Farmer Protest In India — The Larger Picture

A special report on the 2024 farmer protest in India that raises a few unasked questions.

Farmer protest in India: The larger picture


February 27, 2024: Indian farmers are once again back on the streets, and all set to march towards Dilli. Hundreds of thousands of farmers are closing in to protest in the capital city over their basic right to livelihood. Cops and authorities are trying to ensure there’s no repeat of the 2021 farmer protest in India.

Let’s take a close look at why India’s farmers have decided to stand up for their rights – and at some missing gaps in the 2024 farmer protest in India.

Agriculture is India’s backbone. It has been so for several thousand years. But since the last 50 years, especially since the early 1990s, the farming sector has been going through a devastating spell. Farmers’ incomes are shrinking fast. Gigantic agribusiness companies, both Indian and foreign, are grabbing the marketplace and farmland. In such dire times, the 2024 farmer protest in India unfolding now on the wings of Dilli is precisely what the country’s agricultural community needs.

Angry farmers and activists have gathered at various flashpoints along the Punjab-Haryana border. They are part of 200 farmer unions that do not belong to any political party – at least, not yet. Their mission is to march straight into the heart of Dilli and confront the central government about their financial rights. That’s the basic storyline of the farmer protest in India this time round.

All eyes on MSPs

The protesting farmers want MSPs, or minimum support prices promised by the government, to be implemented on 23 crops. The Punjab-Haryana border at Shambhu had recently become an epicentre of action and confrontation. Cops have been raining tear gas shells at the protesters. In case, they manage to squeeze past Shambhu, they will be able to head right into Dilli.

Expectedly, the entire border around the national capital region (NCR) has been sealed, in anticipation of an escalation of the farmer protest in India.

Memories of the 2021 farmer protests are fresh in the public’s mind. Farmers at that time famously camped at Dilli’s borders for about a year. They eventually went on to force the rollback of three proposed laws that were designed to indirectly deregulate India’s farming sector.

Like last time, most of the protesters now heading towards Dilli are from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. They want the government to implement MSPs for a wider range of crops than previously covered. They also want a basic pension and other measures to ensure financial safety for all farmers.

As of now, Indian law grants MSPs for wheat, rice and pulses. But they are hardly implemented anywhere. In theory, government agencies are supposed to buy crops from the farmers only for minimum support prices. The agencies buy crops in order to run the public food distribution system.

In reality, MSPs aren’t actually followed. Farmers are forced to sell their crops to government agencies and wholesalers for extremely low prices. Due to the losses incurred as a result, farmers have been quitting agriculture in massive numbers.

They are running to the cities, becoming slum dwellers, construction workers, casual labourers, watchmen, and maids. Many other struggling farmers have been routinely committing suicide to escape financial misery.

Suicide epidemic

Did you know that in India, at least 30 farmers kill themselves every 24 hours? They take that dreadful decision because they fall into a debt trap after borrowing money to buy exorbitant chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers.

Farmer protests are not just happening in India. The outrage here is part of a globally coordinated farmers’ protest. Europe’s big cities recently exploded with protests before India’s farmers took to the streets last week.

Across Europe, farmers used their tractors and trolleys to choke road networks in popular cities. Belgium, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain – they have all been rocked by protests. Angry farmers in Europe want their governments to bring rules to protect their income.

Across the world, farmers’ income has been shrinking very fast because of deregulation of crop-trade that only favours agribusiness companies and distributors. All this is happening under the cover of ‘globalisation’ and ‘smart farming’.

Indian agriculture needs this protest. But there are two grey areas that also need action. One, to secure their real financial independence, the farmers need to go beyond the MSP rules and other laws. They need to question the government why foreign MNCs are dominating India’s farmland; such as Microsoft, Bayer, Monsanto, DuPoint, and BASF, to name a few.

What about poor farmers?

Indian farming needs Indian companies to flourish. When we didn’t have foreign agribusiness companies here, Indian farming was in relatively better shape. During the 2021 protests and also right now, the protest leaders haven’t raised this point. Yet, costly chemical inputs sold by foreign companies is the biggest reason behind India’s farming crisis.

Indian agriculture also needs to weed out foreign forces trying to impose GM or genetically modified farming. GM farming practices, once introduced, will make farming costlier than even now.

The second important point is, the protesting unions should find a practical way to include the poorest farmers of the country. The movement will be complete and truly meaningful if and only when the large majority of India’s poorest farmers actively take part.

The tractor is a suitable icon when rich farmers in Europe protest. In India, the tractor only represents the relatively better-off farmers. Farmers with ploughs and sickles need to be at the centre of a movement like this one.

India’s angry growers have set the ball rolling with the ongoing farmer protest in India. Hopefully, they will push their demands beyond MSPs. Hopefully, GM farming, costly chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers, the lopsided role of foreign companies, and the participation of poor farmers will also be part of their agenda. The coming days and weeks will show us which way things go.

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