Behind the Indian Farmers’ Struggle

10 February 2021


This is an edited version of a longer-form article by Pritam Singh which appeared in Economic & Political weekly last year.

The Indian BJP[1] government is facing increasing national and international opposition to its plans to subjugate the country’s farmers to agribusiness. The BJP’s new laws will abolish guaranteed minimum prices for farmers and could force economically distressed medium and small farmers into a fire sale of their land to big agribusiness corporations. This, in turn, would force many farmers to become wage labourers on big agribusiness holdings, forcing down incomes on the land, and forcing many others to become impoverished labourers in the cities – with negative consequences for all Indian workers. Pritam Singh explains.


On February 6, 10,000 highways throughout the country were blocked by protesting farmers. This follows a pitched battle outside the Delhi Red Fort on January 26 in which one farmer was killed, and the semi-permanent protest encampments around the capital. This is turning into a crucial test of strength for Modi’s BJP far-right government.


The agricultural market reforms push further the BJP agenda of centralising economic power and decision-making. The opposition to the reforms by farmers, many state governments, and regional political formations is a watershed moment in this government’s agenda of deepening the entry of agribusiness capitalism and of increased centralised control. The opposition to these moves has come from three quarters: first, the farmers’ organisations, fearful about the survival of farming communities; second, from state governments, fearful about increasing central intrusion into states’ federal rights over agriculture; and third, from regional political parties, fearful about centralist government attacks on regional identities and aspirations. Agricultural ‘reform’ will have a profound impact not only on the farming sector but also on democracy, federalism and pluralism more generally.


The confrontation between the centre and multiple forms of opposition to it is sharpening every day. Additionally, the state governments in Kerala, Punjab, and West Bengal put up a legal challenge to these acts in the Supreme Court, which has granted a delay but has not ruled them unconstitutional.


Farmer Opposition


The central objective behind the three reforms acts is to encourage private investment by agribusiness corporations domestically and from abroad into production, processing, storage, transportation, and marketing. The lobbying for foreign direct investment (FDI) into Indian agriculture by multinational agribusiness corporations has been going on for some time. There already has been some FDI in agriculture, especially in contract farming for some products, but these reforms are opening the way for a major push for foreign investment.


The government is defending its plans by arguing they give ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ to the farmers to sell beyond state boundaries and outside the local mandis, the state-sponsored market yards where farmers get guaranteed minimum prices. The government’s aim, through its massive media campaign, is to make this policy acceptable to the farming community. However, the real freedom that is being increased is that of big agribusiness corporations, both from within India as well as from outside.


The worst-hit farmers would be the marginal, small, and medium farmers whose bargaining power against hugely resourced big corporations would be so tiny that they would become economic slaves to the tentacles of the designs of big corporations, or even driven off the land altogether.

The Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 mentions wheat, rice, sugar cane and cotton, along with other products that are covered under this act. These are the main products in the agriculture sector of Punjab and Haryana, the two major food-producing states. There is a legal dispute procedure proposed, but given the unequal power relations between farmer and corporations, it would be impractical for farmers to use it. In addition, if a legal challenge in a dispute fails and the contract is viewed as having been contravened, there are huge fines and penalties that could be imposed on the farmer.


Minimum Support Price


There is no provision in the acts on the continuity of the minimum support price (MSP), which is mainly relevant for wheat and rice—the two major food crops grown by Punjab and Haryana and, to a lesser extent, by some of the other states. The new Acts, instead of stipulating MSP, merely mention a ‘remunerative price’ to be agreed by a farmer in a contract with ‘agribusiness firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters or large retailers.’


The farmers’ resistance to these acts, as demonstrated through a series of massively successful mobilisations may turn out to be the biggest political challenge the BJP has faced since coming back to power in 2019. In the event of increased confrontation between the farmers’ movement and the government, it is possible that the government may use the same tactics to suppress the farmers’ organisations as it has used against other opponents—namely calling left-wing dissidents Naxals[2], Muslim-background activists “terrorists” and Sikh-background opponents “Khalistanis.[3]

However, the government may not pursue this course of action because of the danger it might backfire due to the massive public support the farmers’ organisations enjoy in all states, though unevenly. The government may, instead, selectively target only left-wing farmer activists by branding them as Naxals or Naxal- supporters. The mode of response of the broader farmers’ movement to such selective repression would test the political maturity and the culture of solidarity of the farmers’ organisations.


Ecological Concerns


We have discussed the three main nodes of resistance to the farm acts, but it is important to mention, even if briefly, the ecologically damaging consequences from the operation of these acts because this dimension has remained almost completely unexamined in the current debates on this issue. The destruction of locally and state-based agriculture and its incorporation into all India and global agricultural marketing systems will lead to increased transportation. Increase in transportation everywhere leads to an increase in carbon emissions, pollution, ecological destruction, and damaged health of all living beings, human and non-human. It is an antithesis of the “self-reliance” (Atmanirbharta) which this government has been proclaiming, patently hypocritically, as its aim.


During the pandemic, we have all learnt a lot more about how agribusiness monocultures created a perfect environment to forest-based pathogens to spread, and how industrial farming is a major threat to the environment. Introducing it to India can only cause further major ecological and health problems


There is also a need to start rethinking the wider importance of agriculture in “development” discourse. Both traditional right-wing thinking (such as Rostow’s stages of growth or Lewis’s dual economy model as exemplars of this mode of thinking), as well as the dominant left-wing thinking (Stalin’s collectivisation as an extreme form of such thinking), view development and growth as a path of moving from agriculture to industry to services.


In the era of global climate change where the planet faces an existential threat from global heating, and biodiversity loss that results from the traditional economic growth paths, whether of the traditional right or traditional left format, the central importance of farming and the farming ways of life which are compatible with ecological sustainability need to be re-imagined. Ecosocialist vision as a critique of both the traditional right-wing and traditional left-wing modes of thinking is an attempt to grapple with the ecological and health challenges humanity is currently facing.


Conclusions


It is only through a concerted and collective action of the organisations representing marginal, small, and medium farmers that the multidimensional destructive turn in economic policy symbolised by these farm acts might be reversed. It is also the economic interest and moral duty of all those political formations and state governments that stand for federalism, pluralism, and ecological sustainability to coordinate their efforts to oppose this move.


The struggle for federalism and diversity is also the struggle for democracy. The weakening of federalism contributes to the concentration of economic and political power at the centre and the rise of authoritarian political tendencies and practices which are also anti-ecological in their orientation. One indication of the sincerity and commitment of those making any coordinated efforts in reversing the policy package contained in these farm acts would be to declare that in any future government at the centre they may be part of, they would undo these changes and would look anew at the constitutional provisions to increase the power of the states in agricultural management.


There are other areas too, such as industry, finance, and education, where federal devolution must be fought for, but agriculture being linked to the land and source of food remains the most crucial area for states’ right to retain their autonomy. The United States, China, Europe, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand are all closely integrated into the global capitalist economy, but each of these countries makes every effort to protect its agriculture even if that protection does not meet the standards of ecological sustainability.


Protecting agriculture as a state subject in Indian federalism and resisting the entry of agribusiness capitalism would be the key economic, political, social and cultural battles in India in the coming years. Grasping the seriousness of this issue would be critical towards developing the perspective to strengthen decentralisation, diversity, democracy, local farming, and ecological sustainability.


References

—Punjabi Tribune (2020): “Kheti Billan Naal Punjab Nun Har Saal `4,000 Crore Da Nuksaan Hovega: Manpreet”

— (The Farming Bills Will Lead to

`4,000 Crore Annual Loss to Punjab: Manpreet), 19 September, p 2.

—Singh, Pritam (2008): Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy, London/New York: Routledge.

— (2020a): “Centre’s Agricultural Marketing Reforms Are an Assault on Federalism,” Wire, 20 June, https://thewire.in/agriculture/agriculture-marketing-reforms-federalism

— (2020b): “As Cracks in NDA Widen, Is BJP’s Ideology Incompatible with Regional Identities?” Wire, 22 September, https://thewire.in/politics/bjppunjab-akali-dal-shiv-sena-regional-alliances

Pritam Singh (pritam.singh@wolfson.ox.ac.uk) is visiting scholar at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

NOTEs [1] Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu communalist party, closely linked to the paramilitary fascist RSS. [2] A reference to the revolutionary Naxalite guerrilla movement, active in West Bengal and other states. [3] A reference to those who want an independent Khalistan—ie a separate state for Sikhs.