Protests led by farmers near Delhi are entering their sixth consecutive month, after the Indian Government hurried three new agricultural laws through parliament without consulting a parliamentary committee for consideration.
Since November last year, hundreds of thousands of farmers and supporters have taken to the border of the Indian capital to express their anger at the passing of new laws regarding the sale, storage and marketing of agricultural products.
The new laws will relax the way in which agricultural produce is sold, stored and marketed, essentially moving Indian agriculture towards a free market. Currently, most farmers sell their produce thoroughly a local wholesale market controlled by the government, receiving a minimum support price (MSP) set by the Government. Although the new laws don’t dismantle the MSP, there are concerns that by bypassing the current marketing mechanism, small-scale farmers will be forced to accept more volatile prices and greater price pressure from large traders.
The protests, which began in the states of Punjab and Haryana in August last year, were met with a heavily handed response by police who used tear gas and water cannons to control protestors. Despite action from farming unions, state governments have declined to intervene and in November hundreds of thousands of farmers descended on Delhi to protest.
“This is a death warrant for small and marginalised farmers. This is aimed at destroying them by handing over agriculture and market to the big corporates. They want to snatch away our land. But we will not let them do this,” said farmer Sukhdev Singh Kokri.
Economists argue that access to a free market will ultimately benefit farmers, so long as it can work in collaboration with the public wholesale marketing system.
“Giving the freedom to the farmer to sell outside the mandi system, to whoever, is a welcome step, in unshackling the farmer,” said economist Ajit Ranade.
“But you need the mandi system to coexist with private trading system. Perhaps the government needs to come out with a written law that they will not withdraw the MSP or the mandi system.”
Influences on India’s agricultural landscape are vast and complex. The amount of agricultural land has shrunk from 159.5 million hectares (2010-2011) to 157 million hectares (2015-2016) with the average farm size dwindling from 1.2 to 1.08 hectares. Concurrently, the number of farming businesses has risen from 138.3 million to 146 million. Around 86% of farmers have less than 2 hectares of land, representing almost half of India’s total farmland. Almost half of India’s population is employed in agriculture, but the industry only contributes 16% towards the country’s gross domestic product.
In addition to protecting the income of farmers, the Government’s procurement system is also part of the national strategy to mitigate hunger. Data suggests that malnourishment in Indian women and children has worsened in recent years and as a central pillar of the Public Distribution System (PDS), access to food at a subsidised rate is essential.