The farm bills debate in India: ‘Reforming’ the social contract between the state, science and farmers?

Published on 17 February 2021

Image of Poonam Pandey

Poonam Pandey

Indian Institute of Science

A nation-wide mass mobilisation of farmers and allied rural community is ongoing in India. This mobilisation started with farmers’ protests in Punjab in September against three farm bills introduced in the parliament to institute agricultural reforms. Despite the protests, the bills were approved by legislators through a voice vote and without much discussion and were swiftly turned into Acts by the President. Protesting farmers were met with police force and portrayed as ‘criminals’, ‘rioters’, ‘privileged’ and even ‘anti-nationals’ while their views were dismissed as ‘misguided’ and ‘uninformed’. This institutionalised delegitimising of farmers’ positions is not new but can be traced back to the early days of India’s Green Revolution. This time, however, it may break a longstanding social contract between the state-science complex and the farmers, creating serious concerns for food security and future of agriculture.

The contested farm Acts

The three farm Acts at the root of the protest are: the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation), the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services, and the Essential Commodities (amendment) Act. The government claims that these acts aim to ‘accelerate agricultural growth through private sector investment in building agricultural infrastructure, supply chain and markets; create employment opportunities, and strengthen the market’. Put simply, these acts enable the farmers to sell and buy their produce outside the regulated space of Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) or Mandis, which have become exploitative due to cartelisation and politicisation. Some experts have lauded these acts as steps in the right direction to reform agriculture and provide benefits to farmers. Others, including farmers groups, civil society organisations and many political parties, have expressed concerns regarding the underlying assumptions, framing, design, and implementation of these acts.  It has been argued that the freedom to sell anywhere makes little sense in an unregulated and volatile marketplace with huge power asymmetries between sellers and buyers, where the latter are now expected to be dominated by big corporate houses. Rather than providing support, these acts might end up making farmers more vulnerable to unfair exploitation.

For farmers, the introduction of farm Acts without consultation is a matter of procedural injustice and irreparable breach of trust with government. A central contention and a major source of anxiety among the farmers is that these Acts might disrupt the public procurement of wheat and paddy by the Food Corporation of India on Minimum Support Price. The mechanism of public procurement through minimum prices was first set in 1966-67 for wheat as one of the supportive institutional measures to enable the Green Revolution. The social contract between state and farmers led to bumper production and growing food stocks crucial for addressing the country’s food security crisis.  The state provided administrative guarantee of assured prices and procurement which encouraged farmers to adopt input intensive varieties of wheat and paddy on a large scale.  This support has continued ever since and has extended to 26 crops. However, public procurement is effectively functional only in Punjab and Haryana and mainly for wheat and paddy, due to effective institutional set-up in place in these two states. This system has been repeatedly criticised for being unsustainable due to high economic costs incurred, limited storage capacity of Food Corporation of India and environmental and ecological challenges of being tied to the rice-wheat cycle. The implementation of these acts by setting up of de-regulated ‘trading zones’ might result in eventual decline of public procurement and redundancy of minimum prices. This is not mere apprehension, as the real effects of similar measures are visible in the state of Bihar where de-regulation introduced since 2006 has changed very little in terms of alleviating farmers’ vulnerability.

The Green Revolution and the shifting role of farmers

The supporters of the Acts argue that the agricultural scenario in India has changed tremendously since the introduction of the Minimum Support Price in the 1960s. India was a food deficient nation then, but it now enjoys food surpluses thanks to the Green Revolution. The surplus production of food makes the expensive procurement system undesirable. Yet, this assertion raises questions of fairness and government’s accountability towards farmers. As economist Sudha Narayanan argues, the government should not engage with the question of institutional support to farmers as per their convenience –  – we needed you (farmers) in the 1960s so we made these  arrangements, but as we are in food surplus, we don’t need you now and thus dismantling these institutions.

The exposed significance of public procurement and minimum prices in India’s agricultural success story also begs a reconsideration of the science-centric Green Revolution narrative. The dominant narrative highlights the role of input intensive scientific practices in farming that resulted in unprecedented increases in production of food grains. Celebratory narratives claim victory over world hunger by pointing to the central role of science and technology, such as high yielding varieties of seeds, fertilizers, farm machinery, and irrigation systems. Context specific infrastructures and institutions have been overlooked by arguments centred on the role of objective science with universal applicability. The ongoing farmers’ protests in India have left exposed the shallowness of such claims by highlighting the centrality of supportive institutional arrangements for ensuring food security.

This episode is illustrative of the power of the state-science complex in framing farmers’ roles and identities in modern agriculture. In the 1960s, the Green Revolution narrative diminished ‘traditional’ farmers to make way for ‘progressive’ farmers who were ready to adopt modern technologies. These celebrated ‘progressive’ farmers are now the subject of criminalization in the ongoing clash. The issues at stake in these reforms are, thus, not only food security and the future of agriculture in India, but also the dignity and identity of a farmer.

The IDS research project on Green Revolutions in Brazil, China and India: epic narratives of the past and today’s South-South technology transfers offers a new perspective on the history of the Green Revolutions, and its consequences for today.



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