By Saheli Chowdhury – Dec 28, 2020
As the demonstrations, strikes and blockades of the national capital of India by hundreds of thousands of farmers and their supporters continue for a month and counting, the stories of their plight and their resilience in the face of utter destruction have even caught the attention of international mainstream media.
The present sit-in demonstrations in New Delhi originated with the ‘March to Delhi’ by thousands of farmers from the north-western state of Punjab that started on November 26, coordinated with the largest strike in human history in which over 250 million participated. Originally called as a farming and industrial strike by trade unions and peasants’ organizations, it turned into a general strike by a people tired of the dire economic situation, increasing polarization along religious lines, and the disastrous fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Incidentally – but it is not a coincidence – November 26 is also the Constitution Day of India, as the constitution of the independent country was adopted on this day in 1949 with the lofty ideals of securing “justice, liberty, and equality” for all the citizens of the country.
The ongoing protests started way back in late September this year, after three controversial farm bills were passed in both houses of the Parliament, including in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) where the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition led by BJP does not have majority, and the President gave assent to them, thus making them acts – The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 (FAPAFS), the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 (FPTC) and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 (EC). In spite of the contentions and high stakes surrounding the bills, they were passed in the Parliament in a very irregular manner – through a voice vote, although the Opposition demanded a recorded voting and counting of votes. These three acts aim to deregulate the agricultural sector and open farming and trade of agriculture produce to agribusinesses through contract farming.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared that these new acts will “liberate” the country’s farmers and will ensure that agriculture becomes a more “remunerative enterprise” for them as they can bargain for better prices, but therein lie a number of problems. The three acts are very unbalanced in terms of power as they posit poor – and in many cases landless – farmers, a majority of them barely literate, against powerful national and transnational corporations. Another major problem is that nowhere in the acts is any assurance provided for ensuring the government-declared minimum support price (MSP) to farmers by those corporations; this on top of the fact that the MSP provided by the government itself is already flawed. Another concern regarding the new laws is the proposal of leasing lands from small farmers to agribusiness firms and pooling of such plots to convert them into large farms and cultivate them with modern technology. With land reform in India a largely incomplete task, it is feared that this will lead to large-scale landlessness and impoverishment of the countryside. According to last available census (2011), there are about 495 million landless people in India who are largely dependent on agriculture – working as farm labourers or share-croppers (cultivating in lands owned by others). If the abovementioned proposal is implemented, it will eviscerate whatever earnings and security these people can manage at present, leaving them entirely at the mercy of corporates. Hence it is not without reason that the country’s farmers are afraid that the new farm laws will usher in a new “Company Raj”, referring to the colonial times.
Adding to all this, by abolishing the upper limit on storage of essential commodities by individual distributors (businesses dealing with transport and distribution of food, medicine, and fuel, owners of storage facilities and the like) as mandated by the Essential Commodities Act (1955), the new amendment to that act will lead to the very dangers that the original act was adopted to avoid – hoarding, black-marketing, and food insecurity.
Nothing new under the sun
In June this year, when the government first publicized the said acts as an ordinance (thus bypassing the parliament, with the excuse that parliamentary sessions had been cancelled due to COVID), the Prime Minister declared the acts to be the need of the 21st century, and said that in view of the farming crisis, governments are entitled to try to find new ways to alleviate it. “If it had not happened in the past, why not try now?” he said, referring to contract farming which, according to the government, is a new way forward.
However, neither agrarian crisis nor contract farming are new things in India. Crisis in the agrarian economy is a historical facet of India, far older than the idea of Indian nationality itself. Throughout the monarchical periods in the country there was a continuous rural crisis because of drainage of wealth from the countryside and its concentration in the hands of a minority – the ruling elite – in the urban centers. This is also the core idea of neoliberalism. Even before India had opened its economy to neoliberalism in 1991, there was never any large-scale state support for agriculture, except nationalization of the fertilizers and pesticides industry (now mostly denationalized in favor of multinationals like Monsanto or Syngenta) and planning and support of the Green Revolution. The Zamindari Abolition Act of 1950 (to end the feudal structure of land ownership) was not implemented properly in most parts of the country, and extensive land reforms to give land title deeds to farmers was carried out only in a handful of states. And since the beginning of the neoliberal period, the general consensus of the administration is that free market is freedom and state support is slavery.
Similarly, contract farming has existed as long as the rural crisis, not only through bonded farmers or debt bondage in the feudal system but also with indentured farmers and farm laborers in the infamous Girmit system (distortion of the English word ‘agreement’) of the British colonial power. It was nothing but a “refinement” of slavery by which thousands of farmers were transferred – under false promises – from their homes to other parts of the country and also to other British colonies like Fiji and Trinidad and Tobago. In independent India, contract farming was introduced with state support in 1988 when the Pepsi Project was launched in Punjab with the objective to bring about a second Green Revolution through diversification of farming (moving away from cultivation of rice and wheat to vegetables and also cash crops). A joint venture of Pepsi, Voltas and the Punjab Agro Industries Corporation (a state enterprise), the project disillusioned most of the farmers associated with it and even its initial supporters by the mid-1990s. Yet, after all that, in 2002 the then government of Punjab launched a state-sponsored contract farming scheme through the Punjab Agro Foods Corporation (PAFC), which ended in failure and was scrapped in 2012. Prof. Sukhpal Singh of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Hyderabad wrote about the Pepsi Project, which is true for all corporate agribusiness projects in general: “…there was hardly any incentive for growers to stay with the company as they bore the entire risk while it was the companies that had the insurance against them [risks like crop losses to droughts, floods, pest infestations]…While the contract gave the company the right of refusal to pick up a contracted produce, growers were liable to be penalized if they defaulted from their commitment…Could a contract that was loaded against the growers promote partnership between them and the company and serve the very purpose of the project?”
The fact that such contracts are made on a very unequal playing field is borne out by testaments of farmers from various states who have suffered losses from contract farming – from the contracting agribusiness firms falsely downgrading the produce (branding the produce ‘of low quality’) to cheat farmers of their income, to farmers earning a fraction of the market price because the predetermined payment agreed upon in the contract was much lower than the market price during the harvest season, to farmers being unable to take the contractors to court in case of disagreements because the contracts expressly forbade it. In my own state, West Bengal, after the removal of upper limit to storage of food crops by individual distributors (same thing proposed by the new amendment to the Essential Commodities Act), owners of storage facilities bought rice and potatoes from farmers at meagre prices and later, during procurement by the state government for the public distribution system, sold those crops to the government at MSP, thus denying the real farmers from receiving government benefits. The new farm acts would only legalise these things on a national level. Also, farmer leaders are afraid that in case of losses, defaulting farmers may be forced by agribusiness companies to sell their land – the new farm laws would “liberalise” farmers from their livelihood, or turn them into bonded labourers in their own lands.
While proposing the farm bills, the government claimed that the majority of the small, marginal and landless farmers of the country, who constitute about 86% of the country’s farmers (close to 126 million people), find agriculture unviable because most of the times the prices of their produce do not even cover the cost of production. However, this did not just happen for no reason. On the contrary, says journalist P. Sainath, former editor for rural matters of the English language newspaper The Hindu and founder of the rural news website People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), who has been covering news of rural India for forty years and is considered a reference on rural matters, the destruction of the agrarian economy has been deliberate: “If agriculture has become unviable, (it is because) we have spent a lot of time and effort making it unviable.”
He is totally correct. Since the economy was deregulated in 1991 and markets were opened up for multinational corporations to sell seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and agricultural equipment at prices they fixed, agriculture became unsustainable for small and marginal farmers and landless farmers who constitute the bulk of the country’s farming population. The credit system from public banks available to the farmers was increasingly diverted to the corporate financial institutes that came with large interest rates on the loans they provided, resulting in farming families accumulating huge loans that they were unable to pay back, and when they were pressurized to return the unpaid loans, they had nothing to do but to turn to moneylenders – who are also the powerful village and small town middlemen owning storage facilities and transport networks. All these have resulted in rising indebtedness and economic ruin of the traditional farming communities and decimated the agricultural sector of the country over the last thirty years. Even by the government’s own report, although about 60% of the country’s working population are in farming and allied occupations, the share of the agricultural sector in India’s GDP was only 16.5% in 2019, and farmers’ incomes have remained stagnant or have declined in most parts of the country (Taking into account the fall in the value of the currency over the years, it may be safely said that real incomes have declined). From 1991 to 2011 (the last year when national census was published) the population of full status farmers – persons engaged in agriculture for a minimum of 180 days a year – fell by 15 million, and we do not know how many more got added to that number since then. These people – many with entire families – migrated to the urban centers, looking for jobs that weren’t there. Depression caused by economic hardship has forced close to 330,000 farmers to take their own lives, according to data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), with last year seeing over 10000 suicides by farmers. However, these numbers are grossly underestimated and fraught with several problems. It has been alleged that governments – both at the center and in a number of states – have changed the definition of farmer and the methodology of counting after 2013 because the numbers had become embarrassing. Some states, West Bengal for example, have started not to mention the occupations of people who have taken their lives; some others use the all-encompassing term “daily wager” to aggregate all daily wage earners without specifying their occupations. Finally, suicides of women farmers are severely underreported in these data, because although women from farming families do more than two-thirds of the job in the fields, most of them are not considered ‘farmers’, as only about 8% of women farmers possess land titles, and most of these women themselves report themselves as ‘housewives’. Hence, discussions on the plight of women due to the rural distress get centered around widows of male farmers, fatherless daughters, mothers who have lost sons, and rarely about women as farmers themselves.
Moreover, the rural crisis is not limited to agriculture only, it is much more than that. As P. Sainath has explained multiple times, the entire agrarian economy is suffering a profound crisis. After agriculture, the largest employer in India in terms of the number of workers is the handicrafts and handlooms sector constituted by weavers, potters, carpenters, honey collectors and other allied occupations, and agriculture-related occupations in small towns like brick-kilns, stone quarries, and cottage industries, the last one being predominantly run by women. This too is a rural sector and is intimately related to the farming sector, farmers being the primary consumers of these industries. When the agricultural sector was deliberately dismantled under neoliberal directives and farmers went bankrupt and left farming in droves, the primary market of these occupations was lost and the entire rural economy collapsed. Those who were engaged in these allied occupations and took their lives were never included in the data of farmer suicides; a fact that has led some to estimate that the data provided by NCRB represent only about 26% of the actual number of people who have committed suicide under stress from the rural economic destruction.
This collapse was quite an open secret but was carefully guarded and camouflaged by a subservient media for years until COVID-19 exposed it. When the Prime Minister announced a nationwide lockdown on March 24 and gave a country of 1.37 billion only four hours to prepare for an indefinite period of uncertainty (at that time lockdown was declared for 21 days but was later extended several times), panic rose and migrant workers all over the country began their long march back to their villages. As thousands of people – including women, children and elderly – were walking hundreds of kilometers or taking whatever transportation they could including trucks and trailers (public transport was shut down), their plight attracted the consternation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and even the mainstream media had to report it and the rural crisis entered the general urban middle-class consciousness.
Initially the government had adopted stern measures to prevent the movement of migrant families back to their places of origin although many of them had been expelled from their rented homes, most had no savings to speak of, and the government had not arranged any meaningful help to alleviate their distress. After news of deaths of migrants due to exhaustion, hunger or illness in different parts of the country led to huge uproar, the national government arranged some special trains from May 1 so that migrant families could return to their native regions, although the trips were neither free nor subsidized – in many cases the migrants themselves had to pay the fares, while in other cases some state governments, social organizations or citizens’ groups paid them. Then, in the Parliament’s monsoon session in September, the government caused even more outrage by declaring that they had no information on migrant deaths and hence no compensation would be paid to the victims’ families; however it was admitted that over 10 million people had returned from cities to their villages. Even this number is debatable, according to journalist P. Sainath, because the method of collection of migration data (used in the census) including the definition of migrants is flawed, as rural to rural migration, seasonal migrants (during harvest seasons) and ‘footloose migrants’ (people who are always on the move, doing odd jobs here and there) are never considered properly. It is as if these people do not exist, neither for the purpose of the census nor in the government’s COVID-19 response. He does not mince his words while detailing the human cost of India’s COVID response, especially the disastrous effect of the unplanned lockdown on the migrants, India’s poorest of the poor: “The media and the urban middle classes are agonized and all asking this question – ‘Oh, why are they going back to their villages? You know, we’re all such lovely people here how could they possibly think of leaving us?’ While the question they should have asked is – Why did they leave their villages in the first place?” Trying to answer that question brings us back to the destruction of the agrarian economy.
But the story of rural destruction is not entirely about despair and demoralization. From neoliberalism’s killing fields some historic protests have arisen over the years, organized by farmers and agricultural workers and their allies including trade unions, women’s organizations and students’ organizations. Almost two decades ago, during 2002-03, widespread rural discontent due to economic crisis was instrumental in the formation of the first United Progressive Alliance government (UPA-I) in 2005 that had to adopt measures like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) promising an average of at least 100 days work a year in rural areas for each worker who signed up for that scheme (no state has been able to reach that mark till date) and the Forest Rights Act recognizing the rights of traditional forest dwellers, in order to mitigate the rural crisis. However, these measures were only small relief in a neoliberal economic structure. In the second decade of this century, the turning point in farmers’ movements arrived in June 2017 with the formation of All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), a platform that now includes over 300 organizations of farmers and agricultural workers. Since then AIKSCC has organized a number of prominent large-scale farmers’ movements in the country, including marches to the national capital. The largest mass engagement movement since independence was undertaken by AIKSCC through the four-phase Kisan Mukti Yatra in 2017 which concluded with a million farmers protesting in Delhi in November 2017 – an event that saw an unprecedented level of solidarity and coalition among farming and non-farming communities and bridging of the urban-rural divide. In March 2018 the AIKSCC organized one of the most iconic farmers’ agitations in recent times – the seven-day long Kisan Long March from Nasik to Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra, the state that has experienced the highest number of farmer suicides in the country. The march attracted the attention of a number of mainstream media outlets (that usually ignore or denigrate working class movements) as the march saw massive participation of women and tribal farmers, many of whom walked barefoot. The concluding demonstration in Mumbai drew wide support from diverse sections of the city’s society including the famous Dabbawallahs of Mumbai (people who supply afternoon lunch and snacks to workers in thousands of offices in the city and its suburbs), employees of banks and other offices, and women from even upper middle-class households. The same year, in November, thousands of farmers joined the Kisan Mukti March (Farmers liberation march) and reached Delhi demanding a 21-day special parliamentary session to discuss the agrarian crisis, another agitation that received huge intersectional support (Unfortunately the government was able to divert attention towards Pakistan and national security issues as the Pulwama terror attack occurred within less than three months after this). Apart from these, there have been several protests in various states with local demands. And now, the latest round of protests in Delhi, with over 300,000 farmers and agricultural workers belonging to about 500 organizations and their supporters blocking all roads to the national capital and more people arriving every day, is an addition to that tradition.
Featured image: Photo by Gaon Connection.