Farmers protesting farm laws in Punjab, India. Farmers protesting farm laws in Punjab, India. Photo: Flickr - Editor GoI Monitor / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

As India’s farmers continue their fight against Modi government ‘reforms’, Susan Ram analyses the issues behind their epic uprising

Over the past three months, India’s farmers have been building an insurgency unparalleled in the country’s recent history.

Since late September, those at the sharp end of agricultural ‘reforms’ pushed through Parliament by the far-right government of Narendra Modi have been leaving their fields to mobilise in rallies, join long-distance marches, block highways and railway tracks, dig down in makeshift camps set up outside cities, and engage in pitched battles with police.

Tens of millions of rural producers – the marginal, small, and medium peasants along with richer farmers whose labour provides food for roughly one-sixth of humanity – are involved in what has become the most serious threat yet to Modi’s neoliberal agenda and divisive, authoritarian regime.

Protests have been reported from every part of the country, even Kashmir, which has been under draconian emergency rule and de facto isolation from the rest of India since August 2019.

The fact that these protests are taking place in the midst of the Covid pandemic, with its attendant health fears and immeasurable economic disruption, makes the uprising all the more remarkable.

Why have India’s farmers risen on such a scale and with such ferocious determination? What is at stake in this monumental confrontation between government and agricultural producer?  Could this be a crunch moment – a turning point in the fortunes of Modi’s quasi-fascist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government, in power since 2014? 

The trigger: three new laws

On September 27, 2020, three interlinked farmer-related bills entered India’s statute books after a gallop through parliament. In essence, the new laws seek to deregulate the market in agricultural produce and throw it open to private capital, both national and global.

As part of its attempt to sell this ‘reform’, the Modi government has been dangling the promise of heightened incomes for farmers via contract farming and infusions of private investment.

But there have been few takers. Instead, every section of India’s highly differentiated agricultural community, from marginalised share-croppers to rich peasants and capitalist farmers, perceives the legislation as a ruse.

The actual aim, they argue, is to allow corporate entry to trade in agricultural commodities and give private companies the right to enter into agreements with farmers free of any government supervision or control.

The corollary of this is obvious: the dismantling of India’s complex system of state intervention in agriculture, which extends from pricing and marketing to the public distribution of food grains and other essential agricultural products such as edible oil.  

Built-up since independence from Britain in 1947, given added impetus by the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which enabled India to escape dependency on US grain imports and become self-sufficient in food, and for millions of people a protective wall against famine and starvation, this system of state intervention underwrites India’s food security; for millions, it is, without exaggeration, a guarantor of survival.

Agriculture in crisis

That this system now risks demolition at the hands of Modi’s corporate-friendly government goes some way to explaining why India’s farmers are so incensed. But it’s also important to factor in the extreme precariousness of the vast majority of the nation’s cultivators.  

For decades now, India’s agricultural sector has been mired in crisis. While multiple factors are involved, the root of the problem lies in highly uneven land distribution and the failure to undertake far-reaching land reform (perhaps the most important element separating the experience of post-independence India from that of post-revolution China).

One result is the country’s highly skewed pattern of land ownership, with a growing concentration of the most fertile and productive land in the hands of landlords and big capitalist farmers. The latter process has reached a particularly advanced level in the north-western state of Punjab, where medium and large landowners (those owning five acres and above) constitute two-thirds of all cultivators.

In stark contrast, small and marginal farmers (those operating less than 1 hectare or 2.47 acres of land) constitute 86 per cent of cultivators in the rest of India. This lower rung of the peasantry, often with abysmally small holdings of agricultural land, is burdened by indebtedness, poor access to irrigation, increased costs of cultivation and recurring crop failures   

It is these resourceful but highly precarious, debt-burdened producers who stand to lose most from Modi’s market-ready ‘reforms’.

That India’s systemic agricultural crisis is now burrowing deep into vanguard agrarian states such as Punjab and neighbouring Haryana is evidence of its relentless spread. In the case of Punjab, notes research scholar Gaurav Bansal:

“stagnant yields, declining profitability per unit of cultivated land, dwindling water tables and increased salinity of soil and water have all combined to exert an unprecedented stress on the State’s agrarian economy…manifested in a threefold increase in farmer suicides between 2000 and 2014, a large proportion of it among agricultural labourers, Dalits, and small and marginal landowners.”

Core issue for farmers: the Minimum Support Price

Given the extreme precariousness which governs the lives of growing numbers of Indian cultivators, government intervention to guarantee a minimum price for their produce offers a bulwark of sorts.

In India, this mechanism is known as the MSP: the Minimum Support Price. It has two basic aims: to insure agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices, especially in bumper production years, and to procure food grains for public distribution.

Each year, minimum support prices for certain crops are announced by the Indian government at the start of the sowing season. Prices are set on the basis of recommendations made by an official body, the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP).

If the market price for the commodity falls below the announced minimum price due to a glut in the market, government agencies purchase the entire quantity offered by the farmers at the announced minimum price.

More than any other single factor, it is the existential threat to this support mechanism presented by the Modi government’s three contentious acts that is driving Indian farmers’ historic rebellion.

The economist Aunindyo Chakravarty sets out the implications in stark terms:

“In reality, the three new laws ensure that farmers will be powerless in front of big corporate agri-buyers. Purchase contracts will have to be agreed to before the sowing season. The farmer will have to ensure that the quality of the crop meets the contracted standards. The buyer will have the right to terminate the contract whenever he wants. If there’s a dispute, the farmer will not be able to go to any civil court. In effect, the farmer will be at the mercy of the corporate buyer.” (emphasis added)    

Imperialism versus food security

A final dimension of the current protests in India also needs to be highlighted: the danger posed to the country’s agricultural sector and regulated system of food production and distribution by global imperialism.

Under Indian conditions, where land is scarce and yield-raising improvement possibilities are limited, opening up the use of this scarce land to the pull of overseas purchasing power will mean a diversion of acreage from food grains to cash crops for the global market.

Under Modi’s reforms, Indian governments would no longer be compelled to procure cultivators’ entire produce, further encouraging a shift from grains to other crops. And global agri-business is already licking its collective lips.    

Marxist economist Prabhat Patnaik notes:

“Under the Doha round of WTO negotiations, great pressure was put on India to scale down its food grain procurement operation; but successive Indian governments, mindful of the immense social implications of doing so, both for peasant producers and for urban consumers, have revisited this pressure until now…”

A turning point for the Modi regime?

Can India’s farmers sustain and carry forward the immense movement they have constructed over the past few months? Do they have the ability to force the Modi government into retreat on a central plank of its neoliberal economic programme?

A few closing observations:  

Firstly, this movement has already wrung important concessions from a government routinely immune to popular pressure and democratic accountability.

On December 8, following another successful nationwide shut-down called by farmers, Modi dispatched Amit Shah, his iron-fisted Home Minister and intimate ally, to meet with farmers’ leaders. There followed a written proposal from the government laying out a series of amendments, including written assurances regarding the Minimum Support Price.

The government also pledged to withdraw its plan to dismantle the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) regime, the country’s system of regulated agricultural markets.

The farmers rejected the proposals outright. Calling them an “insult”, they repeated their demand for the revocation of all three laws. “We don’t want amendments,” Jagmohan Singh, one of the farmers’ leaders, told Al Jazeera.  

Secondly, the issues which have driven farmers to revolt are ones that matter a great deal to broad sections of Indian society, from its giant-sized working class (urban and rural) to its immeasurable army of unorganised workers, battling for survival at the margins.

For almost everyone in India, beyond the nation’s super-rich and upper-middle-class strata, the price – and availability — of food has existential significance. And there is immense respect for the cultivators whose efforts keep the nation fed.

This helps explain the scale of public support for the movement, particularly visible around the improvised camps of fighting farmers that have erupted on the boundaries of Delhi and other northern cities.

Here, farmers’ ingenuity, willingness to withstand the bitter winter nights, and sheer doggedness are generating a rising tide of donations of food, money, blankets and other tokens of solidarity. The overseas Indian diaspora has now joined in this outpouring of support.  

In the tradition of the Indian soldiers who brought ‘mutiny’ to the gates of Delhi in 1857, India’s farmers are battling an oppressive government geared to serving the interests of the rich, at home and abroad. They have powerful popular support. And, for the moment, there is no end in sight.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.