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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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The EU’s new pact on migration: what’s next after all the shock, sadness, and solidarity talk?

Several shocking events that transpired in Greece last year have not been met by truly humane solutions, showing that the performative moments of ‘refugee crises’ are not enough to move EU leaders into adopting a different approach toward refugees. The EU’s long-awaited New Pact on Migration and Asylum is supposed to change how refugees are treated, but with the European Commission set to promote ‘a European way of life’ through the pact, harsh practices are bound to continue, writes Zeynep Kaşlı.

It has been almost half a year since the catastrophic fire razed the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos in September last year, leaving around 13,000 residents without shelter in the midst of a COVID-19 lockdown. Some were immediately relocated to mainland Greece; however, over 7,000 refugees had no choice but to move to another makeshift camp, awaiting the processing of their asylum applications through ‘accelerated’ procedures. In this context, the question arises: will the EU change its approach toward refugees by introducing the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and will anything change this year for refugees themselves?

A worrying development that almost went unnoticed

In March last year, at the time when the first COVID-19 cases appeared in most countries across the globe, Greek and EU authorities had to take immediate action at the Greek-Turkish land border when Turkish authorities announced they would not stop passage to Europe and allowed thousands of refugees to pass the Turkish side of the Kastanies-Karaağaç Border Gate in Edirne. In response, the Greek government suspended the submission of asylum applications for one month, and the European border and coastguard agency Frontex deployed 100 additional border guards from 22 EU member states to halt the influx of refugees. Their ardent resistance to forced migration ended with the killing of refugee Muhammad Gulzar, leaving others wounded. Many thousands of other refugees who could not enter Greece were left with no place to go, stuck in limbo between fleeing and surviving.

What do these events tell us about the EU border and migration regime? Do they have any transformative role to play in EU-level policy making, and, if so, what is that role?

The news of these rather shocking and extraordinary events quickly spread across Europe, evoking strong emotions and triggering actions, from deep empathy to suspicion of the intentions of displaced people waiting at the borders. Under these circumstances, the long-awaited New Pact on Migration and Asylum was launched by the European Commission on September 23, 2020 as a “fresh start on migration: building confidence through more effective procedures and striking a new balance between responsibility and solidarity.”

The initial assessment by civil society organizations of the legislative and non-legislative proposals clearly show that the New Pact is considered far from a novel approach in terms of the guarantees put in place for compliance with international and EU legal standards, in promoting the fairer sharing of responsibility for asylum in Europe and globally, or in terms of the kind of migration management practices it is likely to accelerate. These include ‘return sponsorship’ and the increasing use of detention, as well as the restriction and criminalization of all sorts of humanitarian activities.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned ‘shocking’ events are about to become (from a European gaze) an intermezzo of what van Reekum calls a routinized emergency visualized through images of migration by boat. I agree with van Reekum that as manifested in ongoing rescue operations in the Aegean Sea, emergencies gain a routine character due to the unresolved ethical questions that the New Pact seems to be far from solving.

Really ‘shocking’, or history repeating itself?

The events at the Greek-Turkish land border were not new. We witnessed a similar ‘shock’ back in mid-September 2015 when over 3,000 people marched to the Turkish border province of Edirne asking for safe passage to Europe. At that time, they were forcefully stopped a few kilometers before the Kastanies-Karaağaç Border Gate and were allowed to wait until the EU heads of state had an informal meeting on September 23 to discuss the implementation of the European Agenda on Migration and how to increase collaboration with third countries like Turkey to alleviate the migratory pressure on the EU’s frontline member states. Just like in 2020, they were put in buses and transferred to other Turkish cities, while quite a number of them were detained and forcefully expelled to Syria without due procedure.

Hence, what we can call the first intermezzo in 2015 led to the EU-Turkey Statement aiming for a fast-track return of the rejected asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey as a “safe third country.” Five years after this first intermezzo, we can confidently say that the EU’s hotspot approach combined with the EU-Turkey Statement proved to be a highly ineffective policy at best, demonstrated by the low number of returns under the deal, the declaration of the suspension of the deal by the Turkish government, and the order of the Court of Justice of the European Union questioning the authorship and responsibility of the deal.

The second intermezzo in 2020 coinciding with the launch of the long-awaited New Pact further revealed two things. First, the EU has become more dependent on the willingness of its neighbours near and far to continue hosting millions of displaced people. Second, the only action plan the EU and its member states are able to come up with is greater militarization at the border and fewer rights for thousands of people who have already survived different forms of violence throughout their journey to and in Turkey and are in search for a life with dignity and peace.

Going back to the question posed above, the performative moments of the crises seem to play only a reproductive, rather than a transformative, role in shaping the EU-level migration and asylum policy. While the violent encounters at the land border further strengthen what van Houtum and Bueno Lacy call the ‘iron borders’ of fortress Europe, the burning down of camps such as Moria and ‘compassion fatigue’ in the Greek islands are the epitome of the ‘camp border’ within Europe that basically brings home the EU’s decades-old externalization policy. Seen from this perspective, the extraordinary events we witness at the land borders, hotspots and camps described above are only a byproduct what Jeandesboz and Pallister-Wilkins also call part of the routine work of bordering to order politics.

This routine work of bordering already became crystal clear in the discussions on the title of Commissioner-Designate Schinas’ portfolio on migration, security, employment and education. Even though the portfolio title was soon changed from ‘Protection’ to the ‘Promotion of the European Way of Life’ due to sharp criticism, even the changed title remains symbolic of the failure of the EU to transform its refugee policy. This is particularly visible in its reference to a singular European way of life that is to be promoted across Europe. While the EU means different things to different sides of the European public, from the populist right to the green left, it remains a union of free mobility for the lucky few, whereas it has also become a deportation union for many.

As the relatively shocking news from Greece has slowly turned into an intermezzo of routinized emergency, in the face of allegations against the EU agency Frontex, a deeper discussion is necessary on what a ‘European way of life’ entails in the face of EU member states’ responsibility for displaced people arriving at their borders or in the neighbourhood of Europe.

About the author:

Zeynep Kaşlı is Assistant Professor in Migration and Development at ISS, affiliated with the Governance, Law and Social Justice Research Group. Her research interests include mobility, citizenship, borders, transnationalism, power and sovereignty with regional expertise in Turkey, Middle East and Europe.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.