The Indian agriculture acts of 2020, often referred to as the Farm Bills, are three acts that were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. These three very contentious laws have been called a “watershed moment” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while they have been deemed “death warrants for farmers” by MP Pratap Singh Bajwa of the opposition party. The Farm Bills are controversial not only for their content , but also for what came after the passing of the Bills: massive civil protests, followed by (often violent) state-led clampdowns on both the rights to assemble and the freedom of the press.
What are the Farm Bills?
The ‘Farm Bills’ are made up of three market-friendly laws: The Farmers’ Produce and Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, and the Farms (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act. According to the BBC, the Bills as a whole “will loosen rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce.” Historically, Indian farmers have often had limitations on where they can sell their produce, due to the Indian Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act of 2003. This Act stipulates that farmers in India must sell their produce at a specific mandi (wholesale markets for agricultural produce). The Farmers’ Produce and Trade and Commerce Act attempts to dilute this structure of sale and distribution by allowing for inter- and intra-state trade of produce beyond the allocated boundaries of the APMC mandis. The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act is a follow-up that creates a framework of agreement between farmers and buyers of the produce. Now, farmers will be allowed to sell their produce at a market price directly to private businesses and supermarkets, without the intervention of government-controlled wholesale markets.
In addition to the mandi system, the Minimum Support Price (an assured income guaranteed by the government, considered to be the base-level compensation for the resources put in by farmers) has come into question under the new laws. One concern is that if private markets cannot be taxed, farmers may choose to sell harvest there, leading to the decline of mandis and the MSP. The mandi system and the MSP are thought of as a “safety net” for Indian farmers, and the loosening of regulations surrounding the sale of produce may contribute to the decline of these facets of agricultural trade in India, which allows for the possibility of farmers being left at the mercy of big corporations. While economist Ajit Ranade has stated that giving the freedom to the farmer to sell outside the mandi system is a welcome step in “unshackling the farmer,” trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma describes the laws as “leaving farmers to the tyranny of the markets.”
Protesting the Farm Bills
Since the Bills were first passed in September 2020, thousands of Indian farmers have engaged in group protest, demanding the complete repeal of these laws. They view the laws as unfair and exploitative, and though the government has stated that the mandi system and MSP will continue to exist under the new laws, farmers are suspicious of how this will play out in practice, as there is a lack of statutory support for the MSP within the Bills. So while these practices might not be formally outlawed, they could potentially be diluted and pushed out when placed in competition with the free market. Though the laws may seem appealing in some ways, factors such as inadequate infrastructure and high indebtedness contributing to farming distress in India make it such that India’s farmers are overwhelmingly smallholder farmers with less land ownership and ability to produce goods on a mass scale compared to larger farmers and corporations. For instance, 68% of farmers own less than one hectare of land, and more than 90% of the farmers sell their produce in mandis, raising concerns that they will be unable to compete with large private companies and the private markets. Further, many have cited the case of Bihar as cause for concern, a state which repealed the APMC Act in 2006, leading to a deterioration in the condition of farmers within the state.
After months of sustained protests on the outskirts of the city, in January 2021, farmers took to the streets of New Delhi, converging in the city centre to ensure their presence was known and demands were heard. When the farmers came into contact with state police, the protests turned violent — and eventually deadly.
Notably, the farmers accused the government of stoking the violence and attempting to derail their long-term peaceful protesting. Video footage of the protests shows police beating protestors with batons and aiming rifles at crowds, exhibiting the large-scale injuries resulting from the military tactics used by the government to clamp down on dissent. Other such tactics included the deployment of tear gas and the aiming of rifles at the protestors. Further, the government enacted an unconstitutional internet shutdown across areas that were hubs of protest. This was allegedly done to stop the spread of footage of the protests on social media, but evidently this disruption to the flow of information harms the ability of the people to freely assemble and express their political views.
Covering the Farm Bills
Beyond challenges to the rights of the protestors themselves, the Indian government’s response has also sparked concerns of abusing the right of freedom of the press. According to Human Rights Watch, the police in multiple BJP-ruled states (the party headed by Modi) have filed cases of “sedition and promoting communal disharmony” against six senior journalists and editors – Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Paresh Nath, Anant Nath, Vinod K Jose, and a Congress party politician, Shashi Tharoor. Delhi police also detained the journalists Dharmender Singh and Mandeep Punia, who were covering the protests, alleging that the two “misbehaved” with the police. Sedition laws were invoked in the arrest of various journalists, a troubling precedent given that laws such as sedition are often used to impede freedom of speech, according to the Editors Guild of India. Congress Party leader Jairam Ramesh also accused the BJP-led government of trying to silence those reporting on the farmers’ agitation without addressing the state violence that occurred throughout the protests.
Looking to the Future
The Farm Bills have evoked a wide range of emotions and are representative of tensions that have been brewing amongst India’s farmers for years. Some see the new laws as a welcomed liberalization of agricultural practices in India, while others view them as an attempt to remove the safety cushion allocated to small farmers. As a result of the protests, the state has agreed to meet with farmer representatives to resolve the grievances surrounding the Farm Bill reforms. The aim of these meetings is to ensure the state brings in adequate measures to ensure the corporate procurement process does not harm smallholder farmers, implying that a complete repeal of the Bills is unlikely. Amongst these diverging opinions, what is abundantly true is that the Indian government has threatened the rights of its citizens through the violent response to the protests in Delhi and the jailing of journalists covering the Farm Bill protests. The police violence throughout the protests, the unconstitutional internet shutdown, and the false detaining of journalists attempting to report on the protests all represent a lack of regard for the rights of India’s farmers and the citizenry as a whole while trying to utilize their right to assemble.