After Prime Minister Narinder Modi’s November 19 backing down and then repealing the three Farm laws on November 29 by the Parliament, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) in a meeting held on December 9, has decided to continue the agitation till the government accepted their pending six demands. An unprecedented, year-long, agitation by millions of farmers’ had all-along suffered 708 deaths and untold suffering.
Even as democracy is backsliding in India, it’s a rare example of a popular grassroots upsurge effecting political change. It has been a victory for non-violent resistance of the struggling farmers and the progressive forces. In a sense, it has been a political defeat of Big Business and its attempts to usurp the space occupied by landlords. Apparently, these laws were legislated to liberalise agriculture from state-guaranteed protections.
Obviously, it wasn’t a change of heart that is responsible for the withdrawal, but out and out an electoral opportunism. As usual, Modi’s turnaround is an astute political move. The announcement comes in the backdrop of the coming Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and three other states. Farmers have held huge protest rallies in these states. Particularly, with setbacks in Uttar Pradesh in prospect, Prime Minister withdrew the very farm laws he was claiming till just the other day as the greatest gift he had bequeathed to the farming community. Now he is apologising for his “gift” saying he should not have bestowed it without consulting the intended beneficiaries.
However, the farmers are not calling off their year-long agitation, because they are looking for the fulfilment of the rest of their agenda—principally the incorporation in the Constitution of minimum support prices for some 23 items of farm produce; withdrawal of police cases against farmers and relief for the kin of the farmers who died during the protest. As so many farmers have died during the agitation, the SKM also sought allotment of land for building a memorial dedicated to the “martyrs”.
Further, to hold talks with the Union Government over their pending demands, the SKM also formed a five-member committee, that include: Balbir singh Rajewal (Punjab): president of Bharatiya Kisan Union; Gurnam Singh Charuni (Haryana): The BKU (Charuni) Chief; Yudhvir Singh (Delhi): BKU Gen Secy; Ashok Dhawale (Maharashtra): All-India Kisan Sabha national Chief; Shiv Kumar Kakka (MP): heads the Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Mahasangh.
The agenda behind these three Farm Laws was designed to facilitate India’s farm economy — the distribution and retailing of food and vegetables– to be in direct control of the Big Business. Passed by parliament in September 2020, these farm laws sought to deregulate Indian agriculture, lifting government supervision of crop sales and allowing corporations to negotiate directly with farmers. The government called them much-needed free market reforms, but farmers rightly feared they would cut into their already negligible profits and favour big businesses instead. In response, farmers waged one of the largest civil disobedience campaigns.
More than half of Indians — as many as 800 million people — make a living, directly or indirectly, from farming; while farmers are debt ridden, starved of funding and of assured price mechanism. If Big Business could become dominant in India’s farm economy, then not only would it be able to control the distribution and retailing of food and vegetables, it could also reorient crop production to target the export market. The three farm laws were meant to do exactly that: open the doors for Big Business to enter agriculture and give it institutional and legal protection to gradually take it over.
The government owes the public an explanation for their haste in passing laws without any consultation and consideration, in September 2020; and now bulldozing them within a year, again without any discussion in the Parliament. Government has to be accountable. Perhaps, Canadian author and social activist, Naomi Klein has answer for that. In her book ‘The Shock Doctrine: The rise of disaster Capitalism’, she argues that mostly national disasters of crises are used by governments to push through pro big business neo-liberal policies; as during the crisis, such as a pandemic, people being emotionally distracted don’t reflect lot of resistance. It looks that Indian government has been trying to do disaster capitalism (along with authoritarianism) of sorts, using the covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to push through three black farm laws. Hence, it sounds familiar that, the Indian government forced a series of black laws that could enrich a few corporations while impoverishing millions. No wonder people protested.
Indian agriculture employs about 60% of Indians, but amounts to less than 15% of the country’s gross domestic product. The average size of operational holdings has considerably reduced from 2.28 hectares in 1970-71 to 1.08 in 2015-16, shows the data. As per various estimates from governmental sources, the average income of a farming household stood at a mere Rs 8,931(150 CAD) per month in 2016-17. This would roughly translate into slightly over one lakh rupees (1800 CAD) for a year. The fear has been that the complete opening up of the sector would have thrown all the marginal farmers, who incidentally are 85% of the total farming cohort, to the mercy of private players.
In the circumstances, reviving India’s agriculture should be the country’s most important agenda. Since the majority of farmers are small and marginal with declining and fragmenting landholdings, these uncertainties make them even more vulnerable and risk-prone. It is high time to improve purchasing power at the bottom of the pyramid to accelerate overall economic growth. For this, encourage farmers to diversify to higher value commodities which will be a significant factor for higher agricultural growth. Considerable potential exists for expanding agro-processing and building competitive value chains from producers to urban centers and export markets. More mandis need to be set up all over the country since they need many more regulated markets with adequate infrastructure close to farmers. Reforms must support direct marketing between farmers and end-consumers. Procurement regimes should be changed to include a diversified food basket and also lead to decentralised and further localised procurement.
All this can only be done by focusing on key areas and implementing programs under one umbrella.
In fact, the agrarian crisis now has turned into a social crisis with people leaving agriculture and not getting absorbed anywhere else. Between 1991 and 2011, 1.5 crore farmers dropped out of agriculture, with most becoming landless farm labourers. Lakhs went to other villages and cities in search of jobs that are not there. Lakhs of farmers have committed suicide.
Prior to heal the wounds and solve the issues, it’s important to understand the reasons for which Indian agriculture is confronted with high price volatility, climate risks and indebtedness. It has happened, by-and-by, mostly through commercialisation of the countryside. Especially, during the last two decades, three-to-five-fold increase in the cost of agriculture was due to privatisation of farm inputs. Rising prices of fertilizer, pesticide and seeds have left a growing number of farmers in debt. Even water is increasingly being privatised. As well, instead of actual cultivators, farm loans were given to agri-businesses. While the number of loans of less than rupees 50,000 were slashed by 50%, the number of loans of over rupees 10 crore to 25 crore were even trebled.
As a result there’s been an epidemic of farmer suicides. The National Crime Records Bureau of India reported that a total of nearly 400,000 farmers committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2018. All this has been a result of glaring inequality and the cruel effects of capitalism. Virtually, the agrarian crisis in India has been created by the corporate hijack of Indian agriculture. Particularly, to bring down the production cost, you need to remove corporate control over inputs and adopt agro-ecological methods. Unless these inequalities are fought, the agrarian crisis cannot be addressed.
Yet, farmers year long protest, helps us to come out of despair. Their building of solidarity along with awakening of consciousness is a positive development. The collective protest by millions of Indians — cutting across religion, caste and income lines — is about much more than any agriculture legislation. It is a coming together of desperate people to resist being subjected by their government to increased economic vulnerability. They protested authoritarianism disguised as capitalism; they protested the theft of our resources by the big businesses; and hope, they have a road-map to settle issues at their own conditions.