Today, over 200,000 Indian farmers have converged around the country’s capital, New Delhi, to protest three farm acts passed by the Parliament of India. Protests began in the northern state of Punjab soon after the introduction of this legislation in September, and spread across the country on Nov. 26, 2020, when a nationwide general strike was observed by about 250 million people – making it the largest strike in human history.
Protesters allege that this reform-minded legislation is blatantly “anti-farmer” and leaves farmers open to exploitation by large agricultural corporations, in a country where agriculture employs half of the entire labor force. The protesters fear that the “mandi” system that regulated and protected the sale of crops will be rendered impotent in the face of the new legislation, which offers little protection to farmers in the long term.
“(The mandi system) has been designed keeping in mind … that farmers are the weakest link,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, a convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. “They can be exploited in numerous ways.”
Behind this sobering fact, and the passing of Parliament’s farmer legislation in 2020, rests a centuries-long history of farmer exploitation in India, beginning with British occupation of the subcontinent, i.e., the British Raj.
The Opium Wars
Before the British East India Company (EIC) established its dominance over the Indian subcontinent in the latter half of the 18th century, Indian farmers were arguably the most productive in the world. The Indian economy as a whole produced 25% of the world’s industrial output in 1750 – equivalent to the United States’ share of the global economy today – outstripping its main rival Qing China. By the 1900s, however, that figure dropped to a mere 2% of the world’s output.
Scholars agree that the drop was largely a result of the deliberate mishandling of the Indian economy (termed “deindustrialization”) by the occupying British.
A particularly egregious example of the EIC’s manipulation of Indian agriculture is the First Opium War fought between England and Qing China. The opium that the British government used to dominate the Chinese market was forcibly grown in the Gangetic plains of India. The EIC coerced Indian farmers into growing cash crops like opium and indigo, which the farmers were forced to sell to the British below market price. The EIC then shipped the opium to China, where it was illegally sold at or above market price. The First Opium War was a result of the Qing government’s enforcement of its preexisting ban on the sale of opium.
Throughout the British Raj, India’s economy was stifled by the British in much the same way. Indians were forced into agricultural labor as stiff tariffs on export (and the literal destruction of Indian industry) wiped out the Raj’s secondary and tertiary economy overnight. As with opium, farmers, whose productivity was already precipitously declining, were forced to sell their crops below market prices to the British. The EIC imported the raw material to England where they were converted into manufactured goods. These goods were exported back to India and sold at prices that the highly tariffed and debilitated industry in India could not compete with.
Minimum Support Price
The legacy of the Raj has haunted India well past its 1947 independence from the British. Clearly, it is nowhere near achieving its pre-colonization level of industry and is doomed to rely on agriculture for the foreseeable future. But it is the country’s history of farmer exploitation that has shaped the protections independent India affords its farmers today.
Yet, it is these same protections, encapsulated in the mandi system, that the present Parliament’s legislation is seemingly designed to undermine. Perhaps the most important, and most politically charged protection afforded to farmers through the mandi is the minimum support price (MSP). The government sets an MSP at which farmers can sell their product for a guaranteed profit, which affords them at least a liveable wage and protects them from the extremely low market rates reminiscent of the British Raj.
Now, however, the private sector will be allowed to procure food grains directly from farmers, entirely circumventing the mandi and its protections. While the government maintains that this will help farmers sell their produce to a larger buyer base, it fails to address farmers’ fears that the larger buyer base might overwhelm India’s fragile agricultural economy. Even with guaranteed MSPs on the sale of all crops inside and outside the mandi (something the government is hesitant to promise), farmers will be left vulnerable to private entities who collude with each other or hoard vast amounts of produce, and thereby singlehandedly determine the market price of agricultural goods.
The Plight of Indian Farmers
Indian farmers have, since their independence from the British, fought to overcome the legacy of exploitation they inherited from the Raj. For decades they have demanded greater protections from the government so that they may continue to feed the world’s second-largest population with the dignity they deserve. And despite their victories (including the mandi system, which is technically not even written into law) the Indian government has failed to protect them in many ways.
If anything, the nearly 300,000 farmers who have committed suicide since 1995 should point to the cry for help emanating from India’s most vulnerable population. Farmers need more, not fewer protections.
“We will carry out our protest peacefully,” said a farmer protesting outside New Delhi, according to Vox. “Whether it takes 6 months or a year, we have no problem.”
Perhaps these farmers in the cold of the national capital will drive home that point.
Do you believe that the Indian Parliament’s new laws designed to reform agriculture in India are beneficial to farmers? Are the protests justified? Let us know in the comments below!