Above photo: Protest against newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near New Delhi.
India’s government is trying to force through a corporate takeover of its agricultural sector – but their plans have met fierce resistance from the country’s farmers, who are refusing to hand over their livelihoods.
The farmers’ struggle taking place now on the borders of Delhi and its neighbouring states is one of the most important mass agitations that India has seen in its three decades of neoliberal reforms.Since 26 November, hundreds of thousands of farmers have congregated on the borders of the National Capital Territory of Delhi. At the beginning, most of them were from the state of Punjab, located about 200 km from Delhi, but many more have since joined from the state of Haryana, which abuts Delhi on three sides, and then from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well. With their caravans, the farmers have occupied long stretches of several highways that connect Delhi to its neighbouring states. They say they are ready to stay and fight for as long as necessary to see their demands met.
The March to Delhi
The farmers’ central demand is the withdrawal of three laws concerning agriculture that the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of India passed in September this year. The three laws raise the threat of corporate control over agriculture, and are generally expected to have an adverse effect on India’s food security.
In June, before their passage through Parliament, the government issued ordinances to bring the legislation into temporary effect. Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and several other parts of the country have been protesting since, but their efforts were mostly ignored by the central government and the mainstream press – so they decided to march to the national capital to make themselves heard.
The police in Haryana (who are controlled by the Haryana government, which is led by a BJP ally) and the Delhi Police (controlled directly by the BJP central government) tried to stop the farmers from marching to Delhi by putting up barricades and using tear gas and water cannons. In response, some farmers used tractors to break down the barricades, while others used alternative routes to reach the Delhi border.
The police then tried to force the farmers into a corner of the city where they would be invisible to the larger population and thus away from public attention. But the farmers refused to budge, recognising that staying out of the public eye would blunt the agitation at the outset.
The farmers have come ready for the long haul. They have brought trucks and tractor-trolleys to store food grains, pulses and other essential supplies, and to use as bedrooms. They have set up temporary washrooms and kitchens on the roads. In fact, they say they have enough supplies to last for six months. Perishable goods such as fresh vegetables and milk are being regularly sent by supporters back in the villages; groups of farmers stay at the protest site for a few days, and then others arrive to replace them.
A Brief History
In the first few decades after 1947, when India won independence from Britain, the country put in place a set of policies to protect peasant agriculture. There was state investment in rural infrastructure like irrigation, in research and development to produce high-yielding crop varieties, and in extension services to help farmers adopt better agricultural practices. Public sector banks provided credit to farmers at relatively favourable terms, and agricultural inputs like fertilisers were made available at subsidised prices. Regulated wholesale markets, market interventions and restrictions on international trade protected peasants from the wild price fluctuations that are seen when markets are kept ‘open’.
A crop price safety net was created. The government would declare a minimum support price for several major crops, and it would procure the crops from farmers at these prices or slightly higher prices. At the same time, a public distribution system was put in place to ensure that the general population was able to access a minimum quantity of food at subsidised prices.
Some components of this support system have been eroded in the decades since 1991, when India committed itself to neoliberal economic policies. State investment in agriculture and public provision of credit to farmers have suffered greatly. Subsidies for inputs have been cut. India’s membership of the World Trade Organisation and involvement in several other free trade agreements made crop prices increasingly volatile. Nevertheless, the system of regulated wholesale markets, minimum support prices and procurement by the government have largely continued.
The first of the three laws that the farmers are agitating about is one that will make this system irrelevant. The second paves the way for corporates to enter into direct contracts with farmers, and the third one seeks to do away with restrictions on private players stockpiling essential commodities like cereals, pulses, and potatoes.
The regulated wholesale markets that most Indian states have for agricultural crops are meant to protect farmers from exploitation by traders, and to ensure that farmers get remunerative prices and timely payments. These markets function under the supervision of state governments. The BJP government claims that ending the dominance of these markets and allowing alternative private agricultural marketing channels would result in farmers receiving better prices for their produce.
But the farmers have no reason to believe the government’s claims. Prices in the regulated markets are determined through open auctions or closed tendering. Those markets also have mechanisms in place to prevent unfair practices like the use of non-standard weighing systems. These mechanisms will not apply to unregulated private markets, which means that the mechanism of price discovery can be opaque and disadvantageous to the farmers. With the traders free to choose unregulated private markets – where taxes and fees would be less, and hence costs for traders would be lower – over regulated markets, it is expected that many of them would eventually stop buying farm produce at regulated markets.
But the physical marketplaces associated with regulated markets are the places where procurement by the government also takes place. A government that intends to weaken the system of procurement will find it easier to do so with the regulated markets and their infrastructure weakened. Once procurement by the government is undermined, the safety net for agricultural prices that the farmers once enjoyed would disappear.(Farmers have already seen this play out in the state of Bihar, which did away with regulated markets in 2006. Crop prices have become more volatile, and the prices that farmers receive for crops such as rice, wheat, and maize have been below minimum support prices.)
Eventually, the farmers would be forced to deal directly with big traders and corporates, without support mechanisms to ensure fair prices or to prevent unfair practices. With unremunerative prices, farmers would slip into debt, and many of them would lose their land to big sharks.
Policies followed by successive Indian governments have amounted to a handover of sector after sector to corporate control. Agriculture is now facing the same fate. As farmers’ bargaining power collapses due to the weakening of regulated markets, the corporates will be in a dominant position, able to coerce farmers into entering into unfavourable contracts.
The farmers are acutely aware how dangerous this can be, having seen farmers in states like Bihar fall into destitution due to breaches of contract by corporates in the past. When violations of contract occur or other disputes arise, corporates are at a major advantage. Their financial muscle can be put to use influencing officials and buying legal representation.
At the same time, the removal of stockpiling restrictions will mean that private players can stock these commodities in large quantities. This can be used to manipulate market prices to the disadvantage of both farmers and consumers.
The three laws were passed as the coronavirus pandemic raged in India, precisely because the government hoped that the fear of the virus would prevent large-scale protests. That turned out to be a miscalculation. Punjab and Haryana are the ones with the strongest system of regulated markets and government procurement: farmers there are aware of the dangers of undermining the system, and in a position to march to the national capital to fight for their demands.
The farmers’ agitation is winning the support of large sections of Indian society, where more than 50% of the workforce is employed in agriculture. All major trade unions (except one BJP-linked union) have expressed their support for the struggle, and joined the one-day nationwide shutdown (Bharat Bandh) call given by the farmers’ organisations on 8 December.
Crucial to the struggle has been the effort in the past few years to bring workers and farmers together to fight against the assault on their livelihoods. The communists have played a leading role in these efforts, forging what they term ‘issue-based unity’.
On the one hand, the workers have come together to defend their rights. The major unions and employees’ federations have organised twenty general strikes since 1991, and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which is linked to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), has played a signal role in building this unity. The farmers’ march to Delhi coincided with the general strike on 26 November, which was the largest strike in human history. These strikes have lasted only one or two days at a time, but they have helped raised the consciousness and organisational capacity of workers and their trade unions, and have managed to stall privatisation efforts in some sectors.
On the other hand, farmers’ organisations are increasingly powerful force across the country. A leading role in the forging of this issue-based unity has been played by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS, or All India Peasant Union), also linked to the CPI(M). The AIKS has led some of the landmark peasant agitations of the past decade, such as the thirteen-day long peasant struggle in Sikar, Rajasthan in September 2017, and the Kisan Long March in Maharashtra in March 2018.
AIKS was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC, All India Farmers’ Struggle Coordination Committee), a coalition of more than 200 farmers’ organisations, in 2017. The AIKSCC, along with other organisations such as the Kirti Kisan Union and various factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union became the nucleus for the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (United Farmers’ Front), an umbrella body of hundreds of farmers’ organisations, which is leading the farmers’ agitation currently underway.
Recent years have seen workers’ trade unions and farmers’ organisations joining forces. On 5 September 2018, CITU, the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union (AIAWU), and AIKS jointly staged the mammoth Mazdoor-Kisan Sangharsh Rally (Worker-Peasant Struggle Rally) in Delhi. On 8 January 2020, a joint platform of ten country-wide trade unions organised a general strike, and farmers and agricultural workers, at the call of the AIKSCC, staged protests and traffic stoppages in rural areas on the same day.
Recognising the Enemy
One of the most interesting features of the ongoing struggle is its explicit recognition that the fight is against corporate rule. The agitating farmers are well aware that the new policy framework has been created for the benefit of large corporations. Some of India’s biggest conglomerates, like Reliance (headed by Mukesh Ambani) and the Adani Group (headed by Gautam Adani), have benefitted vastly since the start of the BJP’s rule in 2014. Those corporates are the major source of funds for the BJP: 79% of corporate donations in 2018-19 went to the far-right party. Slogans against the Ambanis and the Adanis are therefore a common part of the ongoing movement.
On 9 December, the farmers’ organisations went one step further. They called for a boycott of the products of Reliance and Adani, from mobile phone services to shopping malls. Even before the march to Delhi began, sales at Reliance’s petrol pumps in Punjab had declined precipitously. There have previously been agitations against corporate industrial projects which harm farmers, workers, the local population and the environment, but calls for a general boycott of the products of specific companies at this scale have been rare – and the assertion that the corporates, specifically, have to be confronted is a noteworthy aspect of this particular campaign.
People ranging from relatively well-off farmers to middle-class and poor famers and agricultural workers are all part of this struggle, having united to confront the larger forces that threaten their lives and livelihoods. This unity, along with the solidarity of others across the country and the remarkable organisational acumen that has been demonstrated, has been crucial in helping raise resources to sustain a protracted struggle. The years-long project of issue-based unity has enabled and inspired solidarity actions in several parts of the country.
It would be a watershed event if the movement succeeds in forcing the government’s hand. In their negotiations so far, the farmers’ organisations have refused to be satisfied by ‘lollipop’ concessions, and have repeatedly stated that they want the three farm laws scrapped. With the power of unity behind them, the farmers are determined to emerge victorious.
Subin Dennis is a researcher at the New Delhi office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research.