t always succeed.

Farmers remain steadfast in their demands — a full repeal of the new laws. Union leaders promise to continue protests late into the year, and the government shows few signs of backing down from the broader agricultural policy agenda. The standoff will be another hard test of India’s ability to resolve political disputes through peaceful consensus-building.

Saksham Khosla is an associate consultant at Dalberg Advisors. The views expressed are his own. Find him on Twitter @khoslasaksham.

Aidan Milliff is a PhD candidate in political science at MIT. Find him on Twitter @amilliff.