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India’s farm ordinances: fuelling a famine

India’s countless farmers have rallied together en masse over the past few months to protest farm ordinances imposed by the Indian government. These ordinances may have severe implications for agriculture in India, including reduced state support for agriculture, the increased domination of corporate interests, and a threat to food security, land rights, and livelihoods of the farmers. The intersection of this development with already tenuous conditions may fuel a famine and further increase vulnerability of the agrarian classes, writes Karishma Shelar.

Editor GoI Monitor/Flickr

Starting late November 2020, millions of farmers have marched to and gathered on the outskirts of New Delhi, India’s capital, where they have been met with water cannons of the riot police, barricades, tear gas and lathi charges (the police-led beating of protesters with clubs). Defying COVID-19 restrictions and the bitter cold, the farmers are protesting newly passed national government farm ordinances[1] that seek to dismantle former regulations and legislations protecting the farmers from laissez-faire price and purchase mechanisms. This blog attempts to break down why the ordinances will escalate in a famine-like disaster while discussing the debt-cum-groundwater crisis in the state of Punjab which lies at the heart of the ongoing protests.

Paving the way for corporate farming

Simply put, the farm ordinances, if passed, pave the way for full-fledged corporatisation of India’s agricultural sector through free market price mechanisms and the eventual withdrawal of all forms of state support for agriculture. This spells disaster for nearly 60% of India’s households directly or indirectly relying on the agricultural sector for jobs or survival, of whom 86% are small and marginal landholders (holding plots of land of less than two hectares).

The farm ordinances can have three devastating impacts:

  1. It is a step towards disassembling mandis (state-regulated marketplaces where agricultural produce is traded) to make room for agro-business-driven open market trading.

The mandis are not flawless systems of trade. They are limited in number and geographically favourable to certain regions and class groups. Nevertheless, these are important systems of price discovery and signalling. The mandis are supposed to assure farmers a minimum support price (MSP) declared by the state for their produce. What is required of the government, then, is to strengthen and expand procurement through the mandis and to legalise MSP than abolish the system and shrug off its responsibilities.

  1. No legal assurance of the MSP in the ordinances leaves the farmers vulnerable to the whims and fancies of agro-businesses and other private players.

Such firms are more concerned about making profit than ensuring accessible and affordable food to the public. While the ordinances allow for farmers to enter pre-determined contract farming arrangements with private entities, the former’s financial precarity and no protection against potential discrepancies on part of the latter compromises the farmers’ bargaining power.

In addition, over the past three decades, the increased privatisation of agricultural inputs has resulted in a rise in input costs that has now spiralled into a debt crisis for agrarian households. Private entities with their enormous financial capacity will have free reign to dictate the terms of exchange, pricing, type of produce and inputs, enslaving the farmers to market dictates and furthering the debt crisis in the country. A recent report also suggests that 45–60% of India’s rural households are unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements. Securing the interests of private players in agriculture will only escalate a famine-like crisis in the country.

  1. The ordinances allow for the unregulated storage of harvests, with limited regulation thereof by the state except in the case of extraordinary circumstances such as war, famine, or excessive price increases (exceeding 100%).

This move is aimed at providing private entities freedom to stockpile and control the storage and distribution of harvests. It threatens food and nutrition security to millions of people and particularly those dependent on one of the largest state-run public distribution systems (PDS) in the world. Under the National Food Security Act of India (GoI, 2013), 65% of the households (or around 800 million people in India) are legally assured a right to food at subsidised rates from the PDS and through welfare programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Services and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme.

Additionally, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) is legally mandated to maintain a central pool for procuring, storage, transportation and maintenance of food stocks in the country to which the mandi system and the PDS are closely linked. Besides, as per the Government of India’s estimates, the PDS supported food security for 750 million people during the COVID-19 lockdown (PIB, 2020). The ordinances indicate the intent of the government to downscale the role of the FCI and the PDS by promoting open-market food procurement, thereby dismantling the existing state structures that ensure nutrition security.

Punjab: a case in point

The state of Punjab is one of the major benefactors of the state-based system of procurement through the MSP. In the 2019-20 agricultural year, it contributed 28% and 21.5% of the total wheat and rice produced in the country to the central pool of procurement (FCI, 2020b, 2020a). Therefore, while the farm ordinances are being opposed by farmer unions across the country, the Punjab farmers have become the face of the protests around New Delhi.

It must be noted that Punjab was one of the leading states to adopt the assemblages of Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, which brought about prosperity to farm households in Punjab and self-sufficiency from food imports to India. However, this dramatically shifted the traditional cropping patterns of the state. In 1966, rice occupied around 5.2 million hectares (MHa) of land in Punjab (Mann, 2017), spiking to 23.39 MHa by 2012 and displacing other food crops that occupied over 50% of Punjab’s area under cultivation in the pre-Green Revolution period to around just 10% in 2012. Over time, the ecological impact of the Green Revolution has become visible in the form of deteriorating groundwater tables and soil quality that have led to stagnating production levels (Sarkar and Das, 2014).

The period also witnessed the average debt per cultivator household in Punjab increase to INR 216,524 in 2014–15 from INR 7,125 (USD 97.21) in 1991–92 (NSSO, 1998; GoI, 2014). Literature on the agrarian crisis in Punjab also acknowledges an increase in landlessness, with small and marginal farmers resorting to wage labour and forced to sell their land and other assets to pay off. Often, the income earned from wage labour is so meagre that it becomes impossible to pay off incurred debts. The unremunerative nature of agriculture further impoverishes households when they are forced to take on a debt to meet social obligations and cover health-related expenses(Padhi, 2009; Singh and Bhogal, 2020).

While it must be acknowledged that the agrarian dynamics of caste, class and gender differ greatly across geographies in India and also in Punjab, the current farmer protests mirror the larger agro-ecological crisis that has penetrated the country. The farm ordinances will only aggravate indebtedness, escalate land degradation, open the floodgates for corporate landgrabbing, and further deteriorate the socio-economic situation of the landless.


References

FCI (2020a) ‘Statewise Procurement of Rice for RMS 2019-20’. Food Corporation of India. Available at: https://fci.gov.in/app/webroot/upload/Procurement/Statewise%20Procurement%20of%20Rice(KMS%202019-20)_56.pdf (Accessed: 10 October 2020).

FCI (2020b) ‘Statewise Procurement of Wheat for RMS 2019-20’. Food Corporation of India. Available at: https://fci.gov.in/app/webroot/upload/Procurement/Statewise%20Procurement%20of%20wheat_57.pdf (Accessed: 10 October 2020).

GoI (2013) The National Food Security Act, 2013. Available at: http://www.egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2013/E_29_2013_429.pdf (Accessed: 12 October 2020).

GoI (2014) Key Indicators of Debt and Investment in India – NSS 70th Round 2013. New Delhi, India: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation – National Sample Survey Office, Government of India. Available at: http://www.mospi.gov.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/KI_70_18.2_19dec14.pdf (Accessed: 10 May 2020).

Mann, R. S. (2017) ‘Cropping Pattern in Punjab (1966–67 to 2014–15)’, Economic and Political Weekly. Economic and Political Weekly.

NSSO (1998) ‘Debt and Investment Survey: NSS Forty Eight Round (January – December 1992)’. National Sample Survey Organisation, Department of Statistics, Government of India. Available at: http://mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/419_final.pdf (Accessed: 12 July 2020).

Padhi, R. (2009) ‘On Women Surviving Farmer Suicides in Punjab’, Economic & Political Weekly, 44(19), pp. 53–59.

PIB (2020) ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana Phase-I: April 2020 to June 2020’. Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, Government of India. Available at: https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1643542 (Accessed: 5 December 2020).

Sarkar, A. and Das, A. (2014) ‘Groundwater Irrigation-Electricity-Crop Diversification Nexus in Punjab: Trends, Turning Points, and Policy Initiatives’, Economic and Political Weekly, 49(52), pp. 64–73. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24481208 (Accessed: 10 October 2020).

Singh, S. and Bhogal, S. (2020) ‘Punjab’s Agricultural Labourers in Transition’, Economic and Political Weekly. Economic and Political Weekly.

[1] These are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance of 2020, the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance of 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Karishma Shelar has recently graduated with a MA in Development Studies from the ISS, part of Erasmus University. Her dissertation focused on the agro-ecological crisis in rural India and investigated the interlinkages between agro-ecology and indebtedness at the level of the state, agro-businesses, and households.

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COVID-19 | Restaurants are empty, but the work continues: freelance food delivery in times of COVID-19 by Roy Huijsmans

Freelance food delivery workers have largely had to make their own decisions about working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who are they? How has their work been affected, and how have they responded?


On Sunday 15 March at around 17:30, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the closure of restaurants and bars as of 18:00 that same evening. I was out on the road riding for food delivery platform Deliveroo and had to pick up an order from the KFC in The Hague’s city centre a little past 18:00. When I arrived, the bouncer was in the process of making people leave the fast food restaurant and was preventing new guests from entering. He wasn’t planning on letting me in, either, until I showed him the order confirmation on my phone.

Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group for Deliveroo riders in The Hague was buzzing with activity as we tried to digest the announcement. An English-language news item summarising the prime minister’s announcement was shared. What would this mean for food delivery services, riders wondered? Many feared the worst. Indeed, already before 20:00 a first message appeared, informing other riders that another KFC restaurant in The Hague had also closed for deliveries.

Reflecting on this event a few weeks later, one rider recalled fearing that “my business was coming to a close”. Some started counting their savings and calculated for how long they could sit it out if deliveries came to a stop. A few other riders were more optimistic, though. One or two were even talking about an approaching ‘golden age’ if restaurants would remain open for deliveries only.

Staying, leaving, and getting back into it

A good number of those riding for Uber Eats and Deliveroo are highly educated migrants[1]. Platform-based food delivery work is relatively easy to get into—no knowledge of the Dutch language is required, the work is flexible, and the earnings can be good. Food delivery work is probably seldom the only reason why international riders come to or stay on in the Netherlands. Rather, it helps to realise other aspirations, including international education, generating funds for projects back home, while it also subsidises internships and pays the bills while riders look for jobs more in line with their education level.

Uncertainty about delivery work that for some is their main source of income and the health risks of doing this work in the times of COVID-19 led to at least one rider’s decision to leave the Netherlands when this was still possible, even though this meant going into a 17-day quarantine upon arrival back home.

Most riders stayed, often negotiating their decision transnationally. An Uber Eats rider from an Asian country was advised by his parents to stay in The Hague because back home many people were losing their jobs, including educated employees. Others had to put concerned families at ease who had read media reports about the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. One way of doing this was by saying that the situation in The Hague wasn’t as bad as elsewhere in Europe and that they were permitted to carry on with their work because it was “classified as an essential service”[2].

An international student said he stopped riding initially when the partial lockdown was first announced because he was “kind-of terrified”. When he later learned that food delivery work was continuing, he resumed riding. “I found a way I could help during this confusing time by doing delivery work in my break time after sitting in my room alone for a long time with eyes glued on the laptop,” he said.

The COVID-19 crisis also affected some riders in unexpected ways. Collecting a ‘zoekjaar hoogopgeleiden’ permit (search year permit for highly educated migrants) at the Dutch Immigration Office (IND) proved difficult because its offices had closed. This affected some Uber Eats riders whose student visas had expired in the midst of the partial lockdown. Uber Eats then automatically deactivated their user accounts, and getting them to reopen them based on the documentation for their ‘zoekjaar’ permit[3] took many phone calls and led to various days without an income.

Making money while trying to stay safe

As freelance workers, it is largely riders’ own responsibility to stay safe. Both platform companies have implemented so-called ‘contact-free’ delivery procedures, but what this means differs from restaurant to restaurant and in terms of what is practically possible when delivering the food to customers’ homes.

Riders are very much aware that food delivery during the COVID-19 outbreak carries a risk. Especially in places where one knows things have been touched a lot by many different people (e.g. crowded student flats) and you have to touch that button or hold that door handle, “you know there is something wrong, but you have to [do it]”, one Deliveroo rider remarked. He tried to stay safe by using gloves when hand sanitising gel was hard to obtain and has been using a scarf that Deliveroo distributed as ‘free winterwear’ because the surgical masks available in the open market were disposable ones.

An Uber Eats rider echoed similar concerns and said “for me it [food delivery work] is not safe, but I try my best to make myself safe”. He did this as follows: “I always bring my kit [tissue, hand sanitiser, etc.], and keep distance”. His main concern was that he might pick up the virus and infect his housemates with whom he shares his accommodation: “if I go outside and get corona, they will get it, too”.

For Uber Eats riders, the first weeks of the partial lockdown were quite good financially. It was even referred to as a ‘golden age’ by one rider because of the temporary bonus schemes, such as getting an additional €5 after having completed four orders, and then an additional bonus for each subsequent order. For the Deliveroo riders, business has definitely been slower during the partial lockdown. One rider guessed that his earnings were probably down to half of what he usually makes, but he was hesitant to ascribe it to the COVID-19 crisis, as there were various other factors, too. Reflecting on the past few weeks, he concluded: “My job didn’t end, but it also did not turn out as good as I thought [that] it would. No!”


[1] The demographics of Thuisbezorgd, another food delivery platform, appear different. Another important difference is that Thuisbezorgd employs its riders and pays them an hourly wage, whereas Uber Eats and Deliveroo work with freelancers who are paid per order.
[2] The rider in question admitted he had not seen food delivery work listed as such, but he reasoned that “in my mind, I feel that people need to eat and if they order food, then this is essential”.
[3] Formally: ‘orientation year highly educated persons’.
Title Image Credit: Roy Huijsmans.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


Color 2 Roy HuijsmansAbout the author:

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS, and a Deliveroo rider.