PORTLAND, Oregon — Since September 2020, thousands of Indian farmers have gathered outside India’s capital, New Delhi, to protest the government’s controversial new farm bills. The bills, which seek to deregulate Indian agricultural markets, could potentially threaten the economic safety of struggling farmers in India. With protesters refusing to back down, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have come forward to assist them in their months-long demonstrations. The Khalsa Aid group is helping protestors secure their basic needs so that farmers can continue fighting the policies that threaten their livelihoods.
Protests in New Delhi
In September 2020, three bills were passed with little debate or public input. These bills are the subject of the current controversy. Protestors argue these bills encourage agricultural commerce to occur outside of government-run wholesale markets.
- The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act
- The Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance
- The Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities Act.
Since November 2020, numerous highways leading into New Delhi have been converted into sprawling encampments. Tents set up along concrete thoroughfares house more than 100,000 Indian farmers who traveled across the country to make their voices heard by the Indian government.
Most of the farmers come from Punjab, a region in Northern India known for its agricultural abundance. Farmers have come to New Delhi to protest a series of bills that the farmers believe will threaten the economic security of all Indian farmers. The protestors refuse to leave until the government repeals the bills.
First established in the 1960s to support agriculture, the mandis markets are places where many Indian farmers could go to find business. About 23 crops, including rice and wheat, are guaranteed a minimum support price (MSP) when sold at a mandi. This guarantee means that no matter the state of the agricultural market, Indian farmers who grow any of the 23 crops can reliably make money, however little.
In the past, the Indian government has mandated that retailers purchase their agricultural products through the mandis and that the retailers pay a fee to do so. While farmers can sell their products outside of the mandis, the mandate for retailers has meant that the mandis have remained thriving agricultural marketplaces. In addition, the fees collected from those retailers go to supporting regional farmers by funding beneficial programs.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has championed the new bills as the first step in modernizing India’s agricultural system. Opponents of the bills argue that the bills will lead to the end of the mandis and MSPs, creating a level of uncertainty that economically insecure farmers cannot bear.
Agriculture in India
More than half of the workforce in India is employed in the agricultural industry, and yet, the industry accounts for a bare one-sixth of the GDP of India. Several factors contribute to this disparity. For one, many Indian farmers do not have the land or machinery necessary to increase productivity and turn a profit. The farmers who do make an income from farming are not much better off.
Indian farmers earn a monthly average of between 18,000 and 23,000 rupees ($200-$300), which is minimal in comparison to what workers in other industries earn. High rates of debt among Indian farmers compound the economic strain of low income. Even in Punjab, where farmers tend to be better off, more than 80% of agricultural families are in debt. In 2019, more than 10,000 farmers and agricultural laborers resorted to suicide due to job-related concerns. Protestors fear that Modi’s new agricultural bills will worsen already strained conditions.
One organization assisting the protesting farmers is Khalsa Aid, an international NGO based in the United Kingdom. Ravinder Singh established Khalsa Aid in 1999. The plight of people fleeing the war in Kosovo deeply impacted Singh. He decided to take action by helping to organize and deliver donations for refugees. While Khalsa Aid usually tackles humanitarian disasters, the organization is now aiding Indian farmers in the ongoing demonstrations.
Khalsa Aid is administered in India by 150 volunteers who have provided numerous essential resources and services to protestors since November 2020. The aid organization began by hosting langar, a communal feast traditionally practiced by Sikhs. Since then, Khalsa Aid has expanded its services to include housing, clothing and sanitation facilities. Recently, the organization has taken to distributing mosquito nets and repellents as temperatures begin to rise.
By siding with Indian farmers, Khalsa Aid has been criticized by proponents of the new agricultural bills. Critics question Khalsa Aid’s motivations as well as the source of funding behind its services. Nonetheless, in the face of these attacks, Khalsa Aid plans to continue assisting Indian farmers as they seek to overturn the new bills.
Protecting Rights and Livelihoods
Indian farmers are protesting to safeguard their livelihoods. If the laws stand, farmers risk falling into deeper poverty. With the support of more organizations, the rights and livelihoods of farmers in India can be protected.
– Joseph Cavanagh