India’s Farmer Protests: How Prime Minister Narendra Modi has Ignited Months of Protest

Tobi Morrow 

On the outskirts of New Delhi, a nationwide strike is calling to repeal the September farm acts implemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In November, more than 200 farm unions from 22 states participated in the mass protests that have choked the city’s four main entry points. The farmers are protesting the new farming laws, worried for their state protection, while the government says they will help modernize the country’s agricultural industry

The three new acts serve to “unshackle [India’s] farmers but also give them new rights and opportunities,” Modi said in November. The acts allowed farmers to buy and sell produce outside of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) ‘mandis,’ to enter contract with agri-business firms and large retailers for pre-agreed prices, and also served to remove commodities like cereals, onions, and potatoes from the list of essential commodities. Modi hopes that with the laws, India’s agricultural industry will open up to global markets and attract private investment. However, the government’s persistence in reassuring positive change doesn’t seem to alleviate the worries of Indian farmers.

More than 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people primarily depend on agriculture, and reliance has only increased due to the effects of Covid-19. Debts, bankruptcies, and high suicide rates also loom over India’s economy. The Indian agriculture market has seen little structural change within the past few decades. Many farmers wonder if Modi’s new rules will upturn the guaranteed minimum prices they were promised by the government, leaving them on the knees to corporate greed. The acts threaten to dismantle the minimum support system (MSP), ameliorating corporate house opportunity to dictate the terms and driving down prices. 

In January 2021, protesters clashed with police barricades, many farmers driving their modified tractors to brave the weather. On the city’s national Republic Holiday, protestors stormed the Red Fort, a 400-year-old landmark, in advancement towards New Delhi. Tractors were used to pull apart barricades and police responded by firing tear gas. At least one protestor was killed and 300 police injured after the protests reached new violence. 

Despite Modi’s temporary freeze on the acts, the protests show no signs of stopping without complete repeal. Simran Jeet Singh, an American educator, writer, and activist currently teaching at Union Seminary and a Stephen M. Keller Term Member for the Council on Foreign Relations, notes how the government has responded to past protests of Indian agricultural workers with “violent crackdowns that include documented torture, human rights abuses, and extrajudicial killings.” Violence and detainment by the government in response to civil unrest is common, leaving some worried about the potential outcome of these continued strikes. Government officials and leaders of more than 30 farmers’ unions are still discussing agreements, while farmers have made it clear that no compromise will be made short of the complete removal of the acts. Growing agitation between both sides foreshadows unrest within the coming months with all eyes on Prime Minister Modi’s next moves. 

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