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In Farmers’ Protests, a Climate Change Connection Lurks

In Farmers’ Protests, a Climate Change Connection Lurks

Bharatiya Kisan Union members at Ghazipur border during the farmers’ protest against Centre’s agri-laws, in New Delhi, December 9, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Farmers camping at the borders of India’s national capital have refused to budge until new farm laws recently brought in by the Indian government are repealed and they have an assured minimum support price for their crops. In September 2020, the Central government had passed three new farm laws and asserted that they would help farmers. The protesting farmers are mainly from Punjab and Haryana, supported by their fellow farmers from other states.

With nearly a dozen political parties pledging their support to their cause, the standoff may intensify if the central government refuses to repeal the laws. On December 8, the farmer groups have also called for Bharat Bandh (a general strike across India) which has received support from organisations across the country.

The new laws were announced by the central government as a milestone in the process of economic reforms in the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had described the new farm laws as ‘historic’ and one of the biggest reforms in the sector.

While the economic reforms of 1991 made structural changes in the industrial policies of the country, the three farm laws, launched as part of the process of economic recovery after the COVID-19 lockdown, were announced by the Central government as legislations that would initiate the reform process in the agricultural sector. The new farm laws are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.

However, farmers are angry over the laws not assuring them the minimum support price (MSP) and they claim that the new laws would leave them at the mercy of the private corporate companies, who could replace the government agencies in procuring their agricultural produce.

Since then, the farmers were camping at the Punjab-Haryana border where they stayed for over two months but decided to march to Delhi when no one paid heed to their demands. Over the last couple of weeks, from the time they clashed with the police at the Punjab-Haryana border and then blocked the Delhi-Chandigarh highway, they have had several rounds of discussions with the central government.

Though the demand for the MSP is not connected directly to environmental issues, the impacts of climate change are integral to it. This is because crops across India routinely face the impact of excess rain, no rain, heat, pests, hail, flood, drought and seawater inundation which ultimately affects the earnings of the farmers.

In fact, some agriculture leaders note that many agriculture conflicts have their roots in environmental factors impacting crops.

Dr Sunilam, a former legislator from Madhya Pradesh and a working group member of the farmers’ organisation All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), said both are “closely interlinked.” “There is no denying the connection … Whether it is rain, hail storms or floods, drought, etc., there is always much uncertainty due to environmental issues that keep the farmers on their toes,” he said.

Over the past few years, there have been numerous instances where fluctuations in the climate – rainfall, temperature, water management – have impacted agriculture. According to the Economic Survey 2019-20, agriculture had a gross value addition (the value of the agricultural goods and services produced after deducting the cost of inputs and raw materials) of 16.5% in 2019-2020. Agriculture and associated sectors employ more than 50% of the country’s population. Thus, climate change impact on Indian agriculture has implications for national income, food security and livelihood security of a significant section of the population.

In December 2019, Ramesh Chand, who is member of India’s federal think tank, NITI Aayog, while addressing a conference had said that it is evident that agriculture is “central to climate change and clean air, and sustainable use of land and water.”

“Agriculture is both part of the problem and part of the solution to climate change and sustainability. We must seize every opportunity to shift away from inefficient farm practices, towards long-term sustainability, efficiency and resilience. Among all sectors, agriculture offers the best hope for green growth that is environmentally sustainable,” Chand had said.

Also read: Climate Change Harming Agriculture, India’s Wheat Production Could Fall By 23%: Ministry

Farmer unrest has been brewing for some time now

The protests of the farmers is not a sudden reaction and the discontentment among farmers had been brewing for a long time. Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, the central government announced a Rs 20 trillion package which included measures to address the stress in the agricultural sector but it failed to cut ice with the agricultural community which felt it does not provide any relief to cultivators and agricultural labourers.

The protests by the farmers have received support from many unions and groups across India. Protest marches have also been taken out in the UK and the US to express solidarity and support to the farmers.

Before the national elections of 2019, there was unrest among farmers in Punjab. Farmers in the well-irrigated tracts of the state had told Mongabay-India about the plethora of environmental factors they were facing, including unreliable weather patterns.

Farmers from across the country have been facing the brunt of a changing climate in recent years. In 2019, the director general of the India Meteorological Department told Mongabay-India that reliability of the monsoonal system was changing. The calendrical pattern was changing and the monsoonal system was turning into a string of extreme weather events.

Over the years, the stress in the farm sector has only increased and the importance of farming and environmental issues have repeatedly come to surface. For instance, in late 2018, during the legislative elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, farmers’ protest had emerged as one of the major factors behind the loss of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In August 2018, Kerala suffered from a devastating flood, which caused an estimated economic loss of Rs 310 billion. Of this, the loss to the agricultural sector was so significant that the state’s agriculture minister V.S. Sunil Kumar stated that Kerala would renew its agricultural activities and policies.

In January 2020, hailstorm and unseasonal rainfall damaged crops in Haryana’s Rohtak area. With climate change, the variation in the temperature and rainfall could increase and this variation can seriously result in crop losses and harm the interests of farmers.

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A farmer in his drought-hit field. Photo: Reuters

Facing climate change, farmers want a guarantee for their crops

This is one of the many reasons that farmer leaders believe environmental issues as an important factor influencing Indian agriculture and want the MSP as a safety net for the time, effort and risk they invest into farming.

Kedar Sirohi, working president of the Kisan Congress (Indian National Congress’s agriculture wing) in Madhya Pradesh, said farmers just need a guarantee of the price.

“Environment is definitely a factor for fluctuation in agriculture which directly or indirectly employs about 50% of the country’s population. In return, the farmers are only seeking a guarantee of the price for their crops … they are not seeking any other benefit or compensation against any external factor like climate. If they can get a guarantee that they have no other conflict,” Sirohi told Mongabay-India, who was in Delhi for the farmers’ protest and now returning to Madhya Pradesh to support farmers protesting there.

Also read: As Farmers March to Delhi, Climate Change Fuels Their Larger Crisis

Yudhvir Singh, who is national secretary of farmer groups the Bharatiya Kisan Union and the Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements (ICCFM), said the whole system of the MSP is defective as it only takes into account factors like production, stock and international prices while ignoring many other factors.

“The government has been speaking about doubling farmers’ income by 2022 even though that seems like a far off dream. Even then farmers are happy with the assurance of lowest possible support for the government and not asking for anything more,” Singh told Mongabay-India.

When the COVID-19 lockdown paralysed the manufacturing and the services sector of economy, and sent millions of domestic migrants from cities and towns back to their home states, it is farming that sustained lives and livelihoods in the villages. A good monsoon and a healthy kharif harvest brought the initial cheer in the days of national despondency. The farmers, who were the harbingers of that cheer, are protesting to get their voices heard.

This article was first published on Mongabay India.

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