Narendra Modi’s ‘false’ farm promises

India’s prime minister made big assurances to farmers five years ago, but his government has not delivered and has now been forced to backtrack on its contentious farm laws.

Vishnu Bhosale has begun the countdown to 2022. “In 2016, the prime minister announced that his government will double the farmers’ income by 2022,” he says, referring to India Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Bhosale, 67, farms one acre of land (4 050m²) in Jambhali village, in the state of Maharashtra. He has been wondering since then how it will happen and if he will benefit. “Forget doubling, my income has halved. I am tired of these lies,” he growls. 

His resentment is justified. In 2019, 50.2% of agricultural households in India were in debt of Rs74 121 (about R15 300 at the time). And in September 2020, India’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government hastily passed three new laws that deregulated farming by undermining the existing system and opening it to corporations. What followed was one of the biggest farmer protests worldwide, by members of 40 farm unions in the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) coalition.

20 November 2021: Vishnu Bhosale, who farms on a one-acre piece of land, has been protesting for a year at the local and district level in Maharashtra as he could not get to the Delhi border. (Photographs by Sanket Jain).

Tens of thousands of farmers from the northern India states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan began marching towards India’s capital of New Delhi on 26 November 2020. When they weren’t allowed to enter Delhi, they camped at the Ghazipur, Tikri and Singhu borders.  

Braving the biting cold, barricades, security forces, tear gas, nails, batons, police violence, trenches, demonisation in the mainstream media and legal notices, the farmers resisted the corporatisation of farming. In the process, 600 small and marginal farmers have died.

The farmers’ response was non-violent. They wrote hundreds of postcards to Modi and went on strike indefinitely, calling for a nationwide shutdown of economic activities and blocking highways and railways. On the 26th of each month, they organised local demonstrations, often writing letters to the government asking for a total repeal of the laws and creating awareness among non-farmers. More than 250 million farmers, workers and others protested against these reforms in late November.  

25 January 2021: Farmers appeal to people to boycott the products of the two biggest corporate giants of India, Ambani and Adani. They believe the businesses will benefit most from the farm laws.

Crop price floors

An SUV belonging to Union Minister Ajay Mishra rammed through protesters in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh on 3 October. Eight people died in the incident, four farmers and a journalist among them. Farmers alleged that the minister’s son Ashish Mishra was in one of the vehicles.  

After this, a caravan of farmers began travelling across India, carrying the ashes of farmers who had died during the protest. Among the travellers was farmer Basgonda Patil, 54, from Maharashtra’s Jambhali village. “The prime minister didn’t even say a word on the dead farmers,” he says. “Instead of sacking the minister, the government is busy defaming us.”

Along with 100 farmers, Patil carried these ashes 1 800km through 15 villages in the Kolhapur district to raise awareness of the government’s impunity. “Movements like this help build solidarity,” says Patil, who owns three acres of land. 

Modi announced on 19 November – more than a year after passing the farm laws – that his government would repeal them, saying he had failed to convince a “section of farmers despite the best efforts”. 

“We never asked for these laws,” says Akkatai Teli, 67, a protesting farmer from Maharashtra’s Shirol region. “What is the farmer getting from Modi’s announcement? Our demand was legal entitlement to the minimum support price.” 

India’s agriculture ministry has a minimum support price for 23 crops, a floor price that ensures farmers don’t make losses in volatile markets. No law currently enforces this minimum, putting farmers at the mercy of buyers. Nor does the government procure all these crops. As a result, the minimum support price has become the maximum price farmers can get. 

“We can’t even recover the cost of production,” says Teli. She had been selling her soybeans to private traders, who paid her less than the minimum support price of Rs3 950 (about R840) per quintal, or 100kg.  “It’s been three months since I haven’t sold my 500kg of soybeans, because the private traders are offering a much lower price.” 

Teli, an unlettered farmer, has been protesting and organising farmers 1 787km from Delhi since November 2020, sometimes in her village or at a district level. Sessions organised by farmers and activists – one of whom is advocate Amol Naik, 39, a farmer from Maharashtra’s Mudshingi village – helped her understand the new laws. “We give everyday examples that help farmers make sense of these laws,” says Naik. 

8. 20 November 2021: Farmer and advocate Amol Naik, wearing a plaid shirt, explains the legal jargon in the farm laws in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. 

No more safety net

In India, farmers sell their produce to registered buyers through agricultural produce market committee (APMC) auctions. The first law, also known as the APMC bypass bill, helps farmers sell their produce directly to private buyers outside these APMCs. However, there’s no mandate to report these transactions, nor do buyers need to register.

“Initially, corporations outside the APMC might pay a good price. However, within a few years, they will make the traditional APMC redundant, which will eventually be shut by the government, citing losses,” explains Naik. “Once the APMCs are gone, there won’t be any safety net for the farmers as there’s no mention of a minimum support price.” This law aims to deregulate trade by gutting the state markets that offered this minimum price threshold.

India has experienced several farming crises in recent times – from climate change to smaller landholdings and massive corporatisation – leading to more than 300 000 farmers dying by suicide between 1995 and 2014; in 2020, India lost 28 people a day from the farming community to suicide. And by 2018-2019, 76.5% of agricultural households had less than 2.4 acres of land. 

25 January 2021: Protesting farmers at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan sports ground seek makeshift protection from the heat.

“How will poor farmers like us negotiate with corporations?” asks Bhosale. Farming falls under the state government in India. “With these laws, the Modi government is destroying the federal structure,” says Naik. 

The eastern India state of Bihar passed a similar act abolishing APMCs in 2006. An analysis of post-2006 reforms in Bihar finds that “farmers are left to the mercy of traders who unscrupulously fix lower prices for agricultural produce … Inadequate market facilities and institutional arrangements are responsible for low price realisation and instability.” This is what farmers fear. In several instances, Bihar farmers got half the minimum support price for their mielie crops, forcing them to migrate to other states and work as agricultural labourers. 

Recourse removed

These laws also take away from the right to seek legal remedy, according to Section 13 of the APMC bypass bill: “No suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings shall lie against the central government or the state government, or any officer of the central government or the state government.”

Section 15 explicitly mentions that no civil courts have the authority to resolve any cases under this act. “These are surely among the most sweeping exclusions of a citizen’s right to legal recourse in any law outside of the emergency of 1975-1977,” writes P Sainath, a veteran rural journalist and the founder of People’s Archive of Rural India

9. 20 November 2021: Narayan Gaikwad distributes sugar and jaggery to the farmers and residents of Jambhali village after it was announced the farm laws would be repealed. 

The second law provides a framework for contract farming without mandating written contracts. “If the corporate cancels the contract, who will buy the produce?” asks Naik. “Won’t the farmer be pushed into a debt and eventually forced to sell the land?” 

The third law amends the Essential Commodities Act of 1955 by removing the stockpiling limits of essential crops such as potatoes, onions, edible oilseeds and oils. The limits will only be imposed in the case of a 100% rise in the price of horticultural produce or exceptional circumstances such as war, famine, etc. “The corporations can hoard as much as they want, create a scarcity and then increase the prices,” says Bhosale. 

In an open letter to Modi, the SKM had six demands. These included legal entitlement to minimum support prices for all crops, compensation for the families of martyred farmers, and the withdrawal of the electricity amendment bill and cases against protesting farmers. Farmer leader Rakesh Tikait said that even after the laws are repealed in Parliament, the farmers won’t go back until these demands are met.  

28 December 2020: Farmers from villages in the Kolhapur district sent hundreds of handwritten postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to repeal the farm laws.

Women farmers raise their voice

Like Teli, Lalita Hulle, 52, a farmer with 0.25 acres of land in Maharashtra’s Rui village, has participated in more than 24 protests in the past year. During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Teli and Hulle risked their lives to make women farmers aware of these laws. 

“I travelled to the farms taking sessions,” says Hulle. She had to dodge the police as movement was restricted during lockdown. And making door-to-door visits wasn’t easy, as they work as agricultural labourers from 7am to 2pm before working for eight hours in their own fields. 

“These laws will affect women farmers the worst. Many farmers from our region couldn’t go to Delhi, so we began protesting at the local level to stand in solidarity,” says Teli. In rural India, 75% of women who work full-time are farm workers, responsible for 60% to 80% of the country’s food production. But women who farm own merely 12.8% of the land.

20 November 2021: Lalita Hulle, a farmer with a quarter-acre piece of land, has been learning about the draconian farm laws with other women farmers in Rui village. 

With no title deeds, they don’t have access to credit facilities, crop insurance and other financial offerings. “For eight hours of work, women merely get Rs210, while men are paid double,” says Hulle. “We don’t even get equal wages. How will we negotiate with corporations?”

Women played an instrumental role in mobilising farmers and resisting the farm laws. Like Teli and Hulle, thousands of women have spent countless hours protesting. 

“We’ve shown the entire world that sustained non-violent protests can defeat the fascist forces,” they say. “We’ll keep protesting till our demands are met. This time they can’t get away with false promises, the farmers have united now,” says Bhosale, raising his fist in celebration.

8 March 2021: Women farmers at the Tikri border in Bahadurgarh, Haryana state, shout slogans against agricultural reforms. (Photograph by AFP)
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