Why India’s Stressed Farmers Have Restarted Protests: Modi Repealed Laws, But His Grand Promise Has Failed

05 Sep 2022 15 min read  Share

Beset in recent months by poor market prices for farm produce and crop loss due to floods, drought, groundwater depletion and heat waves, India’s farmers are mobilising again, against the government’s failure to enact a law guaranteeing a minimum support price and to withdraw cases against those who had protested. Hit by cyclical agrarian distress despite high production, there is outrage in the countryside over what they see as policies against farmers.

Farmer leader Jagjeet Singh Dallewal of Bharatiya Kisan Union (EKta Sidhupur) addresses a large gathering of farmers at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 22 August. Breakaway groups of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha held the protest/KV BIJU

Mumbai: In 1994, Santosh Chaudhary’s father purchased three bighas of land, about three quarters of an acre in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, with revenue from the garlic he had grown on one bigha. The crop had fetched him Rs 50 per kg.

Twenty-eight years later, in the last week of August 2022, the highest price Santosh could get for top quality garlic in the Indore mandi (market) was a fifth of what it did 28 years earlier: Rs 10 per kg

“Everything costs more now, many times more, than in my father’s time, whether it’s labour, fertiliser, pesticide, seeds,” a despondent Santosh, 35, told Article 14, preparing to dump a tractor-load of freshly harvested garlic in the nullah running through Pharaspur village in Sanwer tehsil. “I wouldn’t even recover the cost of transporting my harvest to the mandi.”   

On 23 August, a day after nearly 40 farm unions organised a symbolic demonstration at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government reneging on promises made in December 2021 at the end of the 378-day farmers’ protest, a local activist captured Santosh on video standing near his 7-acre farm. Almost 800 km south of the protest in the national capital, his thoughts mirrored those of the agitating farmers. 

“Modiji said our income would double in 2022,” Santosh said, addressing the camera. “That hasn’t happened, but it’s definitely become zero.” Modi made this promise in 2016, reiterating it in 2018.

Two days earlier, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the federation of unions that steered the historic farmers’ stir on the fringes of Delhi from November 2020 to December 2021, ended a three-day protest in Lakhimpur Kheri in northern Uttar Pradesh (UP), demanding that cases against farm protestors be quashed. 

Four farmers are still in jail on murder charges in relation to a violent incident in October 2021. They also demanded that a law guaranteeing minimum support price (MSP) for farm commodities be enacted. 

The Lakhimpur Kheri meeting followed nation-wide farm groups’ gatherings including several under the SKM aegis, including a railway blockade in Punjab, a sit-in on a highway in Telangana and road blockades in Tamil Nadu. In Maharashtra, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is conducting a months-long tour of 23 of the state’s 35 districts, mobilising farmer groups. 

At the Jantar Mantar protest, “non-political” farm groups presented a memo to the government demanding that it fulfil promises made when the farmers’ stir was suspended, including a legal mandate for MSP and an end to “anti-farmer policies”. 

An all-India agricultural workers’ convention in Delhi on 5 September will see deliberations on mobilising farm workers. 

The SKM leadership met on 4 September and decided that the farmers’ movement would gather forces nationwide ahead of general elections in 2024, first by observing two pivotal dates—3 October, which will mark one year since farmer-protestors in  Lakhimpuri Kheri were run over by vehicles; and 26 November, which will mark two years since tens of thousands of farmers arrived at the Singhu and Tikri borders of Delhi.  

The gathering protests come against a backdrop of continuing high price variability in crops not procured by government agencies; recent distress related to crop loss from floods, drought, groundwater depletion and high temperatures; and cyclical farm distress that has persisted since 2011-12. 

A NITI Aayog background paper on the proposed doubling of farmers’ incomes showed that real income of farmers followed a declining trend from 2011-12 to 2015-16. Incomes actually declined at 1.36% per annum during this period, which was followed by the demonetisation shock to prices. In the countryside, there is consternation at what is seen as, at best, confused agricultural policy design and, at worst, anti-farmer policies meant to favour corporates. 

“I am a BJP voter,” Santosh, the garlic farmer, told Article 14. “But for farmers, we will have to speak up.”

It Is 2022, The Year Farm Incomes Were To Double 

The share of agriculture and allied sectors (livestock, forestry, fishing) in India’s Gross Value Added (GVA) has hovered around 18% to 19% since 2012, growing to 20.2% in 2020-21 before slipping back to 18.8% in 2021-22. But India is also a net exporter of food grains, with the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) exporting products worth $ 21.5 billion in the first 11 months of 2021-22, a paradox of plentiful farm production coinciding with deep socio-economic distress among the producers.  

In 2021, incidents of farmers taking their lives declined from the previous year,  but overall incidents of suicide among “persons involved in farming operations” rose from 10,677 in 2020 to 10,881 in 2021, according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). From 5,579 deaths by suicide among farmers/cultivators in 2020, the number dipped slightly to 5,318 in 2021.

Since 2012, 13 farm loan waiver schemes have been implemented, some states implementing more than one such waiver, but these programmes have not stanched the losses or suppressed calls for more bailout packages. 

During the 2022 southwest monsoon season alone, Karnataka farmers suffered losses on at least 20,200 hectares of crop on account of excessive rainfall; in Telangana, over 5 lakh acres of paddy, cotton, maize and soya bean were damaged; nearly 250 villages in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari, West Godavari, Eluru, Dr BR Ambedkar Konaseema and Anakapalli districts suffered inundation of farmland.

In Uttar Pradesh (UP), where 64 districts received less than normal rainfall  including some anticipating agricultural drought, BJP Parliamentarian Harish Dwivedi and party legislator Vir Vikrama Singh wrote to chief minister Yogi Adityanath asking for Shahjahanpur, Basti and other parts of  eastern UP to be declared drought-hit. Governments in Manipur and Himachal Pradesh also mulled paying compensation to farmers affected by water scarcity.  

Across Punjab, dairy farmers have protested since the summer of 2022 seeking better prices, in Mohali, Ludhiana, Chandigarh and elsewhere. Milk producers from Haryana, Rajasthan, UP and Kerala also protested in Delhi, against the imposition of GST on milk products and an 18% GST on dairy machinery.

Cane-growers in Karnataka took to the streets too, in July and in August, first to demand a state advisory price for cane to offset steep rise in production cost, and then to protest the meagre increase in the fixed and remunerative price (FRP), a union government-mandated price. The Karnataka State Sugarcane Cultivators Association sought a higher state advisory price as in Uttar Pradesh. The Mysuru-Mandya belt is home to about 25,000 cane cultivators, said the union. 

“This was to be the year of farm incomes doubling,” said Ashok Dhawale, national president of the AIKS. “Instead, farm distress has deepened across India.” 

He said the SKM leadership will launch state-level rallies across India on 26 November, the second anniversary of the start of the Delhi stir. “Apart from our existing demands of a legally guaranteed MSP and scrapping of the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2022, we will make three new demands—a loan waiver for farmers and farm workers from the Union government, pension for farmers and farm workers after the age of 60, and a complete overhaul of the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (crop insurance scheme) which has failed farmers nationwide,” Dhawale told Article 14

The nine-member SKM coordination committee will also be expanded, he said, to further consolidate the farmers’ movement.   

‘Modi Sarkar Is Angry With Farmers’ 

In Maharashtra, which continued to record the most farmer suicides in the country, a split in the Shiv Sena and the subsequent political unrest in Maharashtra in June 2022 led to the agriculture department missing a minister for over a month after the new government was formed. 

Ajit Nawale, Maharashtra general secretary of the AIKS, has completed 18 of a 23-district tour of the state, addressing farmers’ groups at each stop. Speaking to Article 14 en route to his next stop, he said their findings from the tour were clear—there was continuing distress from low prices for farm produce and crop damage from excess rainfall, and in addition, almost every category of farmers was aggrieved. 

Maharashtra’s sugarcane growers were unhappy over the state’s move to split payment by sugar millers of the FRP into two instalments, the second payable at the end of the crushing season instead of upon delivery of cane. Milk producers, whose daily output of 2 crore litres is the country’s second highest, were disappointed that their long-standing demand for FRP continued to be ignored.

Small and medium farmers in flood-hit parts of Vidarbha in eastern Maharashtra and Marathwada in central Maharashtra struggled to get panchnamas (assessment for crop insurance or state aid) done. 

Nawale said the previous state government’s district-level infrastructure for farmers, good or bad, had been disrupted, from guardian ministers to crop insurance companies’ local offices. “Usko tahas nahas kar diya gaya (those systems were destroyed), and that has resulted in tremendous unrest among farmers, in addition to the broken promises of December 2021.”

According to Nawale, the farmers’ success in forcing the Union government to repeal three controversial farm laws in 2021 had earned them the top leadership’s ire. 

“At his Red Fort speech this Independence Day, the prime minister made a mention of various groups of people, but left out farmers,” said Nawale. “This regime believes nobody should ever challenge them. And farmers did so.”

Farmers Call For Nuanced Agriculture Policies

KV Biju, national coordinator of the Rashtriya Kisan Maha Sangh, among a splinter group of farm unions formerly part of the SKM, said several farmer groups, especially in south India, want the farmers’ movement to address the issues of India’s presence in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the free trade agreements (FTA) negotiated and signed with several countries, which may disadvantage Indian farm produce. 

When they were in the opposition, in 2013, the BJP opposed an Indo-European FTA. In May 2022, Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal announced that FTAs with the UAE and Australia were complete, while negotiations were underway for similar pacts with the EU, UK, Canada and the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

Citing the example of edible oil imports to India from ASEAN countries—India is the world's second-largest consumer and largest importer of vegetable oil—Biju said, “Now, Indian oilseed producers are almost destroyed.” 

Biju argued that ‘free trade’ in agriculture aids corporate agribusiness to the detriment of small, unorganised farmers—the agreements require Indian import tariffs to be slashed, clearing the way for cheaper agricultural products from trade partner countries to capture Indian markets. 

At the WTO, the United States (US) has opposed Indian MSP to wheat (as being vastly in excess of WTO-mandated subsidy limits) and paddy; a handful of countries questioned India’s pulses import policies, sugar exports, onion export ban and more. “Developed countries continue their subsidies,” said Biju, a lawyer-turned-economist from Thrissur, Kerala. “Meanwhile, after 27 years of WTO, India’s farmers are still committing suicide in large numbers.”


Back in MP, in the garlic-growing belt of Dewas district, farmer and local farmer-leader Ravindra Chaudhary of the Yuva Kisan Sangathan said state government policies were often inscrutable. “Nothing seems to have been done to promote export of garlic this season,” he said. “But there is an open trade policy by which China and other countries export their garlic to India.” He said garlic paste from China and Iran was widely available in the market, sending prices of local produce spiralling downward, some of which went for as little as Re 1 per kg. 

Employed at a private firm and moonlighting as a farm activist for the last eight years, Ravindra led a bike rally in Dewas on 23 May and a symbolic shav yatra (a final journey of mortal remains) of onions and garlic on 7 August. 

“Diesel, tractor parts, servicing, some items with a Goods and Services Tax of 18%—everything is so expensive,” said Ravindra. “And by way of policy, we have no export strategy, no MSP, and no processing unit in Dewas even though five-six districts here form India’s ‘garlic belt’.” 

MP is the country’s biggest garlic producing state, according to data from the directorate of arecanut and spices development under the union  ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare. In 2019-20, over 50% of the 2.9 million metric tonnes of garlic produce in the country came from MP. 

In December 2018, when 750 kg of onions fetched him Rs 1,064 at the mandi in Niphad, in north Maharashtra’s onion-growing hub in Nashik, farmer Sanjay Sathe of Naitale village sent the money to prime minister Modi by money order, a symbolic protest, and said it should be considered his donation to the national disaster relief fund. 

He had to add Rs 54 to pay for the money order. His donation was returned.

Almost four years later, onion farmers in Maharashtra, which produces 39% of India’s onions, are still facing depressed prices and losses, Sathe told Article 14

“Even today, after improving slightly, onion prices are about Rs 900 - Rs 1,000 a quintal,” said Sathe. “In contrast to the prices we get for onions, the cost of every input has shot up, from diesel to fertiliser.” Protesting onion growers in Maharashtra have been seeking a price of about Rs 2,000 per quintal.  


In another symbolic protest, Sathe launched the Ganpati festival on 31 August with a Ganesha idol he fashioned from onions, which he proceeded to set up in his verandah with elaborate rituals and prayers .       

In September 2020, as prices rose, India prohibited exports of all types of onions. The ban was lifted in January 2021 as prices plunged. Sathe said Nashik’s onion farmers were not seeking prices that middle class consumers would find prohibitive, but current policy appeared focused on keeping retail prices low notwithstanding the steep price farmers paid through season after season of losses.

Betrayal: Farmers About Unkept Promises  

Delhi resident and farm activist Ramesh Singh Dhull, a committee member of the SKM, spent three days at the Lakhimpuri Kheri protest. 

“The Yogi government has not kept its promises,” Dhull told Article 14. “That was the heart of discussions between the chief minister’s office and the SKM.” 

In January, the UP Police filed a chargesheet against four farmers in who were arrested for allegedly murdering two BJP workers and a driver during violence in Lakhimpur Kheri on 3 October 2021, in which eight persons died. “We are demanding that these four innocent farmers be released,” Dhull said. 

According to the chargesheet, the four men attacked the driver and BJP workers with sticks and set their vehicle on fire. The eight dead included four protesting farmers. Violence erupted after a car belonging to Ashish Mishra, son of union minister of state for home affairs Ajay Mishra, allegedly ran over farmers who were protesting the three farm laws in the village of Tikonia.

Before their year-long protest on the outskirts of Delhi was suspended in December 2021, farmers had demanded the cases filed against farmers participating in protests in UP, Punjab, Haryana and other states be withdrawn. 

Delhi-based lawyer Amarveer Singh Bhullar, who appeared pro bono for several riot-accused farmers in the aftermath of violence in Delhi on 26 January 2021, told Article 14 that scores of these cases continue to be pending. In Delhi alone, over 150 men had been arrested for the 26 January skirmishes; some protestors had their tractors seized. 

“The Delhi police is yet to withdraw cases filed in connection with the 26 January violence,” Bhullar said. He said several men against whom cases are pending have run into other hurdles, such as requiring no-objection certificates for passports. He has continued to be the lawyer on call for several of these farmers.  

Farmer union leaders said compensation had also been promised in cases where police or other state agencies inflicted injuries on protesting farmers.  

“But people were most angry about the government’s betrayal regarding making MSP a legally guaranteed system for farmers,” said Amrita Kundu, a member of the SKM’s Mahila Morcha who attended the Delhi Jantar Mantar protest on 22 August. 

The committee formed to deliberate on the issue was stuffed with the government’s supporters, people who had supported the three laws to begin with, said Dhull. “Woh toh leepapoti tha. (That was a whitewashing.)” The perfunctory increases in MSP did not inspire faith in the government, he said, when farmers’ expectation had been the cost of cultivation plus 50%, as promised in the union budget in February 2018.          

Loan Waiver Demands & Corporate Write-Offs

A young farmer leader in Haryana, Abhimanyu Kohar is a B Tech graduate who is also national president of Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Mahasangh Youth Morcha. Among the breakaway splinter groups of the SKM, Kohar helped steer the 22 August Jantar Mantar protest. 


“Our memorandum to the government also included our demand of a fresh loan waiver for farmers,” he said, explaining that the demand had gained traction among farmers after news of a Rs 10 lakh crore write-off for corporates’ non-performing assets (NPAs) went viral.

On 2 August, minister of state for finance Bhagwat K Karad told Parliament that banks had written off loans totalling nearly Rs 10 lakh crore in the last five financial years. The Reserve Bank of India’s Central Repository of Information on Large Credits (CRILC) database showed that top defaulters at the end of March 2022 included companies such as Gitanjali Gems Ltd (owned by diamantaire Mehul Choksi), Era Infra Engineering, Concast Steel and Power, REI Agro Ltd and ABG Shipyard Ltd. 

This made the issue of a farm loan waiver an evocative one, said Biju, the Thrissur-based farmer leader. “One rule for the corporates and another wisdom for the farmers is something that provokes outrage,” he said. “Half of this amount is enough to manage the total NPAs of farmers.”

The MP garlic farmer Santosh offered a measured, reasoned criticism of state policy for farmers—that it is neither clear and stable nor easy to anticipate. Under the state’s ‘Bhavantar Bhugtaan’ (payment of price difference) scheme, in 2020 he received cash from the state government for the difference between a state-assured price and what he actually got at the mandi for his onions. “It was a very, very good scheme,” he said. “But nobody knows why they’re not implementing it right now for garlic.”


He said larger farmers would welcome pro-farmer policy-making more than loan waivers, and cited the example of garlic exports and acreage to suggest that expert state-level management of and planning for agricultural commodities was absent.  

Santosh believed nobody in key decision-making positions, “neither prime minister Modi nor chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan”, was paying any attention to the farm crisis. 

He said: “Kya upar upar udd rahe ho, neeche aakar toh dekho kya ho raha hai (You’re flying high on your successes, but you’re disconnected from reality).”    

(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)