Throughout October and November, tens of thousands of farmers flooded the streets of Barnala and New Delhi in protest of Prime Minister Modi’s agricultural laws. These protests lasted weeks and culminated in a night of tear gas, water cannons, and police clashes on November 26th, leading to the world’s largest general strike and a reigniting of India’s most left leaning political organizations. With the agricultural industry making up over sixty percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion, Modi threatens to lose support from the nation’s largest political constituency. Coming soon after the Citizenship Amendment Act protests and his win in the 2020 elections, Modi faces a great challenge placating the farmers and laborers standing against these new regulations.
The general protests began in reaction to Modi’s alterations to current agricultural laws, consisting of three bills passed on September 20th: The Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, the Essential Commodities Act (Amendment) Bill, and the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill. These bills seek to level the playing field between smaller farmers and large retailers through deregulation of the agricultural market. It also encourages mass production and storage, something smaller farmers have argued puts them at a disadvantage compared to larger agricultural firms. These bills allow farmers to sell their products outside government-sanctioned marketplaces, which had been the main agricultural marketplace for decades, and instead market their goods to outside independent contractors. However, activists and farmers protesting expressed concerns over the removal of historic protections, as government-sanctioned marketplaces have regulations meant to protect smaller, individual firms against giant agricultural retailers.
Modi argues that these bills stand to benefit farmers, tweeting: “For decades, the Indian farmer was bound by various constraints and bullied by middlemen. The bills passed by Parliament liberate the farmers from such adversities.” In reference to the fact that agricultural laws have been stagnant for years, Modi’s tweet was met with concern, as protestors argue the new laws only serve to benefit giant agricultural corporations, not the small farmers that make up the population majority. Additionally, Modi spoke at the holy Ganga river, claiming that political parties in opposition to his regime fed protestors lies about the regulations: “I want to say this from the bank of Mother Ganga — we are not working with the intention of deceiving.”. Despite these speeches, farmers do not seem to be backing down anytime soon.
These assurances from the government have been met with widespread distrust, as farmers fear the end of a decades-long minimum price assurance vital to their financial and physical survival. Farming organizations express concern over the rise in suicide rates after the passing of these bills. In 2019, the National Crime Records Bureau found that 5,957 farmers and 4,324 agricultural labourers in India committed suicide, accounting for 7.9 percent of all suicides in India. As far as financial health, half of India’s farmers are currently in debt, a problem that may drastically worsen with the potential effects of Modi’s bills.
Many of Modi’s critics question his close ties to capitalist giants, such as Mukesh Ambani, who stand to gain from the new laws. Small farmers have expressed fear that corporate giants will utilize these new laws to shut them out of the market since small farmers cannot compete below the previously guaranteed crop prices. Without government protections and the implementation of independent contracts, farmers may be forced to sell their crops and land to these corporations at prices that are unsustainable for them and their businesses. Modi argues that market prices will be higher than the current guaranteed minimum, but protesters don’t believe him, and indicate their exclusion from regulation talks as evidence of foul play.
Today, 20,000 farmers and protestors remain on the streets, demanding changes to this legislation. Abhimanyu Kohar, coordinator of the Indian National Farmer’s Alliance, summarized the protestors’ emotions in an interview with Vox News:
“Farmers have so much passion because they know that these three laws are like death warrants for them. Our farmers are doing this movement for our future, for our very survival.”
The core of the contention between the Modi administration and protestors lies in the choice between opening up markets by lowering regulation barriers and protecting smaller businesses in exchange for reduced efficiency and product volume. This issue is not unique to India. Many nations around the world face struggles between supporting small businesses and rapid economic growth in the current age of globalization and neoliberal free market politics. With over 250 million Indians on strike combined with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and an unemployment rate of 27 percent, Modi’s attempts to remove historic protections for worker’s rights has only served to exacerbate political unrest in India. His political future relies on his ability to rally labor unions behind him. This, however, is unlikely to happen soon, as attempts to talk with protestors have been solely met with frustration. Farmer’s financial futures and health also rely on removal of these new regulations. The strike’s pushback against the right-wing administration’s neoliberal policies coinciding in the same year as the Citizen Amendment Act protests spell trouble for both Modi’s regime and the political future of the nation.