What does the Indian farmers' protests mean for food production?

Lucy Nelson tells us about the protests currently rocking India.

Lucy Nelson
25th February 2021
Image Credit: TML Monthly

Farmers in India are well into their sixth month protesting against three new agricultural bills that were passed in September 2020. The Indian government's handling of the protests has faced much criticism, as peaceful protests turned violent at the end of January following clashes with the police on Indian Republic Day, resulting in the death of one protestor, more than 300 injured police officers and the detaining of 200 protestors and eight journalists. The government's restriction of the internet in the regions around the protest veers dangerously close into human rights violations, with celebrities like Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris rallying behind the farmers cause, calling for actions to be taken to repeal the reforms.  So, what are these new agriculture reforms, and what do they mean for food production?

Although the bills appeared to give the farmers more control over food production and their prices, farmers argue it leaves agricultural workers at the mercy of larger corporate buyers

The three new agriculture bills introduced by the Indian government in September, supported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, supposedly give farmers increased freedom to control their own trade and expand their own markets. The bills themselves decrease trade regulations on farmers foods, allow for online and interstate trading, enable farmers and buyers to enact exclusive contracts and limit the government’s ability to regulate the supply of essential commodities. Although the bills appeared to give the farmers more control over food production and their prices, farmers argue it leaves agricultural workers at the mercy of larger corporate buyers. The deregulation of the market will give buyers a wider pool of suppliers to purchase goods from, enabling them to drive down prices, which no longer have a restricted minimum price, leaving farmers, who account for 60% of India’s population, worried they will get very little to no profit for their efforts. In reality, it is not clear how the reforms will playout, but the protestors are calling for their repeal and a return to the Mandi system.

Prior to the reforms, Indian agriculture was centralised around the Mandi system

So, what does this mean for food production? Prior to the reforms, Indian agriculture was centralised around the Mandi system. This system saw the government purchase crops, such as paddy and wheat, at the Minimum Support Price (MSP), providing farmers with a safety net if they did not agree to private buyers’ prices. In short, MSP was the main source of income support for many farmers. This meant farmers relied heavily upon paddy and wheat farming to receive funds from the government. However, this wasn’t without consequence, as the practice of monocropping decreased soil fertility, groundwater availability and crop yields. The government hoped the new bills would encourage diversification and modernisation of Indian agricultural, yet as most Indian farms are small, with 68% of farmers owning less than one hectare of land, economists argue Indian farmers simply “don’t have enough to sell”.

 At present, the government and farmers have reached a stalemate, with the talks so far being unsuccessful and there being no further talks planned between the two parties. It seems likely the protest will continue indefinitely, or in the words of a protestor to The New York Times, “We are not going back – that is not in our genetic code. Agriculture has turned into a slow poison. It’s better to die fighting here.”.

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