Indian farmers block railway lines and roads to protest agricultural reforms


Angry farmers have blocked highways and railway tracks across India in a second day of protests against agricultural reforms that they say will leave them at the mercy of corporate agribusinesses.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party pushed three farm bills through parliament to deregulate the trade in agricultural commodities, overriding demands from coalition partners and opposition parties for greater scrutiny of the legislation. Critics have accused the government of using the coronavirus pandemic to push through the controversial reforms in support of his broader socio-economic agenda.

The new regime replaces socialist-era rules that required farmers to sell their crops to licensed middlemen at government market yards.

Mr Modi insists the freer trade will benefit farmers by allowing them to earn higher prices by dealing with a greater number of potential buyers.

“For decades, the Indian farmer was bound by various constraints and bullied by middlemen,” Mr Modi tweeted this week, saying the bills would “liberate farmers from such adversities”.

However, the reforms have stoked anxieties among farmers — particularly in the grain-producing states of Punjab and Haryana — about whether the state-owned Food Corporation of India will continue to buy agricultural products at prices set by the government. This system has long assured them a minimum return.

Farmers fear deregulation will leave them vulnerable to powerful corporate interests and in an even weaker negotiating position than with traditional traders.

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“We will protest against the new law until we die because it will ruin us,” said Makhan Singh, a farmer who grows wheat and rice in Punjab and was participating in a sit-in in Ludhiana.

“The new system will enslave us much worse than the British, leaving us at the mercy of private traders.”

Economists said the traditional system sets perverse incentives for farmers to grow excessive food grains at the expense of more nutritious crops, which the government does not buy. They argue liberalising trade is critical to boosting productivity, as direct ties between farmers and larger food-processing business would drive more investment into rural infrastructure and increase rural incomes.

Amit Vatsyayan, a partner at EY, the professional services firm, said deregulation would “ease the flow of investments, creation of critically needed post-harvest infrastructure, and open up market access for farmers for better profits”.

But farmers remain sceptical.

“The fear is obviously of exploitation,” said Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, an Indian farmers’ association. “The government keeps saying: ‘Middlemen will be finished off’. Smaller middlemen will be wiped out, but you will have larger middlemen with larger bandwidth and larger financial clout for exploitation.”

The protests are the first large-scale expressions of dissent in India since its’ coronavirus lockdown, and highlight the uneasy relationship between farmers and the BJP, whose traditional support base is more urban.

Since 2014, rural incomes have been severely squeezed, as New Delhi used imports and export controls to battle urban food price inflation. The government recently banned exports of onions, causing the price of India’s most politically sensitive vegetable to crash.

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