Here’s why farmers in India are protesting and why Canadians are concerned

The uprising of India's farmers: What's behind the protests?

Clashes continued between protesters and police in India this week over new legislation farmers claim will threaten their livelihoods, marking nearly four months of public outcry.

The demonstrations have garnered international attention. But why are people protesting, and how is Canada involved?

Here’s a look at what’s happening.

Why are farmers in India protesting?

Farmers in India have been rallying in recent months against three laws enacted Sept. 20 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

The Indian government has argued the changes will give farmers more freedom, but farmers are concerned the new laws will drive down their products’ prices with no safeguards to protect them against corporate takeovers and exploitation.

They also claim the government did not hold sufficient consultation before signing the laws into action.

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The first, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, will allow farmers to deal directly with corporations and private buyers, as opposed to doing business through the Indian government.

Balsher Sidhu, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia living in India, told Global News farmers are primarily concerned with this first law.

Up until now, India has provided farmers with Minimum Support Pricing (MSP), a fixed price that insures farmers of 23 crops against any substantial falls in farm prices.

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“(Farmers) fear that it will benefit corporatized agriculture and end the current system of MSP-based procurement of food-grains (essentially wheat and rice) by the government in state-run trading areas,” said Sidhu, who was born in Punjab, a hub for the country’s agricultural sector.

He added there is real concern among farmers that as private buyers and larger corporations begin buying their produce, the government will pull out of its MSP-based procurement system.

“If farmer incomes fall, their consumption falls — which can have a domino effect on the whole economy of these states,” Sidhu said.

A general view of trucks and tractors of protesting farmers are seen as police try to stop farmers from entering in Delhi to protest against new farm laws, at the New Delhi, Haryana Sindhu border, India, Nov. 27, 2020. Rajat Gupta / EPA via The Associated Press

The second law, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, deals with pricing. The bill will push farmers, corporations and private buyers to negotiate contracts with promised “price assurance,” rather than a regulated price set by the Indian government.

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And the third, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, seeks the “modernization” of India’s food supply chain by reducing stockpiling, removing commodities like “cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes” from the current list of essential commodities. It also aims to “drive up investment in cold storages” and give farmers the “freedom to produce, hold, move, distribute and supply” their products.

Adding to the list of farmers’ concerns, said Rajshri Jayaraman, an associate economics professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, is that the bills are confusing.

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“What exactly does this provide for? What doesn’t it provide for?…This hasn’t been very well explained at all,” she said.

“To pass legislation like this that affects the largest single sector of the economy and the poorest people in an already poor country during a pandemic? I don’t even know where to get started.”

India’s agricultural sector has been a source of ongoing poverty for some time, despite being the country’s largest source of livelihood, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. As of 2016, it employed 59 per cent of India’s population of 1.27 billion and accounted for 23 per cent of its GDP, data from UN organization showed.

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However, the National Institute for Transforming India, a policy think-tank of the Indian government, found the annual income of a farming household in 2017 was 36,938 rupees — which translates to roughly $642 CAD.

The 2016 Economic Survey said a majority of farmers own less than one hectare of land, and Jayaraman said most “don’t even produce enough to sell to the market… they’re living hand-to-mouth.”

Farmers try to break police barricade during a protest as police stop them from entering Delhi to protest against new farm laws at Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, India, Dec. 3, 2020. Rajat Gupta / EPA via The Associated Press

“In the absence of a general social security net for people who are already on the edge of the brink of poverty, to then take away part of the social safety net is a really bad idea for people who are already precariously placed,” Jayaraman added.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers from northern India’s Punjab and Haryana regions have gathered outside of New Delhi in protest, blocking roads and main highways, with some farmers going as far as setting their fields on fire.

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However, demonstrators have been met by police with tear gas, batons and water cannons.

Modi, for his part, has dismissed criticism against the new laws.

“For decades, the Indian farmer was bound by various constraints and bullied by middlemen. The bills passed by Parliament liberate the farmers from such adversities. These bills will add impetus to the efforts to double the income of farmers and ensure greater prosperity for them,” he said in a tweet in September.

How is Canada involved?

India has strong ties to Canada, as 1.3 million Indians call the country home, according to Statistics Canada.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waded into the discourse last week, offering his support to demonstrators.

His comments were met with criticism on Friday, after India summoned Canada’s high commissioner and called the prime minister’s statements an “unacceptable interference and “ill-informed.”

On Friday, Trudeau reiterated that “Canada will always stand up for the right of peaceful protest anywhere around the world.”

The conflict has spilled into several provinces across Canada, with solidarity protests happening in parts of Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

On Sunday, more than 1,000 gathered for a car rally in Winnipeg to support farmers in India. That same day, hundreds of Okanagan farmers organized a motorcade protest in solidarity.

In Toronto, protesters packed Bloor Street demonstrating in cars outside of the Indian consulate.

“It’s a David-versus-Goliath story,” Parminder Singh, who comes from a long line of family-owned farms in India’s Punjab region, previously told Global News while attending the protest.

“These are small landowners up against corporate greed.”

Over the last week, there were two separate protests held in Halifax to show their support. One, a car rally, was held on Saturday, as more than 100 members of the city’s Indian community honked horns and waved signs. Another, held Wednesday and Thursday, saw dozens of peaceful protesters holding signs outside Victoria Park.

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“These bills are not in favour of farmers, especially small farmers and marginalized farmers,” Manvander Kaur Dhillon, the Maritime Sikh Society treasurer, told Global News at the Thursday rally.

“These bills are in favour of big corporations and big businesses, so ultimately these bills will take away small farming.”

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