For more than a week, tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been camped on highways leading into New Delhi, demanding the rollback of three new laws that will change the way they have sold crops for decades at government-regulated agricultural markets, to pave the way for free market trade.
“How will I sell directly to a private buyer? My produce is too small to transport to neighboring areas like Delhi to bargain for a better price,” says Krishan Kumar, who farms a small plot of land in Haryana state. “The government market is within 10 kilometers of my village and it is easy for me to sell it there.”
Like Kumar, the sea of farmers who have converged on the outskirts of Delhi are enraged that the government has rolled back regulations that they depend on to safeguard them from market forces.
While the government says the laws will transform Indian agriculture and allow farmers to sell their produce for a higher price anywhere in the country, farmers fear they will be left vulnerable to exploitation by private corporations. They say this will undercut incomes that are already meager.
Protesting farmers camp out
After being refused permission to hold their protest in the heart of the capital, farmers have parked their tractors and trucks stacked with food rations, mattresses and blankets behind heavily barricaded highways guarded by police.
They brew tea, chop potatoes and cook vegetables in giant pots on the side of the road, spending the cold winter nights inside their trucks or in the open - fully prepared for a prolonged standoff with the government.
Seeking to assuage their anger, the government has held two rounds of negotiations with their representatives but there has been no breakthrough so far.
Most of the protesters have come from the states of Haryana and Punjab, a lush rice- and wheat-producing region that feels most threatened by the new laws. In these states, most farmers sell their grain in markets known as “mandis” at prices set by the government. The guarantee of what is called a “minimum price” gives farmers the confidence to invest and grow the crop.
Government assurances dismissed
Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurances that free trade will ensure better profits and raise their incomes, the protesting farmers remain unconvinced.
"The farmers should get the advantage of a big and comprehensive market which opens our country to global markets," Modi said on Monday during a public meeting in Varanasi. He said they were being misled by opposition parties.
However, protesters point to the experience of farmers in some parts of the country where government-regulated markets have been dismantled. “Private traders bought wheat and rice at much lower prices in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh compared to what we got for our crop. Many farmers there have still not managed to sell their stocks,” says Lakshman Singh, a farmer from Punjab.
Their key demand is that the government continue to set a minimum price for two dozen major crops to ensure that private corporations and large supermarket chains will not undercut prices.
More than two-thirds of India’s farmers own small plots of land of less than two hectares and earn tiny incomes that leave them with little spare cash to buy even seeds or fertilizers.
While the mandis have often been criticized for being inefficient and controlled by commission agents who siphon off profits, many farmers defend the system, saying that these agents also serve as a crucial line of credit for them, supporting them with loans for everything from buying seeds to family emergencies.
“These middlemen have always been our ATM,” according to Shamsher, a farmer from Haryana. “If my child is ill, he gives me a loan. If I need anything, he gives it to me and this works well for us. We won’t have access to this when big private companies will buy produce.” Along with other farmers, he says they will not budge until their concerns are addressed. “We will only go back when the government takes back these “black” laws, whether it takes one month or six months.”
Economists are divided over the issue. Some support the reforms as necessary to overhaul India’s agricultural sector that is increasingly in distress. Other economists say the government must continue to support farmers with price assurances given that they are already hit by dwindling incomes.
“Indian farming needs an infusion of capital and technology which dismantling controls can provide,” says commentator Gurcharan Das, pointing out that farm yields in India are half or even less compared to some countries. ‘Reforms are always hard and I hope the government can stand firm.”
As the numbers swell and calls to scrap the new laws become more intense, these protests in Delhi mark the biggest outburst of anger by farmers in recent years. In a country where agriculture sustains nearly half the population, they could pose a huge challenge for Prime Minister Modi, according to observers.