India’s Farmer’s Protests: Policy, Advocacy, and an Attack on Democracy

Opinion by Jami McElrea


"The following article contains a discussion of suicide. This may be considered disturbing or difficult by some readers. We recommend that readers prepare themselves before continuing."


Tens of thousands of Indian farmers have been camped on highways outside of Delhi, the capital of India, for nearly three months, advocating for the repeal of three new farming laws introduced last September [1]. Farmers say the laws will devastate their livelihood, while Prime Minister Modi and his administration say reforms are needed to modernize the country’s agriculture industry. Farming employs 600 million people which is almost twice the population of the United States, making it the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s residents[1]. Large barricades with barbed wire have been erected by police to prevent the protesters from coming further into the capitol. Across the country, supporters have been participating in labour and hunger strikes, some of which have been attended by 100,000 people on Delhi’s outskirts [1].


For decades, the Government of India has guaranteed minimum support prices (MSP) to farmers for certain crops, providing farming families with the stability to make informed decisions and safe investments for the next crop cycle. Under the previous laws, the farmers sold their goods at auction at their state’s agricultural produce market committee (APMC) where they were guaranteed to receive the government minimum price for their products. There were also restrictions on who could buy the goods and prices were capped for essential commodities [1]. The three new laws dismantle this committee structure and instead allow farmers to sell their goods to anyone, at any price, essentially deregulating the practice. In the past, APMC regulation required farmers to sell to licensed middlemen in notified markets, usually in the same area where farmers reside, limiting their ability to sell outside of their region [1].


Under the new law, traders are not required to pay fees, which farmers think would allow private traders to break down traditional markets without any state government oversight. Modi says that it gives farmers the freedom to sell directly to buyers without the middleman, opening enterprises with other states and large grocery chains [1]. What Prime Minister Modi fails to mention is how the new laws effectively eliminate protection and predictability for farmers on the pricing of their products. Farmers argue that, while they might sell crops at a higher price when the demand exceeds supply, they will be devastated in periods of overproduction or reduced demand. The farmers fear that new laws will allow big corporate groups into agriculture markets, which could create monopolies and allow them to fix prices at low levels [2]. Farmers want a law that guarantees that all major produce will still be bought at government fixed prices with the aim to prohibit the sale of any farm produce under the MSP threshold. Correspondingly, this would mean that private traders would also have to comply with these minimum prices. There is an impasse between the government and farmers on this point, with the government arguing that doing so would damage the economy, and with farmers concerned about the stability of their incomes.. Some experts note that the government could implement a price-deficiency mechanism to ensure that farmers receive a fair price. This system has been used in Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India, in which the government pays the difference between the market price and the MSP to farmers [2].


Modi’s government is facing scrutiny from the global community and human rights organizations for how it responded to protests on Republic Day, a national holiday on January 26 that honours the date on which the Indian constitution came into effect. One protester, Navreet Singh Hundal died in the violence [3]. When protests broke through police barricades to enter Delhi, police fired tear gas and water cannons to stop protesters from entering the capitol [3]. In a joint statement, 16 opposition parties accused Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of using excessive force, arrogance, and anti-democratic in their response to protests. Additionally, the Indian government has imposed several internet shutdowns with the pretense of safeguarding public safety.


According to Samyukta Kisan Morena, the umbrella body representing protesting farmers, at least 147 farmers have died from causes including suicide, road accidents, and exposure to cold weather while protesting [3]. Authorities have not given an official figure. Eight journalists who covered the farmer’s protest in India and violence in Delhi on January 26, 2021, are facing criminal charges of sedition and promoting communal disharmony against six senior journalists and editors for allegedly misreporting the facts around the death of the protester [3]. His family says he died from gunshot wounds, but the police said he died when his tractor overturned. Editors of the Guild of India said that the police cases were an attempt to silence the media, and that “the media should be able to report without fear [3].” Furthermore, internet rights groups have condemned the internet shutdowns, saying that the government was using them to “suppress the free flow of information related to peaceful assembly and the fundamental right to protest [4].” Under international human rights law, India has an obligation to ensure that restrictions are substantiated by law and represent a proportionate response to specific concerns. The police have filed cases of allegations of rioting, attempted murder, and criminal conspiracy against at least 37 well-known farmers, union leaders and activists for inflammatory speeches and involvement in the violence. Most of the farmer representatives’ names in the criminal cases had been involved in negotiations with the BJP government about the farm laws in weeks previously [3].

The farmer's protest, while advocating for farmer’s rights, has also become a symbol of the right to organize a mass protest of government policy. The sheer amount of support the movement has received has contributed to government concessions, and there are still other tangible areas of compromise that can be found with continued negotiation for all parties. However, regardless of the economic implications of new farming laws, Prime Minister Modi’s government use of force, and attempts to silence adversary opinions is abhorrent and undemocratic. The violent encroachment on citizen rights to protest, and attempts to arrest journalists and leaders of the protests demonstrate a corrupt attempt to delegitimize an influential movement. The devotion to the farmer’s cause is significant, especially given the cross-cultural nature of the protest. The Indian government should consider this and aim to continue peaceful negotiations while refraining from violent attacks on democracy and public will. It does not seem like farmers or their allies will be standing down anytime soon.

[1]Yeung, J. (2021, February 11). Life at Indian farmers protest camps on Delhi’s outskirts.

Retrieved February 28, 2021, from CNN website: https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/10/asia/india-farmers-protest-explainer-intl-hnk-scli/index.html

[2] Choudhury, G. (2020, Dec 14th).MSP, Middleman & Myths: What Has Changed with the New Farm Laws and Who Benefits. News18. News18. https://www.news18.com/news/india/msp-middleman-myths-what-has-changed-with-the-new-farm-laws-and-who-benefits-3177503.html.

[3] Human Rights Watch. (2021, February 2). India: Journalists Covering Farmer Protests Charged. Retrieved March 1, 2021, from Human Rights Watch website: https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/02/india-journalists-covering-farmer-protests-charged