Residents of Protest: Why Farmers in India Have Taken to the Streets

Jaspreet Singh Kalra
10 min readFeb 2, 2021


A small rally of people moves through the Tikri protest site near New Delhi. With protests sites running for miles, smaller rallies emerge through the day and move around chanting slogans such as, “Kissan-Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad, (Long Live Farmer-Worker Unity’).” Photo ©Jaspreet Kalra

For the first time since coming into power, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is facing a stalemate.

Farmer groups have camped out on Delhi’s borders since late November and have been demanding withdrawal of three new agricultural reform laws passed by parliament in September last year.

While the Modi-led BJP government has repeatedly argued that these reforms will bring in private investment and help overhaul slow growth, agitating farmers assert that they will instead strip state protections and price guarantees which guard slim profit margins in the sector.

Led by farmers mainly hailing from the bread-basket states of Punjab, Haryana, and, Western Uttar Pradesh, the protestors have braved waves of cold and trenches dug on highways to keep them out of the capital.

On 26 January, as India held celebrations for its Republic Day, tensions with agitating farmers also reached a fever pitch. The farmers had planned a coordinated march on peripheral routes near New Delhi, but thousands of demonstrators broke from police approved routes and over-ran parts of the city. Some of the protestors even occupied ramparts of the historic Red Fort, only miles away from where the Prime Minister had overseen an annual parade showcasing cultural flotillas and military hardware.

Supposed to be a peaceful march on tractors, the rally turned unruly and also violent in parts of central Delhi. The protestors clashed with the police at multiple points and looped scenes of violence engulfed TV screens.

While things have since calmed and protestors have returned to sites on New Delhi’s peripheries, a solution hasn’t yet appeared on the horizon.

What has appeared albeit are attempts to crackdown on the protests via snapping the internet at protest sites and multiple police reports being filed against leaders of the protesting farmer unions. Multiple journalists have have also been charged with dramatic crimes like sedition, allegedly due to their misleading reportage regarding the demise of one of the protestors.

Although the government has offered multiple amendments to the laws and even an offer to pause them for up to 18 months, farmer groups have maintained that they won’t back down till the three laws are repealed by the parliament — leading to the persistent deadlock.

Minimum Support Price (MSP) has emerged as a major sticking point for protestors as they fear that if private markets for produce outrun government ones, the mandated floor prices will be eroded as has happened in states like Bihar. Photo ©Jaspreet Kalra

The Agriculture Conundrum

Diving into the fears powering the protests also requires a look into the conundrum facing Indian agriculture.

While the agriculture and allied sector (like fisheries, forestry) contributes about 16% to the country’s value-added GDP, it employs over 40% the workforce, according to World Bank estimates for 2019.

Stagnant agricultural incomes amid consistent inflationary pressures on input prices have also shrunk the pie. The situation got further entrenched as the Covid-19 pandemic induced lockdowns forced millions of migrant workers to return to rural areas where agriculture continues to be the main employer.

“I am an engineer by education, but farmer by profession,” said Ranvir Singh, 27, one of the protestors present at Singhu, the protest site on Delhi’s northern end.

Ranvir studied automobile engineering during his college years but a lack of gainful employment in the sector brought him back to his family farm. A resident of Jalandhar, Punjab, Ranvir’s story echoes the gap which has emerged between India’s hopes to become a manufacturing hub and the reality wherein the sector fails to generate quality employment. According to a report by consulting firm McKinsey, the manufacturing-sector’s share of employment in India increased by just one percentage point over the last 13 years.

Absent growth in manufacturing and limited room for expansion in the services economy puts ever-increasing pressure on agriculture and associated land holdings.

Although hopes of incoming private investment have driven much of the enthusiasm for the government’s reforms, some sectoral experts feel that such veneer doesn’t hold up considering the worldwide trends for market forces in the sector.

“When they cultivate crops, they cultivate losses,” said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural and food policy analyst. Sharma was referring to how supressed prices for agricultural products often deny farmers their rightful income and can trap them in cycles of debt.

He added that international benchmarks of market prices, for products including cotton and tobacco, are often derived from countries like the US, Europe and Canada, all three of which heavily subsidise agricultural production which in turn causes a dip in market prices for consumers.

While developing nations have protested this at the WTO, there has been little movement in how the system works. Such is the common ground on the issue that China and India, two countries that don’t often see eye-to-eye, even filed a joint paper in the trade body against the distortions caused by such subsidies.

Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a price floor regimen which was introduced in India in the mid-1960s and has emerged as a major sticking point for the protests. Devised as a way to usher in a local green revolution which would allow the country to become self-sufficient in food grains, the price floor helped the government encourage production of certain crops while supplementing it with subsidies on chemical fertilizers, machinery and electricity.

Although India now overproduces grains, farmers in major foodgrain producing areas remain reliant on the MSP mechanism for determining prices of their produce. A lacunae also emerges across states wherein declaration of the price-floor by the central government doesn’t necessarily translate into enforcement of the price floor.

Like in the state of Bihar, even though the MSP for paddy (rice) is the same as in the state of Punjab — farmers end up selling their produce for much less in absence of government regulated market yards and no effective framework to regulate private markets. Reports have suggested that even though the declared floor price for rice stands at Rs. 1868 ($25.57) per quintal for last year, farmers in Bihar have been selling produce for roughly Rs. 900–1000 ($12–13) per quintal.

The price differential not only points to two unequal playing fields for farmers, it has also given rise to a trading system wherein third-party agents procure the rice at lower prices from Bihar and go on to sell it in Punjab. They neatly pocket the difference, minus transport cost, and in turn earn yield without tilling the land.

The state of Bihar had implemented similar changes back in 2006 in agricultural laws as have been proposed in the three new farm laws . While private investment hasn’t poured into the state, farming has become much less viable as an occupation and has pushed many to migrate seasonally and work as labour on farms in Haryana and Punjab, where government market yards (APMCs) dominate agricultural procurement.

Surjeet Singh, 71, (left) and Jeeta Singh, 34, (right) have been living at the Tikri border protest site on the eastern end of New Delhi since early December. Both of them grow cotton and rice and other crops on lands smaller than 2 hectares. Photo © Jaspreet Kalra

In makeshift tent-houses huddled below pillars of a metro rail line that leads into Delhi, thousands of resident protestors have fallen into a distorted sense of routine.

Heat is always in short supply and the polluted air of Delhi often stings when it gets chilly. Wood fires that kept people warm overnight turn into smouldering embers by the time breakfast is cooked on adjancent brick and mud stoves. Men bathe out in the open and women queue up to use over-utilised porta potties which at least offer a limited sense of privacy and dignity for morning rituals.

Through the day speeches echo on loudspeakers as participants take to a stage erected where the protest site meets police barricades, and list their greivances with the new laws.

“They want to turn into us into labour on the very land we now own and till,” said Surjeet Singh, 71, a farmer from Punjab’s Mansa district. He cultivates crops like rice, cotton and wheat on his 2 hectare farm.

According to Surjeet, the problem doesn’t simply end at price discovery. He explained that in case farmers do not get the assured price, they have little choice but to sell at depressed rates because the produce is perishable and there’s limited facilities to store it. Farmers with small land holdings, like Surjeet, often depend on short-term loans extended by local moneylenders to buy farming inputs and if the produce isn’t sold on time, “the interest on the loan also starts accruing an interest,” he said, explaining how that starts a loop that can easily turn into a debt spiral.

Unlike commercial loans or consumer ones, informal agricultural loans follow a crop-season long moratorium and are mostlty due at harvest time.

If a crop fails or there’s supply chain blockages, as there were during the pandemic, the debt has to be serviced using land holdings and that eats into wealth which can take generations to build.

At Singhu border on New Delhi’s northern end, thousands of protests have been living bumper to bumper and have turned the highway into a temporary settlement buzzing with life and flooded with colors of flags, tractors and Sikh turbans. Photo ©Jaspreet Kalra

Political, Economic Spillover?

“Irrespective of popularity, this kind of social conflict may be here to stay,” said Neelanjan Sircar, senior visiting fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi based think tank.

Sircar explained that agitations like this one, or the mobilisation against 2019’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, also represent shrinkage of democratic bargaining space on the ballot box since there’s visible misgivings about policies but limited impact on the electoral prospects of the political party bringing them forward.

He added that while the issues remain, political actors lack the capability for
class-driven politics.

“Mamata (Banerjee) is not cut from that cloth either,” he said, referring to the current chief minister of West Bengal who faces a substantive challenge in the upcoming state elections in May. While big urban centers like Calcutta have remained a stronghold for Banerjee’s party, the BJP has made major inroads in the state’s small towns and rural areas.

According to P.K.D Nambiar, a Delhi based political analyst, the issues at the heart of the current protest have little relevance outside the states of Punjab and Haryana. While he acknowledged that farming has issues nation-wide, few of them are uniform and therefore, according to him, likely not to attract nationwide attention.

“Tamil Nadu farmers have been protesting for years,” he said, noting how the state’s agricultural sector needs better irrigation but that’s hardly been a captivating issue at the national level. Nambiair said these issues have surfaced more so because of the protestors’ proximity to the national capital.

Adding that even though the government has said that the MSP regime is here to stay, Nambiar noted that protestors have refused to engage and that the issue issue at hand may have just become, “a matter of ego for both the teams.”

While there is little doubt across the board about the need to effect reforms in agriculture, experts disagree on the best ways to do it. There are those who feel that market forces will take care of prices adequately and help diversify production away from water intensive crops like rice, and others who posit that the government assured floor prices and regulated market yards are the way to safeguard those with marginal land holdings and little recourse to legal teams in cases of contractual dispute.

In many ways parliamentary debate and discussion could have helped smoothen some of these edges but the hammer-nail approach to reform may have just cost the government one of the most precious things in a democracy: the trust of the governed.

On the same day that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman introduced the nation’s annual budget in the parliament, Delhi Police spent its time laying down spikes and concrete barricades at the entry points of protest sites. Attempts to seal-off agitators from the capital, and the conversation even, extended to the internet as mobile connectivity was banished from the peripheral areas for another day, extending till 11 PM on Tuesday, 2nd of Februrary.

For now, tears of a protest leader on national television seem to have renewed calls for mass mobilisation against the laws. On Ghazipur border, the protest site on the western end of New Delhi, streams of people have been joining in and there’s little let down in the spirits even in the face of significant deployment of police forces.

Tractors covered in tarapaulin sheets have been turned into temporary homes and rear-view mirros help Sikh men tie their turbans each day. Small kiosks selling towel socks, wallets and even spectacles dot the protest sites at Singhu and community kitchens have helped sustain people who will enter their 68th day of protest on Tuesday.

While the conundrum of having a large chunk of population dependent on farming in the absence of alternative sectors to absorb the labor may be uniquely Indian, the challenges and fears thrown up by booms and busts in farming are hardly a solo experience. Be it the farming crisis of the American mid-west in the 1980s, or the current situation of cocao farmers in Ghana, agriculture often demands support from the state when prices dip or the power differential between growers and buyers is significant.

With positions held tight on both sides, the window for concessions and compromise may have narrowed but one can only hope that the current stalemate gives way to a consensus led governance style.

Tractors covered in tarapaulin sheets and caked in dust have turned into makeshift homes for the agitators who will enter their 68th day of resident-protest on February 2nd, 2021. Photo ©Jaspreet Kalra