Why are hundreds of thousands of farmers protesting in India?

  • Video report by ITV News correspondent Sejal Karia; words by digital presenter and producer Amani Ibrahimi

Hundreds of thousands of farmers in India are protesting over new agriculture laws.

Not only are they marching on the streets but they’re also putting up a fight by going on strike over three new laws which the Punjabi farming community says is putting their livelihoods at risk.

The situation in India continues to get worse as images and videos surfacing the web appear to show farmers who have travelled to the capital city from Punjab and Haryana to peacefully protest, being met with tear gas and water cannons by police.

Protesters have also blocked many highways leading into New Delhi for nearly two weeks.

They’re so determined to reverse the laws, they’ve created temporary homes outside - blocking the roads as a way to get the government’s attention. 

They say they will not move until their needs are met.

Protesters block a major highway during a nationwide demonstrations against new agriculture laws Credit: AP

What do the new laws mean?

In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed three new laws which allow farmers to sell their produce directly to private buyers instead of going through the government-regulated markets called the ‘Mandis’.

Currently, the price of produce is decided at the market floor while assuring minimum supporting prices. 

However, if these new laws go ahead and the market becomes unregulated, this would not guarantee farmers a Minimum Support Price which they still want.

The Minimum Support Price (MSP) is in place to ensure guaranteed prices and to protect farmers from price fluctuations. As this has no legal backing, it could mean that the new laws will also have no provision for it.

Usually, a minimum price is given for any crop that the government considers to be profitable and therefore deserving of ‘support’.

It's fixed by the central government and is offered for 23 crops based on recommendations from the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). Although the government is not legally bound to pay these even if open market rates ask for a lower price.

MSP is kept at 1.5 times the cost of production but ultimately the price varies. Three formulas are considered by the CACP when it comes to calculating the costs;

  • A2: This takes into account money spent by farmers on things such as seeds, fertilisers and fuel.

  • A2+FL: This is an estimated value of unpaid family labour.

  • C2: This considers rent and interest foregone on the land plus if farmers own any machinery.

The new laws do not mention anything on providing MSP on crops but it's always been that way. MSP has never been under legal mandate yet farmers are still worried that it could be abandoned as the new laws do not specify it.

The government insists that the new reforms are a way to modernise the regulations and have vocally talked about MSP remaining even though it is not a written law. It says it's trying to help, while farmers disagree.

Farmers protest during nationwide shutdown over new agriculture laws Credit: AP

Why are farmers not happy with this?

Although, it might seem like farmers are being given more options, some are sceptical over the government’s plan and say this could affect their livelihoods.

The average monthly income for agricultural households is 8,931 Indian rupees, which is £90.36, according to research by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development in 2016.

Only 35% of that income is actually from agriculture meaning farmers are forced to earn money from other sources such as; rent on building or land, income from interest earned on bank deposits and interest made from investments.

Many farmers rely on the industry for a living and fear that if private buyers purchase their products at a higher price, it could lead to debt.

They’re worried this could eventually leave them dependent on big corporations and that the government might not step in to help.

India is one of the world’s largest producer of agriculture. Credit: AP

Why is this a big deal?

India is one of the world’s largest agricultural producers.

Many of the spices and pulses you see in shops come from India but that’s not all, it is also one of the world’s largest producers of rice, wheat, cotton, tea, fruit and vegetables etc. 

Farming is a huge industry in India, employing more than 40% of its 1.3 billion population. Therefore, a lot of families rely on the industry as a way to get by. 

India also has a good relationship with the UK and doesn't just trade agricultural goods. The UK also imports mineral fuels, metals, machinery, clothing, pharmaceutical products etc.

In 2018, trade between the UK and India totalled more than £20 billion, according to the Office of National Statistics. 

The UK imported more from India than any other Commonwealth country in 2019. UK imports were £16 billion.

Demonstrators on Waterloo Bridge in London protesting against the exploitation of farmers in India. Credit: PA

What has the reaction been in the UK?

There are many people in the United Kingdom who are personally concerned over the impact of the new laws; whether that’s because they care about the farmers’ rights in general or because their families come from the Punjabi farming industry.

Over the weekend, people in London gathered to protest outside of the Indian embassy as a way to show solidarity. Police arrested nine people and fined four others for breaching Covid-19 restrictions.

UK MPs have also raised their concerns over the new farm laws and are calling for an urgent meeting with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. 

A letter, drafted by Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, talks about the laws on 'exploiting farmers and those dependent on the farming in India'.

The letter, which has a total of 36 signatures, also addressed thousands of farmers who had taken their own lives over debt and how these new laws are adding fuel to the fire.

It also included research by The Sikh Council UK which shows that 92% of UK Sikhs have ties to agricultural land in India.