No farmers, no food

 How India has threatened its own agricultural industry, by MMU politics student Anupreet Malhi

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India is one of four of the world’s dominant food-producing countries, contributing 25 per cent of global food production(1). How much longer will Indian prime minister Narendra Modi be able to ignore its farmers’ plight?

On 27 November 2020 farmers from the regions Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab marched to Delhi, beginning what would become one of the world’s biggest protests. For over four cold, wintry months and into the sweltering summer farmers in India have been protesting against the Indian Agriculture Acts of 2020 passed by Modi’s BJP government in September(2). The acts are threefold, each one threatening to deliver a devastating blow not just to the welfare of farmers but also to one of India’s biggest industries. Indian farmers had already been let down by the governments for decades and were hit by climate change. The new legislation threatens to make their livelihoods even more precarious by failing to protect their income and prioritising corporate interests. The food processing industry has begun to rival agriculture in India, now accounting for 14 per cent of GDP through the likes of companies such as PepsiCo, Mapro Foods and Nestlé(3).

Modi described the new legislation as a “watershed moment” for the agricultural sector. “For decades, the Indian farmer was bound by various constraints and bullied by middlemen. The bills passed by Parliament liberate the farmers from such adversities. These bills will add impetus to the efforts to double income of farmers and ensure greater prosperity for them”, tweeted Modi on 20 September(4).

Opposition to the legislation comes not only from farm leaders and farmer unions across India’s largest agricultural regions, Punjab and Haryana. It extends to opposition MPs who share concerns that the bills will benefit private players and lead to an increase in contract farming(5).

The first bill, the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, will expand the trading of food products to “any place of production, collection, aggregation” and promotes electronic trading and ecommerce, while prohibiting state government from levying any market fees. The second bill, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, allows farmers to enter into pre-arranged contracts with buyers. The third, Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, removes goods such as cereals, pulses, potato, onions and oils from a list of essential commodities and removes the stockholding limits on agricultural items.

The bills essentially loosen rules about the pricing and sale of produce that have protected Indian farmers from the free market. Furthermore, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) act will allow private buyers to hoard essential commodities for future sale, which, prior to these bills, only government-authorised agents could do. The contents of these bills also encourages contract farming, particularly the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, which outlines rules where farmers will have to tailor their production to a suit a specific buyer’s demand (Andrea Park, 2021).

The government has consistently claimed the bills will not affect the minimum selling price or the system of public procurement, but many believe a reading of the legislation suggests the opposite.

How has the agricultural sector failed to the point where Modi can justify passing such extreme bills?

One of the most drastic changes is that the Farming Acts will allow farmers to sell their produce at market price directly to private players, including online grocers, supermarket chains and other businesses. Although this would seem like a step forward for farmers, more than 90 per cent of farmers currently sell most of their goods to state government-controlled wholesale markets, or mandis, where they receive a guaranteed minimum price(6). The fear is that private buyers could push the mandis out of existence by initially offering farmers a better price, only to exploit them when there is no alternative buyer. Economist Ajit Ranade said giving the freedom to farmers to sell outside the mandi system is a “welcome step in unshackling the farmer” but that ultimately the mandi system must coexist with private trading. Perhaps, he said, “the government needs to come out with a written law that they will not withdraw the MSP (Minimum Support Price) or the mandi system”(7).

What makes these bills so damaging is that most of India’s farmers are small scale, with 68 per cent of them owning less than one hectare of land. More than half, in the words of economist Ajit Ranade “don’t even have enough to sell”(8). How has the agricultural sector failed to the point where Modi can justify passing such extreme bills by declaring that they are in fact in the farmers’ interest?

One answer for this is discussed by Dr Vandana Shiva in her book The Violence of the Green Revolution, in which she deconstructs the myth that India’s agricultural issues, prior to the 1970s, were resolved as a result of the use of pesticides and GMOs as prescribed by America. Shiva instead argues that the acclaimed Green Revolution left India and its farmers in a vulnerable and damaged state, accounting for the ecological and economic issues that have arisen with the failures of the overuse of these chemicals on Indian crops.

Another issue that has deeply affected the Indian agricultural sector is climate change, including excessive and unseasonable rain, floods and droughts. Journalist Shruti Bhogal describes how “cropping patterns, irrigation and other agricultural practices” that are fundamental to the sustainability of agricultural systems are not being addressed. One of the most catastrophic effects of climate change is the growing water security crisis. Bhogal describes how much of India’s farmland is being fed by rainfall as opposed to canals and wells, resulting in continuous short growing seasons lasting only 2-6 months, even in historically well-irrigated regions like Punjab, which is slowly developing desert-like conditions. Other climate-related issues, such as a decline in biodiversity, are also having detrimental effects as there are now only a handful of different crops being grown in India(9). Soil quality is declining and is easily eroded, affecting crop yields. Bhogal says this has “pushed farmers into debt and distress”, with many abandoning their farms altogether by moving to cities or even being driven to suicide. “This is particularly true of small-scale landholders who, alongside the landless labourers, have been the worst affected.”

Bhogal says that in Punjab and Haryana, “this stagnation [of crop yield] is exemplified by the continuous cultivation of wheat and rice as the winter and summer crop respectively, for many decades now”. Farmers have persisted with wheat and rice because they are the only crops where they are assured a minimum support price through the public procurement systems, even though crop diversification has been recommended as a response to the environmental challenges. “There are more climate-resilient and less water-intensive crops that would be better suited to particular regions, but farmers will not start growing them until they get the kind of state support currently extended to wheat and rice in northwest India”.

The protests have entered their seventh month and have drawn support from Canada, the US and the UK, particularly from Indian communities in those countries that have ties to agricultural areas in India. Environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg have also backed the farmers, although their protests have slipped from the headlines. Through the few futile meetings the Indian government has had with farmers, and Modi’s unwillingness to retract these bills despite the global and political pressures he is now facing, we have begun to learn more about the nature of India’s democracy. From media censorship, detainment of journalists such as Nodeep Kaur and Disha Ravi and internet blackouts to cutting off food and water supplies and police brutality at the protest sites in Delhi, it is clear these protests are not just about farmers but for the nation and democracy of India as a whole.


  1., 2019
    2. BBC News, 2021
    3., 2017
    4. Hindustan Times, 2021
    5. CBC, 2021
    6. BBC News, 2020
    7. BBC News, 2021
    8. IANS, 2015
    9. BBC News, 2021

Photo: Indian farmers protest in Delhi (Randeep Maddoke/Wikimedia Commons)

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Interact: Responses to No farmers, no food

  • S
    02 Aug 2021 00:10
    It's easy to say that "something has to change" and that a free market system will be beneficial but the outcome is uncertain. And who will be the ones to suffer, left unprotected by their government, should the new system fail? Hint - the farmers; as they have, time and time again.
  • P
    30 Jul 2021 09:54
    Here, like in so many other instances, we see a group of people that have become dependent on government assistance. The tragic, inevitable and predictable result is poverty and desperation for the very people that system is supposed to be helping. If India’s current system is worth fighting tooth and nail to uphold then why are so many of the farmers in such a desperate situation? Clearly something has to change and moving closer to a free market system will eventually result in greater efficiency, increased production and wealth. As for the support from Indian communities in Canada, the USA and the UK, those communities might want to put their signs down for a moment and ask why they emigrated in the first place? Was it because these countries offer greater opportunities and freedoms than they had back home? Guess which type of economic systems we can thank for that? Hint - people aren’t selling goods to state-government controlled wholesale markets in the West.

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