Reporting from the 'breadbasket' state of the Punjab, TRT World meets farmers protesting the new laws they fear will expose them to exploitation and oppression.
SANGRUR, India — Chamkore Singh, a 70-year-old farmer from the north Indian state of Punjab, takes his shoes off and hurls them at a life-size cardboard cutout of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, placed outside a tent full of protesters who had gathered on October 23 in Malerkotla town.
“This is for my son Sukhpal,” Singh screams emotionally, as the shoe leaves his hand, hitting the cardboard image.
This act of defiance was applauded by the protesters who are putting up a tough fight against the new farming laws enacted by the Hindu nationalist government of India led by Prime Minister Modi.
Singh is a third-generation farmer. His son Sukhpal committed suicide in March this year because he couldn't earn enough through farming and pay off his mounting debt.
Farmer suicides are an intractable problem in India. The causes of agrarian distress range from long droughts to low produce prices and an increase in cost of crop cultivation. Social conditions such as alcohol consumption, the pressure of marrying their daughters off and arranging dowries for them, as well as the owing of debt to private lenders who operate like the mafia, add to their frustrations.
The palpable distress has now been compounded by new farming laws passed by the Modi government in late September. Indian farmers feel the government has exempted itself from purchasing certain agricultural products at set prices, and instead opened the agriculture industry to private players.
Previously, the government-led guaranteed purchasing of farm goods was encouraged by a decades-old system, in which farmers sold their crop yield through state-run wholesale markets. The goods were then redistributed to retail merchants who would sell them to the country's 1.3 billion people.
With the shield of government-led buying gone, farmers feel vulnerable to big corporate players who have the capacity to hoard seasonal crop yield, place them in cold storages and monopolise the market.
“If these bills are not reversed, farmers in Punjab will be ruined. You will see hundreds of suicides every month,” said Joginder Singh, 75, a member of Bharti Kissan Union (Indian Farmers Union), a pan-India organization.
“These laws are dangerous as they will ultimately strip a farmer of his guaranteed basic income.”
Since late September, when the legislations were passed, one farmer suicide was reported in Punjab, the leading agricultural producing state in India, also known as the country's breadbasket.
Punjab is the second largest rice producing state in India. In the autumn crop season of this year, it produced 1.5 million tonnes of paddy in the first two weeks alone. The state covers 32 percent of India's total wheat and rice production, which is sold at Minimum Support Price (MSP), a six-decades old pricing system introduced by the Indian government. The main aim of the MSP is to ensure farmers are getting a deserving price for 23 farm commodities, mainly cereals and pulses and oilseeds, regardless of price fluctuations in the market.
New farming laws allow private investors to set up procurement counters next to the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC), a marketing board run by state governments to regulate crop prices in the interest of both farmers and local buyers.
India's farming unions fear that the arrival of private players will render 7300 government-run APMCs across India obsolete. They dread the possibility that global retail behemoths like Walmart would initially lure farmers with good prices and incentives and then underpay them.
“Once these APMCs are closed, state governments will stop buying from farmers at MSP. This gap will be filled by big private corporations, who will then decide market rates of crucial crops like wheat and rice as per their will,” said Dr. Gian Singh, 68, an agriculture expert, who until recently taught Economics of Agriculture at Punjabi University, Patiala. “Ultimately small time farmers will become bonded labourers of these big companies.”
The farming unions are unwilling to become complacent about the new laws. They have dug in their heels, set up encampments outside gas stations run by India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and camp out on highways and other crucial landmarks.
The movement is driven by the idea of farmers' unity. To symbolise their collective strength, they are wearing almost identical headbands and turbans; people of all ages have swarmed small villages, towns and cities, holding sit-ins and protest rallies.
“We tell each other to be ready for a long fight,” Harbinder Kaur Bindu, 45, a farmer activist, told TRT World, while participating in a protest rally in Punjab's Sangrur town.
Hand to mouth
The fear of getting caught in a corporate trap has ended rivalries between 31 farmer unions. They have come together to mount pressure on the Modi government to reverse the laws.
From early October onwards, the movement became intense as protesters blocked major toll highways, shut down grain silos, gas stations, shopping malls and freight trains that carry coal to privately run thermal plants. They also laid a siege around big grocery chains run by Mukesh Ambani and another Indian billionaire, Gautam Adani. Both Ambani and Adani are known to enjoy close ties with Prime Minister Modi.
Ambani's access to the Modi government can be measured by his presence in crucial dinner table conversations between Prime Minister Modi and other world leaders. Last fall, he sat alongside Modi at an event hosted by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The table was also shared by US president Donald Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro and other high profile guests.
According to a news report by the Financial Times, Ambani was "acting as India's chief diplomat".
It is the Modi government's close proximity with Ambanis and Adanis that has brought the rage of farmers to the doors of their business outlets. They have turned them into 24/7 protest sites.
“Modi wants to sell Punjab to Ambanis and Adanis, but we will not let their existing businesses survive,” roars 62-year-old Saudagar Singh Ghudani into a microphone at a toll highway plaza converted into makeshift protest site outside Ludhiana city, the financial hub of Punjab.
A young boy from the crowd gets up and starts kicking two cardboard cutouts of Modi and Ambani. The crowd cheers in unison.
Ghudani, a third generation farmer, has seen a number of his fellow farmers take their own lives as they found they could not make ends meet through their farming businesses.
“One hectare of land produces rice worth $2706 (197600 Rupees), but the cost of production for the same is around $2030 (148200 rupees). Now imagine what is left for a farmer after putting his yearlong labour into it?,” said Ghudani.
“After these new laws, an average farmer’s income will get slashed by around fifty percent. It will be a huge setback for Punjab and for India.”
A failed model
Country’s top food and trade policy analyst, Devinder Sharma, who is known as India’s “Green Chomsky”, terms these new laws as dangerous for India’s overall food security.
“The government has copied these laws from America, where these interventions have already proved disastrous for small farmers,” said Sharma. “We have seen how entry of big corporations has pushed small farmers out of farming all across the world. The same will happen to poor Indian farmers.”
Sharma believes the only way to save India’s troubled agriculture sector is by making the MSP model mandatory in every state and the violation of it a punishable act.
“Else there will be more farmers taking their lives because of poverty and debt,” said Sharma. “The crisis is deeper than the government wants to think.”