India’s SDG commitments under threat from government’s labour and agriculture reforms

Adopted in 2019 and 2020 by the Indian Parliament, reforms concerning labour laws and agriculture practices continue to face considerable opposition to their implementation, thanks to strong opposition from trade unions and other labour and farmers’ organisations. Workers’ and farmers’ representatives are concerned by the serious risk to workers’ rights and small farmers’ livelihoods that the reforms will bring.

When the Farm Bills, passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020, and the Four Labour Codes, adopted in two steps in 2019 and 2020, were proposed to replace existing laws, trade unions and farmers’ organisations immediately sounded the alarm that the new codes diluted and compromised the rights and protections guaranteed to workers and small-scale farmers under previous laws.

“The reform is an upfront attack on workers’ job security, benefits, and their ability to organise and collectively bargain,” explained Chandra Sekhar, General Secretary of Andhra Pradesh/Telangana State Branch of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, INTUC organises over 5 million small-scale agricultural workers, a majority of whom are women. Educating them about the risks posed by the Farm Bill is a top priority for the organisation. The reform strips small landowners and small-scale agriculture workers of their previously secured rights, placing them at a disadvantage against agribusiness and large landowners.

The absence of social dialogue or bilateral consultation with social partners in pushing through these reforms has intensified the dissatisfaction and opposition of trade unions. It is evident that the government is voluntarily excluding the voices of workers from decision-making processes, favouring the interests of employers and corporations over the well-being and rights of workers and citizens in general.

SDG degression

If carried through, the reforms will have a significant, adverse impact on India’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), as they will push workers and small landowners towards increased vulnerability as they lose their rights (SDG8), fall into poverty (SDG1) and face raising inequality (SDG10). Women, particularly in the agricultural sector, are extremely exposed to the negative impact of these reforms (SDG5). Moreover, the risk of agribusiness and big landowners overtaking small-scale agricultural fields will further strain the environment (SDG13), impact the habitability of the villages and neighbourhoods in which workers and small landowners live (SDG11), including their access to clean water and sanitation (SDG6), and energy (SDG7).

“When assessed thoroughly, one can see that these reforms are impacting negatively India’s progress towards the SDGs of the 2030 Agenda,” explained Sekhar.

Parliamentary elections 2024

The fierce opposition to the implementation of the reforms has made it impossible for the government to incorporate the reform into law thus far. The results of the next parliamentary elections in May 2024 are crucial since the elected representatives will subsequently elect the next president of India.

“If Modi wins again, his government will feel strong enough to push forward the incorporation of the reform into law and continue to undermine any progress towards achieving India’s sustainable development objectives,” warns Sekhar.

Find more information regarding the efforts of trade unions to support workers’ rights in India and their representation within the context of the 2030 Agenda on the ITUC website and its Global Rights Index. Additionally, the online media Equal Times offers comprehensive coverage, shedding light on the ever-evolving dynamics of workers’ rights in India and worldwide.