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Laws introduced in June 2020, passed in September.

The Indian Central Government introduced three agricultural reform bills in June 2020. These Bills were passed by the Indian Parliament at the end of September.

Significant changes in the laws include:

  • relaxing restrictions on the purchase and sale of farm produce that take place through state government-regulated marketplaces called mandis;
  • loosening restrictions on the stocking and movement of food items that are classed as “essential commodities”, allowing stockpiling; and
  • enabling farmers to enter into contract farming agreements with buyers directly, thus bypassing mandis and providing local dispute settlement mechanisms.

Opposition figures and protesting farmers complained there was little consultation over the legislation.

Mass protests

Indian farmers started mass-protests against the laws at the end of September. The biggest activities have centred on the capital, New Delhi, many of the farmers at these protests are from the states of Punjab and Haryana, major agricultural producers.

Direct action by farmers in India is not new, but nothing of this scale or duration has been seen for decades.

Structural problems and farmers’ suicides

There are deep-seated structural problems with the Indian agricultural sector. Landholdings are small, and Indian farms are much less productive than other countries. Most economists agree the sector requires reform, and greater efficiency.

Farmers face challenging circumstances. A significant number of farmers commit suicide each year, but this is not a new phenomenon. The issues that are causing farmer’ distress go much wider than the ones these reforms are trying to tackle, for example access to credit, technology and education as well as severe weather.

Minimum Support Price

Protestors are also calling for the Minimum Support Price (MSP) to be preserved and given legal guarantees. MSP is a government scheme which selects certain crops as deserving support, and ensures government agencies pay a minimum price whenever they procure the particular crop. The MSP is not part of the three Acts, and the Government have said they will preserve it, but it doesn’t currently have a legislative base.

Supreme Court suspends the reforms

The Indian Supreme Court suspended the three Acts in January 2021, establishing a panel to review the legislation. This has not satisfied the protestors, who do not believe the panel will listen to their concerns. The panel’s work was completed at the end of March, and the recommendations have yet to be published.

Government concessions

The Government have conducted many rounds of talks with protestors. They have offered to suspend the laws for 18 months. This has not satisfied the protestors who say they will not stop until the reforms are fully repealed.

Violence at protests

The police and Government response to the protests have been criticised, including the blocking of the protestor’s entry into Delhi, and the use of water cannon and tear gas.

On 26 January 2021, during the annual parade celebrating India’s Republic Day, some protesting farmers using tractors broke through police barricades to storm Delhi’s Red Fort complex. Clashes broke out with police, leading to the death of one protestor and more than 300 policemen were injured.

Leaders of the protests condemned the violence, blaming the chaos on “rogue elements” among an otherwise peaceful march. They said they would not call off the protests.

The Government have defended themselves, saying the protestors only represent a small group of farmers, that protestors have used violence against the police, and that the police have used restraint.

Criticism of curbs on mobile internet and social media

In late January 2021 the police restricted mobile internet access at protests sites, and in early February the Government asked Twitter to remove posts using certain hashtags relating to the protests. Human rights organisations criticised these moves and claimed these were part of wider intolerance by the Modi Government of those criticising its policies. The Government said users were posting content inciting violence.

International dimension

The Indian Government have expressed their frustration over how the protests have been portrayed in the international media and comments made on social media by those outside the country. In a statement it said

Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.

UK Government response and debate in Parliament

The UK Government have expressed their support for “the right to peaceful protest, freedom of speech, and internet freedom vital in any democracy”, but that they also recognise that “governments have the power to enforce law and order if a protest crosses the line into illegality”. They have said that the protests have been discussed in meetings between UK ministers and their Indian counterparts, but that they also respect that agricultural reforms are “an internal matter for India”.

After a Parliamentary e-petition on the protests attracted over 100,000 signatures, the House of Commons Petitions Committee scheduled a debated on the issue on 8 March 2021.

The Indian Government was unhappy with the contributions of some MPs during the debate, and on 9 March, India’s foreign ministry summoned the British High Commissioner in Delhi, to express that sentiment.

India’s High Commission in London also released a statement saying “we deeply regret that rather than a balanced debate, false assertions – without substantiation or facts – were made”.

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