Why are Punjab Farmers Protesting?
Culture and politics may play a role, but the underlying causes are economic.
Since September 2020, India has been rocked by a massive uprising of farmers. This was the latest in a series of farmer protests that have occurred in India since 2018.
The current uprising has come in response to the Government of India’s introduction of a series of farm acts which seek to increase private sector involvement in the procurement of agricultural crops. Protestors fear these laws will undermine farmers’ bargaining power, expose them to the risk of fluctuating markets, strengthen the position of middlemen and big agribusiness in the food system, and — perhaps the greatest source of unease — erode a long-standing system of government-backed Minimum Support Prices (MSPs).
MSPs are intended to ensure that for a set of agricultural commodities, farmers should be able to obtain a minimum price at government-run procurement markets (mandis). Although officially MSPs are set for some 23 crops, in practice, governments mostly procure at MSP rates for three key crops: wheat, rice, and cotton. Some protestors are concerned the new laws will force farmers who grow these crops to sell their produce in the open market.
The government has repeatedly denied that it is their intention to remove MSPs — and the new laws to not repeal them. But the protests demonstrate the profound concern amongst farmers that these laws mark the beginning of the end for MSPs and a shift towards a more open market system for Indian agriculture.
A Punjabi Vanguard?
Images of the protests show a sea of colourful turbans and long, flowing beards. These are markers of the Sikh religion, whose followers mostly reside in the state of Punjab in India’s northwest. Punjab farmers have widely been described as the vanguard of this wave of protest.
Often described as the ‘breadbasket of India,’ Punjab produces a large share of the country’s grain crops. Discontent amongst its farmers has implications for national food security.
Yet, Punjab’s farmers have a long history of engaging in commercial agriculture, extending back at least as far as the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. It might then, at first glance, be surprising that they should be the most virulent opponents to market-oriented agricultural reforms. Surely they might see potential opportunities for agricultural entrepreneurship in the new farm acts? Wouldn’t one expect to see farmers from poorer states, facing greater economic precarity, to be more vocal amongst protestors?
So why are Punjabis so strongly represented in the current wave of farmers’ agitations?
Cultural and political factors.
I posed this question to a friend from Punjab. He began by outlining a common trope: Punjab has a rich history of opposing oppression, extending back to the Sikh wars against the Mughal Empire and evident in anti-colonial figures like Bhagat Singh.
Sikhism preaches radical equality and this, my friend suggested, provides a keen sense of social justice. This is a view echoed by some media commentators who, similarly, have suggested that tenets of the Sikh religion — such as its emphasis on the dignity of labour — have led Sikh Punjabis to take up the farmers’ cause and rise to leadership positions within the current agitations (for examples of this view, see here, and here).
I find such appeals to culture unpersuasive. Members of almost any ethnic group can refer to events and heroes from their glorious past to explain their supposed valour. And almost all religions resonate in some way with discourses of social justice (even if, in Sikhism, the emphasis on social justice is perhaps more explicit).
Furthermore, if it were an innate cultural trait of Punjabis — or a religious trait of Sikhs — to oppose injustice against farmers, why were Punjabis not so prominent in previous farmer agitations?
My friend then offered a somewhat more compelling explanation: politics.
Punjab has seen vigorous political mobilization over the last decade, which has brought important issues of social justice to the fore. This includes mobilization by the Aam Aadmi Party — the anti-corruption political party led by Gandhian activist Arvind Kejriwal — which has achieved consistently positive electoral results in Punjab’s southern districts.
Punjab has tilted left during a time when the rest of the country tilted right. During the 2019 elections, Punjab was one of only four states where votes swung away from the right-wing BJP government of Narendra Modi, when most other states saw strong swings in Modi’s favour. In some respects, the Modi government’s Hindu supremacist tendencies have alienated Punjabi Sikhs.
For all these reasons, rural Punjabis may have been more politically disposed towards opposing the Modi government’s pro-market reform agenda.
The state government of Punjab is led by the centre-left Indian National Congress. This may have provided an enabling environment for protest. In some cases, states governed by the BJP have seen violent crackdowns on the farmer agitations, but in Punjab they have been allowed to mobilize to a greater extent.
It’s the economy, stupid.
Certainly, cultural, religious, and political factors may play a role. But my experience of conducting social science research in rural Punjab over the past 10 years leads me to believe the main reason Punjab farmers are more agitated by the governments’ reforms lies in the structure of Punjab’s agrarian economy. Specifically, I would argue it may be reduced to the powerful role the MSP and associated mandi procurement system plays in Punjab’s social and economic life.
I recently visited a farmer, Manjit (a pseudonym), at his farm in Punjab. Manjit had a few years ago started beekeeping and had now acquired some 200 hives. This was an important way of diversifying away from his previous reliance on wheat and cotton.
He enjoyed doing beekeeping and had undertaken several training programs to refine his skills.
“So how does your income from this compare with wheat and cotton? Would you consider giving up wheat and cotton and becoming a full-time beekeeper?” I asked him.
“No no!” he said, laughing, “this [beekeeping] can only ever be a side business. Wheat and cotton are still my main source of income. I just use the income from beekeeping to buy my inputs for wheat and cotton without having to take loans.”
Punjab has, in recent decades, been subject to compounding social, economic, and ecological crises. Farmers of wheat, rice, and cotton have faced diminishing economic returns, and their monocropping using chemically intensive agriculture has caused severe ecological problems, including chemical toxicity and a loss of groundwater sources.
This has led to calls for agricultural diversification. And, indeed, many farmers have begun to take up other ventures — particularly in dairy, potatoes, and vegetable cultivation. Some, like Manjit, have taken up more novel ventures, like beekeeping and mushroom cultivation.
But most Punjabi farmers are like Manjit — their ‘other’ sources of agricultural income are, at best, side businesses.
Although these side businesses have the potential to yield significant economic returns, they are risky. Where wheat, rice, and cotton can be sold at the MSP, these ‘diversified’ ventures require farmers to expose themselves to fluctuating prices on open markets. Not only are their prices unstable, but these open markets are dominated by traders, who are known to exploit farmers by demanding they sell their produce at unacceptably low prices or delaying payments to farmers for months at a time. The new laws, it is feared, would further empower the position of traders.
Farmers to whom I have spoken in Punjab often resent the prospect of being forced into constant negotiation with traders — government procurement provides a far less stressful avenue for sales. “We are farmers, not merchants!” is a common refrain I have heard in rural Punjab.
Selling directly to large agribusinesses in contract arrangements provides another possible alternative to government procurement — but the Punjab experience with such contract farming has not been encouraging: farmers have been forced to bear the risk of contracts, which tended to be far more beneficial to agribusiness than to them.
The MSP provided to wheat, cotton, and rice, by contrast, though not necessarily allowing farmers to earn great fortunes, does provide a secure source of income. This is true for most farmers in Punjab — particularly for small and medium-holding farmers who cannot afford the risk of substantial diversification.
There are only a few regions in India where the main agricultural crops can be reliably procured at MSPs — and Punjab is one of them. Elsewhere in the country, farmers are unable to obtain MSPs, either because they grow crops that MSPs do not cover, or because government-run mandis will not procure from them. For these farmers, the ideal might be to have their crops covered by an MSP, but this is generally not regarded as a realistic prospect — particularly since India’s shift to more liberalized, ‘free market’ policies in the early 1990s. The current farm laws threaten to take away from Punjab’s farmers something of which many other farmers in the country could only dream.
But there is another reason why Punjab farmers are uniquely threatened by the prospect of losing of the MSP on wheat, rice, and cotton: the farming of these crops in Punjab is highly mechanized. Unlike in poorer states of India, most Punjabi farmers have access to tractors, which significantly reduce the labour costs involved in grain and cotton farming at sowing and harvest times.
If wheat and rice were to become less profitable through the loss of MSPs and farmers were forced to diversify, this would come with significant labour challenges. Existing machinery caters to existing crops — growing other crops would be far more labour intensive. Punjab has chronic shortages of access to migrant labour and local youth are largely unwilling to work on the farms of others. In recent years, I have also heard many farmers complain that migrant labourers have become more assertive than they used to be — demanding higher wages in ways that they had not in decades past.
So why, some may ask, don’t Punjab’s farming families just invest more of their own labour time on their farms in diversified and potentially more profitable ventures? The answer is that many middle-to-large landholding farmers in Punjab no longer rely exclusively on agriculture for their livelihoods. In my experience, it is not uncommon for a family with three adult children to have only one working on the farm while the remaining two have taken up more remunerative livelihoods in Punjab’s towns and cities. As such, rural families lack time to invest in more labour-intensive forms of agriculture.
Farming remains important to these families. It provides a reliable base income that allows them to support their children’s education and is a source of security in difficult times when other sources of work dry up. It also allows them to retain a connection to their ancestral farmlands, which are an important source of cultural identity.
So, why have Punjab’s farmers been more opposed to the new farm acts than farmers elsewhere in India?
In my view, it can be summarised in two points, both of which relate to the threat posed by the prospect of eroding MSPs:
- For Punjab farmers, MSPs provide a base for economic security, which is not the case (or not to the same extent) for farmers in most other regions of the country.
- Farmers in Punjab face challenges to diversifying away from the MSP supported crops of wheat, rice, and cotton — particularly in relation to sourcing labour.
In short, the loss of the MSP — which many believe the new farm acts will inaugur — threatens to destabilise agricultural livelihoods in Punjab, by undermining wheat/cotton/rice farming as a source of economic security. In turn, this threatens a stable way of life to which many rural Punjabis have become accustomed. It may lead many of them to abandon agriculture altogether. Given that Punjab remains one of India’s major breadbaskets, the implications of this for the nation’s food security cannot be overstated.