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Agrarian Crisis and the Longest Farmers’ Protest in Indian History

Thursday 12 August 2021, by Navsharan Singh

“The farmers not only know how to farm, but they also know how to protect their fields,” said a farm leader from Punjab at the protest site on the outskirts of Delhi, where protesting farmers have been camping since last November. “We will fight over and over again and generation upon generation, but we will not let our land go,” a slogan at the camp site reads. The farmers are protesting the three new farm laws adopted in Parliament in September 2020, which, taken together, open markets to corporate farming, retreat from public procurement of food grains, and open the door to large agribusiness companies. The farmers fear that these laws will make smallholder farming unsustainable and force small and marginal farmers to give up their land and become casual or contract laborers. They are determined to fight this out.

India is an agrarian economy—over half of the total workforce of 482 million is engaged in agriculture. Of the total agricultural workforce of 263 million, over 45 percent are farmer cultivators and the remaining, around 55 percent, are landless agricultural laborers. Eighty-four percent of farmers are small and marginal, owning less than two hectares of land each—the rest, some 16 percent, are large-scale, relatively affluent farmers (1). Agribusiness firms, while they do not own land, are also a major player in the farm economy, controlling inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and technology, as well as food storage. It is they, and potentially the large-scale farmers, who have the most to gain from the new laws.

So what are these laws? One, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act limits state oversight to Produce Marketing Committees while allowing new corporate players to create new markets without paying any taxes or fees, purportedly to allow farmers to sell their produce to anyone as opposed to selling only in the government regulated markets at a minimum price fixed prior to the sowing season.

The second, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act (the Contract Farming Act), provides a framework for contract agreements between farmers and contractors (called sponsors) for a specific quantity of a specific crop at a specific price. The Act provides no regulations and contains clauses that forbid any legal recourse for disputes. If a corporation violates a contract with a farmer, the new law prohibits the farmer from seeking redress in a regular court. The third, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, removes restrictions on stockpiling food grains that were put in place to discourage firms from artificially raising prices. The new law allows large corporations to stockpile food and engage in warehouse and supply management.

During the same session as it adopted the farm bills, the Parliament also passed three Labour Codes: the Industrial Relations Code, the Social Security Code, and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, denounced by all major labor unions as anti-labor (2). The Industrial Relations Code increased the size of establishments subject to government permission before closure, lay-off, or retrenchment, from one hundred to three hundred workers, giving companies greater freedom in termination and exit decisions. It also states that where there is more than one trade union in an establishment, the sole one with negotiation status will need to represent 51 percent of the employees (3). And finally, in a parallel move, the government continued to make use of preventive detention legislation to sow fear and further entrench the suppression of basic rights and freedoms.(4)

Farmers in Punjab, India’s main agricultural state and the most unionized, were the first to recognize the threat. Punjab has thirty-two large and small farmers’ unions—each representing different sectors and active in different pockets of the state (5). Many of these are left wing; some are large with membership of more than 150,000 and others small with membership limited to a few hundred. They have a solid history of mobilizing the peasantry which goes back to the early nineteenth century. When the farm laws were passed, they took the lead to form an all-India united front called the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM; United Front of Farmers) in November 2020 and gave a call to all farmers to march to Delhi.(6)

Led by the farmers’ unions, with the Punjab unions at the forefront, a convoy of tractor trolleys and trucks—thousands of them, extending for several miles—made its way into the capital city of Delhi on November 26, 2020. They came waving their union flags, equipped with food, stoves, utensils, blankets, and other essentials to last them for months. “We are here to stay; we will leave only when the government repeals these draconian laws,” they said.(7)

Prevented by police barricades from entering Delhi, the farmers decided to camp right where they were stopped. Soon they had set up mini townships at three different entry points to the capital, giving them names of well-known heroes of independence and land reform struggles under British rule. They put up beautifully calligraphed signage of villages they came from and built little homes in the trolleys. Within days they opened libraries and reading rooms, several health clinics, installed laundromats, hot water heaters, mini workshops for repair of tractors, phone battery charging stalls, and a large number of community kitchens. Fresh vegetables and tankers of milk came from the neighboring state of Haryana every day and there was plenty of food for everyone at the community kitchens.

The march resonated with people in Delhi and other cities as many have roots in the villages. So people started donating books, doctors took leave from their hospitals and came to the protest sites to set up clinics, pharmaceutical companies donated medicines, youth groups set up help desks, and local businesses organized truckloads of blankets, mattresses, and bottled water. Sikh temples set up additional community kitchens at the protest sites, and everyone who came to the protest site was fed. There are currently four large protest sites at different entry points of Delhi.

Led by their unions, the protesters erected makeshift platforms across the sites, which stretch over twenty-five miles in different directions. These featured not only speeches by union leaders but also performances of music, drama, poetry, and folk singing, most of the day and into the evenings, highlighting agrarian crisis, rural indebtedness, apathy of the government officials, conditions of public schools and hospitals, and women’s issues. Three weeks into the protests, a group of young farmer activists and journalists started a Trolley Times newspaper, publishing their demands in two regional languages, and in February a women-led newspaper Karti Dharti began publishing in three languages, focused on women farmers and landless laborers. Once settled, the protesters started marking special days to build solidarity and community support. On January 18, 2021, they celebrated the contribution of women farmers to the movement, and on March 8, they celebrated International Women’s Day, drawing more than 50,000 women farmers and rural laborers to the camps. Invitation was also extended to Delhi women’s groups, and many came to participate and to give cultural performances. On February 27, they celebrated the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidas, a late fifteenth-century untouchable, lower caste poet who is revered by Dalits. These special days were a key way in which the farm unions sought to reach out to larger sections of society, honor women leaders, and bridge class and caste differences between the large landowning Jat or upper caste communities and the low caste and largely landless Dalit communities. The relations between landowning and landless are often antagonistic as their economic interests clash.(8)

Other days marked other critical demands. On International Human Rights Day, December 10, one of the largest unions, the BKU (Ugrahan) of Punjab, put up the portraits of human rights defenders, student activists, and intellectuals incarcerated under preventive detention, without trial. Marking the day to demand the release of these prisoners, the union leader said,

When intellectuals, student activists and human rights defenders are put behind bars, ordinary farm labor also forgoes the right to hold to account the State which has reneged on land reforms. When food becomes a commodity to be traded only under market conditions, the urban and rural poor who need food rations forgo their right to food.(9)

As the protests continued, a large number of artists, writers, sports figures, and army veterans returned their government awards and titles, joining the protesting farmers and urging the government to repeal the laws. International messages of solidarity poured in, not only from the Indian diaspora but also from major unions of Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, helping the farmers locate their actions as part of a protest against a global corporate capitalist agenda.(10)

Deep Agrarian Crisis

This farm protest is the longest lasting and most significant peasant mobilization in postcolonial India, and as it has unfolded it has revealed the deep agrarian crisis which had lain buried under the myth of the “green revolution” in India. The story of the green revolution of the late 1960s, which involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains based on hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides; expansion of irrigation infrastructure; and modernization of management techniques, is now well known. Punjab became the first place in India to adopt this green revolution package, which doubled, tripled, and quadrupled the yields of wheat and rice in the 1960s and 1970s. A government-backed system of assured prices—the Minimum Support Price (MSP)—incentivized and encouraged farmers to grow only these crops.(11)

The abundant production in Punjab and in the neighboring state of Haryana helped India to attain food self-sufficiency and to address hunger and malnutrition through the Public Distribution of Food (PDS) program—a government-run program of food distribution to poor households throughout the country through a network of fair price shops.(12). But by the mid-1970s, the high costs of imported fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seeds controlled by large private corporations began to grow on the body politic of Punjab. The gulf between rich and poor farmers grew demonstrably wider, together with an ecological crisis in the form of a declining water table and large tracts of arable land becoming acidic, alkaline, and saline. In addition, a large-scale increase in terminal illnesses linked to the massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides became palpable as small and marginal farmers struggled to maintain their livelihoods.

By the 1980s, the gains of the green revolution had petered out further, and by the early 1990s, Punjab was plunged into a series of serious crises. The small farmers who had thus far managed a precarious balance between high input costs and the price of their produce came under a heavy debt burden as food prices began to fall in the global food market and input prices soared. The tractors, tube wells, seeds, and fertilizers all bought on credit—on the policy advice of the international financial institutions and the agriculture universities—became millstones around farmers’ necks and plunged them into deep indebtedness. One study found some 89 percent of marginal and 91 percent of small farmers under a heavy debt burden (13). In India as a whole in 2012-2013, households operating and managing farms of under one hectare reported earning less than their monthly household expenditure, and 52 percent of all farm households had substantial debt. This despite the fact that farm households do not sustain themselves on agriculture alone but receive about 32 percent of their income from working on others’ farms or in non-farm occupations.(14)

Unable to repay the loans, a large number of farmers and agricultural laborers started killing themselves. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics, between 2000 and 2015, over 300,000 farmers and laborers committed suicide linked to farm distress in India and over 16,600 farmers and rural laborers took their own lives in Punjab (15). The government stopped publishing the suicide data after this period, but farm leaders caution that the figures have reached alarming proportions in more recent years. It is around this period that Punjab farm unions started mobilizing farmers and agriculture laborers around government accountability for the suicides. The unions demanded farm loan and interest payments be waived and compensation for lives lost and crops failed. It is against this background and the overall context of deep agrarian crisis that the three farm laws and the farmers’ response to them must be understood.

The Farm Laws: A Covid-19 Victory

Agricultural sector reforms have been on the central government agenda for several decades, with policy experts stressing the need to shift people out of agricultural work in order to provide cheap labor to urban manufacturing and service sectors (16). But such measures were resisted by farmers and often also by state governments as the manufacturing and services sectors failed to create the kind of decent jobs that would attract such a large-scale shift. Everyone understood that if pushed out, the farmers would get reduced to a perennial casual labor force in unwelcoming cities. But in 2020, the government used the opportunity of Covid-19 to push the laws through.

The farmers have long recognized that these three laws taken together are a death warrant for the small and marginal farmers and are designed to push them out of farming—facilitating the ability of large corporate players to take over the control of land and farming. Prior to approval of the three laws, two ordinances were introduced by the government on June 5, 2020, with the same provisions. The ordinances prompted the farmers’ unions to translate them into Gurmukhi—the language read in Punjab—and convene village-level meetings with farmers, both men and women, to discuss their implications for various sections of the farming community. The government claimed that these laws will free the farmers from the clutches of the commission agents, allowing them to sell their crops outside state-regulated areas, or mandis, in states where they previously were not allowed to do so and allow them to benefit from efficiency along the supply chain. All farmers—big and small—currently have the right to sell their products, mainly wheat and rice, to the government for a guaranteed minimum support price.

The farmers anticipate that the new laws that enable them to sell in the open market will pit them against agribusiness firms which will now enter the market with control over market information and the advantages of scale. They recognize that this will make the mandi system defunct and lead to an end to the guaranteed minimum support price without which the debt-ridden small holders are unable to continue, forcing them to sell their land and become wage laborers. They also fear that with government withdrawing support to the farm sector, slowly the subsidies for inputs, extension services, and procurement assurances which provide a semblance of stability to agricultural production will also be withdrawn.

The farmers anticipate that the new laws that enable them to sell in the open market will pit them against agribusiness firms which will now enter the market with control over market information and the advantages of scale.

When the three laws were passed in September with no consultations with farmers and little discussion in Parliament, the farmers’ unions issued a call to fight collectively and create a joint platform. Together and separately, they held large numbers of state-wide protest marches, rallies, and meetings to discuss the new laws and mobilize against them. Protests also started in many other states, notably Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Telangana, and hundreds of small and big farm unions all over India also joined the protest. It is then the SKM gave a call for a protest march to Delhi on November 25-26.

Putting the Government on Notice

The farmers’ movement is mounting a challenge to the official policy of facilitating market subjugation of farming communities and their forced eviction from their lands. The farmers are targeting Indian corporate giants like the Adani group and the Reliance groups who are making an entry into the agriculture sector. The Adani group is expanding infrastructure to store, transport, and market agricultural produce, along with multinationals. Reliance Industries (RIL) is foraying into the agritech business through a combination of online technology and collaborations in farm equipment innovations as part of its move to expand its “farm-to-fork” model. The protesting farmers are worried by the scale of the ambitions the two tycoons have. Farmers think these two big corporate houses have links with the power center, and they have become symbols of crony capitalism. Women, in particular, are picketing the Adani dry port in Kila Raipur, Punjab and have laid siege to a large number of toll plazas set up by Reliance group investors to make them toll free.

Women in Agriculture, Marginalized in leadership, Vital to the Movement

A unique aspect of this joyous sustained non-violent movement is the presence of large number of women, especially from Punjab. The women camping at the Delhi borders are largely from the small and marginal peasant households and Dalit women from landless agriculture households. Far from first-time participants in the protest movement, they have been mobilizing for decades to seek compensation for farmers’ suicides, for crop failure, against land acquisition and Dalit rights over village commons, and against rape and violence. Many are part of the farmers’ unions, and the unions, especially the left unions, have been influential in bringing women into the public domain.

Nevertheless, the leadership of the ongoing farmers’ movement is predominantly elderly male. Some of the farmers’ unions have a women’s wing, but by and large women are not in leadership positions; they hold up the back: collecting food and funds, talking to the press, and mobilizing crucial support for the movement in the families. As such, they are essential, doing the critical, largely unsung, work. In the build-up to the march to Delhi, women went around in the villages late into the night, mobilizing people through singing Jago—stay awake—appropriating a folk wedding tradition which is a call to relatives of the bride and groom to stay awake all night. But Jago also has its roots in the anti-colonial struggle when the folk form was invoked by freedom fighters to awaken people to rise up against British colonial rule.

The experiences of women have added to the demands of the farmers, now seeking land to the landless, guaranteed minimum wages for farm jobs, and equal wages for women in farm operations.

Women’s participation in the protests has given the farmers’ movement a whole new dimension. Women have brought with them their varied experiences of being landless laborers; having lost husbands, fathers, or sons to deaths by suicides and forced to pick up the responsibilities of farming, repaying debts, and demanding state compensation; preventing forcible evictions from land; and their experience of fighting against sexual violence and its tolerance in society. With women joining, the farmers’ movement’s claims on the government have expanded. The movement is no longer only about government protection through the minimum support price. The experiences of women have added to the demands of the farmers, now seeking land to the landless, guaranteed minimum wages for farm jobs, and equal wages for women in farm operations. Women’s past work and activism as members of the Kisan Mazdoor Khudkushi Peedit Parivar Committee (Committee of Farmers and Labour Suicide Victim Families) validate their experience and legitimate their current demands.

Since the green revolution took off in Punjab, rural women, especially Dalit women, have been written out of the policy discourse. They have experienced complete neglect and total stagnation in their employment and wages, unable to get employment in farm operations even for jobs which men have vacated as they migrate to the cities. The farm work which men and women do is very different, and there is a strict gender divide in tasks. Agricultural wage labor is scarce in all seasons—women are almost entirely out of operations associated with the wheat crop, they find rice planting at times for a few days, and it is only in cotton picking, which is not yet mechanized, that they find work. The vegetable and citrus growing belt generates additional days of wage work, but the entire work put together does not exceed 150 days in a year, and this includes labor under the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. (17)

The nature of the work in rural areas has also changed, especially for women. Overwhelmingly, it is contract work, piece rate, which is given to the man, who engages his wife and children in these operations. Rates are per hectare of rice planted, quintal of cotton picked, hectare of hay baled, and so on. The daily wage rates on vegetable and fruit farms, where women are concentrated, are almost one-third lower, owing to the perception that women are incapable of heavy labor.

When men migrate to nearby cities and towns, both as skilled laborers (such as masons) and as unskilled workers on construction sites and other odd jobs, women stay behind to look after the children and desperately seek opportunities for wage work. If agriculture work is scarce, non-farm work is even more scarce. The women are landless and asset-less, representing the most marginalized section of agricultural wage workers in Punjab.

The women farmers from small and marginal land holdings have been bearing the brunt of the agrarian crisis in ways that are different from men and often more intense. In the middle of December, protesting farmers at the Delhi border were joined by hundreds of women farmers from Punjab’s Malwa region. As they descended from the buses, the women held union flags. But many also clutched something else—large and small photo frames. These were the portraits of their sons and husbands who had died by suicide over the years when they were unable to repay the farm debt. Many women held two portraits. They brought with them their stories and said that their only source of livelihood is their little pieces of land which they are not willing to let go.

For several years, landless Dalits in Punjab have fought to regain control of village common land that has gradually slipped away from them. Currently, only 3.5 percent of Punjab private farmland belongs to Dalits who make up 32 percent of the population. The national average is 8.6 percent of farmland for 16.6 percent of Dalits (18). Women are at the forefront of these land rights movements. Over the last few years, they have been getting unionized and staking claims over the commons with some success. (19)

A Million Reasons to March

The farmers’ protest movement will turn nine months old at the end of August. Eleven rounds of talks with the government, the last in January, have led nowhere. Since then, the government’s tactic has been to ignore or discredit the movement, wear out the protestors, and increase the costs they incur by neglecting their fields, foregoing their daily wage, and enduring the hardships of life in the open. But the farmers at the edge of the capital are staying put and confidently fighting the war of attrition. Their agitation for the repeal of the pro-corporate farm laws has become the largest and longest sustained non-violent movement in Indian history.

Through these months, the farm protest has acquired larger significance, well beyond the limited goal of protesting the three farm laws. The farmers’ charter includes demands of producers, but it also relates to the interests of other urban and rural poor. All farm unions are collectively demanding the unconditional repeal of the three agricultural laws. But they are also seeking implementation of the Universal Public Distribution System and the right to food for everyone They are seeking government regulation to end farmers’ exploitation by big corporations and multinational companies. The declarations of support for the farm laws by the International Monetary Fund and international banks, along with multinational agribusiness firms, indicate the range of forces backing the laws, and it is not lost on the farmers. There are really a million reasons why farmers are protesting at the borders of Delhi with calm confidence. Whether or not the laws are repealed, this movement has won. It has forged new alliances and breached old fault lines. It has given India hope. The farmers’ movement is now a battle not just for the farmers against three laws, but also for justice and dignity.


1.The figures are based on Government of India estimates (GOI 2011): Census of India, General population, Primary Census Abstract, Office of the Registrar General Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.

2.See “10 Central Trade Unions to Burn Copies of Labour Codes on April 1,” The Hindu, March 24, 2021, available at

3.See Atul Sood, “The Silent Takeover of Labour Rights,” The India Forum, December 4, 2020, available at

4.Data provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs in Parliament in March 2021 admitted that there is a 72 percent increase in the number of persons arrested under the anti-terror law UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) in 2019 compared to 2015, available at

5.While a large majority of the unions represent small and marginal farmers, there are also unions representing big farmers.

6.There are a few large unions in Punjab which are not part of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) but support the demand of repeal of the new farm laws and have a big presence at the Delhi borders. SKM represents forty unions and networks, the largest being the All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee (All India Farmers’ Struggle Coordination Committee), a pan-Indian umbrella organization comprising close to four hundred farmers’ unions and organizations.

7.Hemani Bhandari, “Dilli Chalo Protest—Not Leaving Border, Prepared to Stay for Six Months, Say Farmers,” The Hindu, November 28, 2020, available at

8.Over the years, Jat landowners’ control over land has significantly increased and lower caste landless laborers’ rights to the commons have slowly slipped away. This control over land not only enhances landowners’ returns, it also increases the vulnerability of the landless as they become more dependent on landowners for employment, fodder for their cattle, and the use of fields for open defecation. In many parts of rural Punjab, for instance, peasants and Dalit workers began to be organized and violent conflicts with large landowners were witnessed over wages and terms of tenancy. The landowners used everything possible to consolidate social power over the Dalit agriculture labor. For more details, Navsharan Singh, “Writing Dalit Women in Political Economy of Agrarian Crisis and Resistance in Punjab,” Sikh Formations 13, no. 1-2 (2017): 30-47, doi:10.1080/17448727.2016.1147180.

9.Video, “Why Farmers Demand the Release of Political Prisoners,” Karwan e Mohabbat, 2020, available at

10.See, e.g., “US Farmer Groups Deliver Solidarity Statement to Indian Farmers,” The Tribune, February 21, 2021, available at; “Canadian Labour, Civil Society Groups Express Solidarity with Protesting Farmers,” The Wire, February 28, 2021, available at; “UK Farmers Support Indian Farmers, Cite Poor Experience with Corporates,” The Federal, January 31, 2021, available at; “Solidarity Statement with Indian Farmers,” Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, December 7, 2020, available at; “Solidarity with Farmers of India,” Toronto Star, March 1, 2021, available at; “Vancouver Protestors Show Solidarity with Indian Farmers with Sleep-Out Demonstration,” DH News, February 28, 2021, available at

11.The Minimum Support Price (MSP) for any given crop is fixed so that farmers receive a price that covers their costs of cultivation and provides the farmer with a reasonable income. The government procures food grains from the farmers at the MSP and makes these grains available to workers at a reasonable price. The government sells the procured food grains through a Public Distribution System (PDS) to the working class and the peasantry. Excess grain is held in government warehouses as a buffer in case of years of bad harvests and as a counter-cyclical measure to shield the working class from high food inflation. See “Dossier No. 41: The Farmers’ Revolt in India,” The Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, 2021, available at

12.The PDS was operated as a universal scheme until 1992. However, since then it has taken the form of a Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) under which households are classified according to their economic status as Above Poverty Line (APL) households and Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. BPL ration card holders are eligible for 35 kg of rice or wheat every month. Fair price shops are licensed to distribute essential commodities to ration card holders. India has a network of four hundred thousand fair price shops across the country. Reetika Khera, “India’s Public Distribution System: Utilisation and Impact,” The Journal of Development Studies 47, no. 7 (2011): 1038-60.

13.Sukhpal Singh, Shruti Bhogal, and Randeep Singh, “Magnitude and Determinants of Indebtedness among Farmers in Punjab,” Indian Journal of Agriculture Economics 69, no. 2 (2014): 246.

14.See Sudha Narayan, “Understanding the New Farm Laws and Farmer Protest in India,” The Federal, January 24, 2021, available at

15.Sukhpal Singh and Mandeep Kaur Kingra, “Agrarian Crisis and Agri Lab Suicide in Punjab,” Economic and Political Weekly 56 no. 13 (2021): 55.

16.Ramesh Chand, “Doubling Farmers’ Income: Rationale, Strategy, Prospects and Action Plan,” NITI Aayog, National Institute for Transforming India, Government of India, March 2017, available at

17.The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, adopted in 2005, was designed to reduce income and food insecurity in rural areas, guaranteeing at least hundred days of wage employment at the state minimum wage.

18.Agriculture Census 2015-16 (Phase-I) All India Report on Number and Area of Operational Holdings, Government of India 2019.

19.A labor union of the landless, Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), was formed in 2014 for the rights and access of Dalit landless cultivators to reserved common lands in Punjab. At present, there are fifty-five villages where the union has been successful in obtaining Dalit’s share in land through annual auctions by the state government.

Author Biography

Navsharan Singh is a political scientist and activist concerned with women’s rights, human rights, and social and cultural movements. She has a long involvement in the women’s movement in India and has published widely on issues of sexual violence, women’s rights, and impunity. She is co-editor of Landscapes of Fear: Understanding Impunity in India (2014) and Splintered Justice: Living the Horror of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat (2016) and is co-editor of the series Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia (2017).