Indian Farmer Protests Explained

Farmers in northwestern India have been up in arms against the government. Protests have been going on for months and have received widespread coverage. The government claims it is revolutionizing Indian agriculture. Protesters say it is selling out to big corporations. What exactly is going on?


For the last few months, some farmers have been protesting against the government’s agricultural reforms, which change the existing procurement system. This model was inspired by the Soviet Union and provided food security for the country. Farmer unrest has brought life in rural areas of northwestern India to a standstill.


Protesters are mainly farmers from traditional landowning communities in Punjab, Haryana and northwest Uttar Pradesh that form the northwestern region of India around Delhi. The protesting communities comprise less than 8% of the Indian population and have a say in electing 38 out of 543 MPs in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. However, the region’s proximity to the capital gives it disproportionate media attention and access to power.

Most of the protesting farmers are winners of India’s fabled Green Revolution of the 1960s. It enabled a food-starved India to feed itself after two centuries of British-caused famine under colonial rule. This revolution relied on the use of intensive irrigation, massive fertilizers and excessive pesticides to grow high-yield varieties of wheat and rice. Incomes for farmers in northwestern India rose dramatically and so did their political power. Today’s reforms threaten the system these farmers benefited from, which is why they are protesting.


In 2020, the Indian government introduced major agricultural reforms. In the past, farmers were legally obliged to sell only to a market run by the local Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). Over the years, this system had been partially dismantled in many parts of the country but stubbornly persisted in northwestern India. As a result, this region has experienced falling water tables, soil pollution and increasing health problems as well as overproduction and waste. Agronomists and economists have long argued for reforms.

As per the 2020 reforms, farmers are no longer required to sell only to APMC mandis, the Indian term for agricultural markets. Instead, farmers will be able to sell their produce to anyone, including agricultural businesses, supermarket chains, online grocers or, as before, APMC mandis. Reforms also allow private players to buy and store produce.

Some farmers fear these reforms will lead to corporate takeover of Indian agriculture. They argue that APMCs might have been imperfect, but the entry of big corporations would be worse. Protesters claim that corporations would buy cheaply, hoard produce and sell expensively, harming both farmers and consumers.


The protests have been raging in northwestern India, the region home to the national capital region of Delhi. The locus has been Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. In particular, rural areas have been affected, though there have been regular demonstrations in the region’s small towns as well. Farmers have also been camping on the borders of Delhi to put pressure on the government. Delhi itself became the epicenter of the protests on January 26, 2021, India’s Republic Day.


Protests broke out first in September 2020. Initially, they were confined to the rural areas of northwestern India. In November, a group of farmers moved to the Delhi border at places like Singhu, Ghazipur and Tekri, setting up camps there.


Unlike earlier occasions, these farmer protests have been highly sophisticated. They have run a disciplined campaign demanding nothing short of a complete repeal of the government’s agricultural reforms.

Farmers have demonstrated in various towns. They have held hunger strikes and organized langars, communal kitchens that offer free food to everyone. They have occupied public places and refused to vacate them. Farmers have also blocked roads and railway lines. In brief, they have disrupted daily life in rural parts of northwestern India. Farmers have also conducted a massive outreach to urban Indians, allying with left-leaning organizations and the anti-government press. They have also cultivated foreign correspondents and members of the Indian diaspora to bring international pressure on the government.

On January 26, farmers entered Delhi and disrupted India’s Republic Day celebrations. Some stormed the Mughal-era Red Fort from where prime ministers have addressed the nation since independence in 1947.


Written and Researched by Atul Singh and Manu Sharma. Produced by Abul-Hasanat Siddique. Images courtesy of Shutterstock © All rights reserved.

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