Farmers sit on the back of a truck at a blocked road at the Singhu border near Delhi, India, during a protest against the new farm laws. Photo: AFP

It’s tough being a farmer in India. Incomes are low, the number of dependants keeps increasing over the years, and production costs often outpace crop prices making it difficult for farmers to survive.

And with almost 150 million farming families in the country, it is inadvisable and impossible for any government to ignore this portion of the population.

So when 50,000 farmers, mainly from Punjab, headed towards Delhi – after month-long demonstrations in Punjab failed to elicit any favorable response – the government was obviously concerned.

Farmers across north India are protesting against three farm laws brought in by the central government with stated objectives of improving farming, modernizing storage, and marketing. However, farmers see the laws as part of the government’s long-term design to pave the way for greater corporate sector involvement and reducing its spending in the sector.

Farmers are concerned the government will withdraw its Minimum Support Price (MSP) guarantee, thereby leaving them vulnerable to price manipulation by middlemen and large companies. The price of key wheat and rice crops, for instance, has barely kept pace with inflation over the past decade, increasing their frustration and anger.

Protesting Sikhs from 30 farmer unions were blocked by riot police in intermediate Haryana state. Police fired water cannons and tear gas shells, caned even the elderly, blocked roads with concrete blocks, metal barricades and barbed wire rolls.

This is the most serious challenge from farmers to the Narendra Modi-led government in six years. If left unresolved it could shake some of his rural support, at least in north India.

Farmers have felt short-changed for a long time. About 86% of land holdings across India are smaller than two hectares, and 40% of their borrowing comes from expensive, informal sources. The inability to repay loans from low incomes has pushed many to take their own lives. About 333,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1995, according to National Crime Records Bureau.

In his 2014 election manifesto Modi promised to double farm income in five years. The deadline has now been shifted to 2022.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses party workers during the celebrations after the victory in Bihar assembly election and by-elections in other states at BJP headquarters on November 11, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Photo: NurPhoto

In 2015, Modi was forced to withdraw a land bill while it was being debated in Parliament – and opposed even by his allies – as it was seen to favor the corporate sector in land acquisitions.

Amendments will also enable farmers to sell produce in any part of the country and permit farmers to enter into pre-arranged contracts with buyers, including fixing a future price. But these are hardly the kind of provisions that farmers look forward to since most are poor with small properties and can’t transport grains long distances to get higher prices.  

Senior agriculture economist Ashok Gulati dubbed the farm law changes as historic and a potential game changer. Yet, he too tampered his enthusiasm until the government matched its intentions.

Yogendra Yadav, an expert in rural issues and agriculture said: “Farmers understand it better than the economists that these three laws are not just policy measures, these are signaling devices.

“The Modi government is announcing its intent to withdraw from agriculture in terms of investment, regulation and extension work,’’ wrote Yadav on his Swaraj India website. “Private players would invest in warehouses and cold storages, so the government can step back.’’

More than two-thirds of all Indians depend on agriculture directly or indirectly for their survival. Yet, the sector contributes just about 16% of the gross domestic product. Farms used to be the mainstay of the Indian economy, contributing as much as 43% half a century back.

Most small and marginal farmers seem to be stuck in a time warp with no alternative skills or options to change their lifestyles, especially as India gets increasingly urbanized and mechanized, leaving its large and very young labor force stranded.

To make matters worse, the government has promised to retain the MSP but hasn’t included it as part of the law, increasing farmers’ suspicion. Determined farmers insist they won’t retreat until all three laws are repealed.

Lack of trust is making chances of an early agreement tougher, and there are good reason for the distrust.

The bills were initially passed by the Cabinet in May, at the height of the pandemic and lockdown, through an ordinance. In India, the ordinance route is typically reserved for a bill that needs to be cleared in an emergency and can’t wait for discussion and approval of both houses of parliament.

The three laws should have been discussed and debated by lawmakers, as farmers argue that there was no emergency for an ordinance in the middle of a pandemic and lockdown.

In September, the bill was hastily pushed through the upper house, overriding vociferous protests by members of several political parties. Some members of the upper house refused to vacate and spent the night in Parliament lawns to mark their protest.

“The amendment will strengthen the overall supply chain mechanism of the agriculture sector,’’ the government said. “This amendment will also help to achieve the government’s promise to double the farmer’s income by promoting investment in this sector and promote ease of doing business.’’

Farmers shout slogans as they protest against new farm laws at the Singhu border near Delhi, India on November 27, 2020. Photo: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via AFP

India’s Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar promised to meet the farmers on December 3 to address their concerns.

Meanwhile, farmers are being held back outside the capital, and denied access to a commonly-designated protest site near historical Jantar Mantar observatory in central Delhi, about a mile from the parliament. Police have cited the fear of Covid-19 spreading.  

Adding to the government’s concern is farmers’ discontent in states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, where protests have been reported.

For now, farmers have settled down on open fields outside Delhi, cooking on gas stoves under the headlights of their tractors and sleeping on beddings rolls.

The Delhi government, sympathetic to farmer’s demands, is providing water to the farmers who are often described as ‘anna-datta’ or the food-providers. The largely non-violent farmers are also shown on TV reports to be serving cooked food to policemen as they sit cross-legged in rows.

While farmers have vowed to continue their protest, home minister Amit Shah promised on Saturday to have talks with farmers earlier than December 3 if they agreed on certain conditions.