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.
Women raise slogans during their protest against the farm laws in Bathinda, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Credit: PTI Photo
The present situation
The protests began on September 23 as thousands of farmers and agricultural workers of Punjab started blocking railways and major roads in protest against the three farm bills that had been presented in the Parliament at that time. Protests also started in the neighboring state of Haryana spearheaded by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), one of the leading organizations of AIKSCC, which the state administration tried to repress severely, even imprisoning leaders on false charges. Two months later, on November 26, farmers from Punjab started their “March to Delhi”, and on the way they were to be joined by protestors from the neighboring states. As they tried to enter Haryana they were stopped by police barricades on the bridge between the two states, and tensions escalated as Haryana police used tear gas and water cannons on the farmers on the cold winter morning. The farmers, who had come equipped with tractors, trucks and road-rollers, finally managed to break through the barricades and continue on their way. As they reached the outskirts of Delhi, where the first rallies of farmers and farm workers from Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had arrived, they again faced police, paramilitary, barricades, barbed wires, trenches, tear gas and water cannons, causing some to comment that Delhi was appearing more heavily guarded than the India-Pakistan border. The Home Ministry even wanted the state government of Delhi to turn over the stadiums under its jurisdiction to be converted to temporary jails to detain the protesting farmers, which was turned down, with the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal declaring that “the farmers are not terrorists”. Finally, after a lot of tussle and threats, the protestors were allowed to start their demonstrations at “designated sites”. Since then, hundreds of thousands of farmers and their allies have been blockading all major roads to Delhi, braving the cold wave that has gripped entire northern India, and their numbers are swelling every day as new people are joining. There are women and children also, though much smaller in number compared to the men.
Despite provocations, the protests continue to be peaceful. At all the protest sites in and around Delhi, the protesting farmers have built “cities within a city”, complete with tents, community kitchens, food banks, solar panels, water geysers to combat the cold, toilets, libraries, and other necessities and amenities of life. There are also primary medical clinics run by real doctors, and an ambulance service. All this has been the result of community organizing as NGOs, local residents, students’ organizations, organizers of local gurdwaras and mosques have participated in the construction of these “cities” and are providing help and funding, like they had done for the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors last year and earlier this year. Sikh organizations from around the world have provided funds too, according to various reports. The farmers had already come equipped with stocks of food to last two months, six according to some reports, and their stocks are continuously being replenished by their allies both in the city and in their native places. There continues to be huge police presence around the protesting farmers’ camps, trying to “separate” the city from these “cities” and to “maintain law and order”. However, according to some reports, local residents carrying food or clothing for the protestors are being allowed to drive upto the edge of these “cities”.
On December 8 a national strike was called by trade unions and social organizations in solidarity with the protesting farmers. Recently, farmers have also started a relay hunger strike at various protest sites around Delhi. Farmers and agricultural workers of far-flung states in the south and the east who have been unable to go to the national capital due to curbs on movement for the pandemic, have been organizing in their home states. By now hundreds of protests have occurred all over the country. In the southern state of Kerala, organizations pertaining to the platform of AIKSCC started a protest on December 12, to be continued indefinitely. On December 16, over 50,000 farmers rallied to Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal, in support of the farmers protesting in Delhi, and the rally was joined by students’, women’s and youth organizations and the Left parties of the state. On December 20, close to 2000 farmers from Maharashtra under the banner of AIKS started a march to join their counterparts in Delhi. On December 26 they were stopped at Shahjahanpur at the Rajasthan-Haryana border by the Haryana state police, and since then they have been organizing a sit-in demonstration on the highway.
The demonstrations have not been without losses, either. Until the time of writing this, thirty-three protestors lost their lives due to cold, exhaustion, illness and accidents, including a religious leader who took his own life as he “failed to tolerate the plight of the farmers”. Homage was paid to them all over the country on December 20. These incidents have only strengthened the resolve of the protestors.
The government and the BJP, for their part, have tried to undermine the protests and malign the protestors by calling them ‘anti-nationals’, ‘terrorists’, ‘separatists’, and declaring that the protests have been ‘infiltrated by the far-Left’ and ‘paid by Pakistan’, like they did in case of all previous protests in the country, but this time these moves have been mostly ridiculed. Trying to fracture the protests along religious lines has failed too. The subservient media also has drawn the ire of the protestors for peddling government propaganda, with demonstrators at multiple sites displaying posters naming and shaming the media houses. Some volunteers have started a bilingual biweekly newspaper named “Trolley Times” to cover the protests (trolley means modified tractors).
Until now, multiple talks between the protest leaders and the government have failed, as the government continues to stubbornly cling to the farm laws and only wishes to tolerate some “amendments” to them, while the protesting farmers demand a complete rollback. The general secretary of the AIKS and a leader of the organization in West Bengal, Hannan Mollah, who is present in Delhi, has expressed his irritation over the “insincerity” of the government and its “complete refusal to listen to the country’s farmers”. “They are probably thinking that if enough time passes we will get tired and the protest will dissipate,” he said. “But this time we are not returning until our demands have been met.” Several demonstrators at different protest sites have expressed similar sentiments. “We will remain here until 2024 (time for the next parliamentary election) if the need arises,” reiterated a protestor at a site at the Delhi-Haryana border.
State governments headed by non-BJP parties, for their part, have tried to adopt positions against the farm laws. A number of states have declared that they will not implement the laws, citing the constitutional provision that agriculture is a state subject. The government of Punjab became the first in the country to pass bills against the laws at the state legislative assembly. The Legislative Assembly of Delhi passed a resolution against the laws in a special session of the assembly on December 17, during which the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tore copies of the laws in a show of solidarity with the protestors. The government of Kerala tried to convene a special session of the state legislature to adopt a resolution against the said laws, but the governor of the state (who is a representative of the central government in essence) has denied permission for it. It is expected that the government will pass a resolution in the regular session scheduled for January if unable to convene a special session. Along similar lines, the Supreme Court of India, on December 17, refused to allow the central government to evict the protestors, declaring that the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of the country.
The demands and the reasons
The demands articulated by the protestors are simple: repeal of the three farm laws and the amendment to the electricity law (that seeks to remove subsidies to electricity used for agricultural purposes), and assuring the minimum support price (MSP) to farmers as recommended by the National Commission of Farmers – better known as the Swaminathan Commission (after the renowned agro-scientist who headed it). The commission had presented its report in 2004 but none of the successive governments has discussed it in the Parliament. The ruling party and the national government have flip-flopped, failed, and outright lied about the implementation of the MSP. In fact, the MSP issue has been a catalyst for the current protests. In 2014, on the campaign trail for the parliamentary election, BJP (at that time in the Opposition) had promised that if they came to power they would implement the major recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission within twelve months. Within twelve months of coming to power, they informed the courts that those recommendation could not be implemented because that would lead to “distortion in market prices” [of crops]. In 2016 the then Agriculture Minister denied ever having made any promise like that; in 2017 the government discarded the Swaminathan Commission in favor of the “Madhya Pradesh model” (a model that led to huge protests and police firing on protestors in the state in 2017), and in 2019 the then Finance Minister lied and said that the government had already implemented the MSP recommendation. What they did implement was nothing but a manipulation of the original recommendation. On top of that, only a tiny fraction of the country’s farmers – 6% according to government data – receive that MSP.
There is also a demand for convening a special session of the parliament dedicated to the agrarian crisis, similar to what was demanded by the Kisan Mukti March two years ago. Another demand that is expected to come up in the course of the movement is the waiver of farm loans and making a better agricultural credit system available to farming families – preferably through public or cooperative banks, because in this case also the government does not have a good record. When agricultural debt waiver schemes were announced, those came with a lot of conditions that deprived most farmers from accessing the schemes, while the bulk of the compensations went to banks and agribusinesses and not to the agriculturists themselves.
At the Kolkata rally on December 16, a middle-aged man, a potato farmer from Hooghli district (famous for potato cultivation and also infamous for farmer suicides in recent years), expressed his apprehensions to me: “The PM says that we can sell our produce to anyone anywhere in the country. Very well. Now tell me, who has both the money and the means to do that? I don’t own a truck, not even a matador (smaller vehicle for carrying goods). Neither am I able to rent one, it costs a lot – and then you know the price of petrol (gasoline), diesel – rising every day. If I get the news that some company is buying potato at a high rate in Tamil Nadu (state in the extreme south), can I take my product and go there? No. But the cold storage owner can – and it will be he, and people like him, who will benefit from the new laws. He will buy potatoes dirt-cheap from us, and go and sell it at higher prices elsewhere, because he has the means to do that.” This is exactly what P. Sainath means when he says that the new farm laws will only strengthen the grip of the middlemen on Indian farmers, and is exactly what is already happening in West Bengal, Bihar and many other states.
A friend of mine, a college student who hails from a family of rice cultivators in East Bardhaman district (called the ‘granary of Bengal’ for its role in rice production, and the region worst affected by farmer suicides in the state), adds to this: “It will be very much like the Jio thing (referring to the telecommunications company Reliance Jio owned by the billionaire Mukesh Ambani). Just like they first achieved a near monopoly by offering cheap rates (on calls and internet), and now that they have the market under control, they are increasing prices and even dictating the country’s telecom policies, similarly the corporates will offer good rates on crops for two-three years and then they will control even what we eat.” He is not wrong, especially given the fact that Reliance already engages in contract farming in parts of the country and has expressed support for the new farm laws, together with the Adani Group that wishes to “tap into the country’s agribusiness potential”. With their declarations the reality that it is the corporations that are running the government is exposed by now, which led farmers and others to brand the current government ‘Ambani-Adani government’ and call for a boycott of products of those companies.
At the same time, many scholars and activists have pointed out that when the largest capitalist economies like the United States and countries of the EU provide billions of dollars in subsidies to their agricultural sectors, why should the agricultural economy of India be liberalized to corporate interests? In the present situation the farm laws that are needed should have looked very different from the ones that the government has delivered.
But what about the pandemic? Are the protestors – by now numbering a few hundred thousand – sitting on roads in and around Delhi for a month and will be sitting indefinitely, not afraid of contracting the infection and dying? “We are already dying,” retorted some protesting farmers to the Delhi police personnel who had tried to warn them of COVID. “If we do not die of the virus we will surely die of poverty.” Many have expressed similar sentiments, hailing the current uprising against the farm laws as a battle for the lives of common Indians. It may sound extreme, but it is true as the new acts would also lead to widespread food insecurity, for they are very likely to disrupt the already weak public distribution system (PDS), according to apprehensions expressed by the renowned economist Prabhat Patnaik and D. Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). India has consistently slid down the Global Hunger Index (in spite of neither experiencing war nor economic sanctions) and is placed much behind its poorer neighbors in the subcontinent. Calculations of food availability and consumption data show that both per capita food consumption and per capita food availability have decreased during the neoliberal era, falling below the same for 1960s or ‘70s, prompting some economists to conclude that India is living through an invisible famine. The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data paints a dismal picture of chronic malnutrition and wasting in especially women and children, and it has to be kept in mind that the data of the survey was collected before the pandemic; the next phase of the survey (to be conducted in 2021) is expected to show a worse image. Moreover, in the last few decades India has experienced an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a minuscule corporate elite, with the top 10% of the population owning 77% of the national wealth. In 2017, 73% of all wealth generated in the year went to the richest 1%, while the poorest half of the country (67 million people) had only 1% increase in their wealth. All this results in the situation that close to 800 million people have to depend on the public distribution system – “rations” as it is called in India – for food grains and edible oil (number provided by the government of India in its first pandemic package). This system has already been dismantled continuously over the last three decades. With the proposed dilution of the government’s procurement markets (APMCs) as mentioned in the new farm laws, it is feared to collapse entirely.
This fear is not an exaggeration, say the people suffering acutely from the situation. “We, the growers, are also consumers of food,” explained a coordinator of the AIKSCC in my district, South 24 Parganas (West Bengal). “A single person cannot cultivate all types of crops. Many of us do not even cultivate food grains (main constituent of our diets) or vegetables; some grow cash crops which are not even food (like cotton), so most of us are net purchasers of food items in the market. We are the ones being harmed both ways – we get next to nothing on our produce as most of the times we are forced to sell at a loss, and then when we try to buy what we need the high prices send most things out of our reach.”
The rural crisis is no longer limited to the countryside, it has become a social crisis now, a national crisis. Hence, as P. Sainath says, “It is time for non-farmers to stand up” – to stand with the farmers of the country.
Saheli Chowdhury is a millennial from West Bengal, India, studying physics for profession but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She works for Orinoco Tribune.