India is gripped by the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The daily confirmed cases crossed 400,000 in May as the health system convulsed, hospital beds filled up, and medical oxygen canisters emptied. The spike in the death rate has created queues at crematoriums. While the spotlight is on Delhi and other urban centres, silent deaths are spreading in rural north India. People are dying of ‘fever’ and ‘breathlessness’, the common-sense terms used to describe COVID-19 symptoms. Since many have not been tested for the disease, their deaths are not part of the official numbers.
In September 2020, India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed three acts that directly impact agriculture. There was no prior consultation with farmers’ organisations and no discussion allowed in parliament. Farmers immediately perceived that these three acts would turn them into semi-serfs of the big business houses in India. They started a wave of protests that continues months later, despite the pandemic.
Farmers and agricultural workers first marched toward Delhi in November 2020. They were blocked at its borders and so set up protest encampments along the national highways. The massive mobilisations began in Punjab but soon spread to Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. In the weeks that followed the first marches, the protest wave spread across India, from Maharashtra in western India to Bihar in eastern India and down into south India. On Republic Day, 26 January 2021, the farmers and agricultural workers stormed New Delhi, the nation’s capital; they made it clear that the day to celebrate the Indian Constitution of 1950 was their day as well.
The corporate-controlled media vilified the farmers, attacking their integrity by calling them thugs, parasites, terrorists, and secessionists who were intent on obstructing India’s development. The farmers did not flinch. They knew that they represented their entire class, for whom this battle is existential: to accept the terms of the government’s new policy is to kill and destroy their livelihood and their way of life. They knew that the three farm acts would cede even more control over Indian agriculture to large capitalists such as the Ambani and Adani families. A range of farmers’ organisations, from All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) to Bharatiya Kisan Union, reached out to farmers and agricultural workers across the country to build a nation-wide coalition to defend the farmers and demand the withdrawal of the three acts.
The protests have not abated, although the farmers are cautious about the pandemic. They are determined to hold fast, since the BJP government has refused to back down. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that Indian agriculture is poised on the edge and that the Modi government is hellbent on pushing it over that edge. The Indian peasantry continues to struggle for its survival during a chronic agrarian crisis driven by three decades of neoliberal reform. Modi’s three farm laws will decimate the remnants of the peasantry’s agrarian life and hand over the sector to corporate-controlled production and to the global supply chain.
What is the agrarian crisis? It is a chronic condition whose symptoms are varied: the vagaries of agriculture, including crop failures, which result in low to negative incomes, indebtedness, underemployment, dispossession, and suicide. This dossier will trace the causes of this crisis, which are not hard to discern, but which go back to the days of British colonial rule and to the failures of the new Indian state after independence in 1947. Progress in Indian agriculture comes at the pace of a giant tortoise, slow-moving and stubbornly holding its course. Little seems to have changed over the past seventy-five years, and even when new factors emerge, the old ones persist. To understand why the tortoise now stops at the edge of the precipice, we have to retrace its journey.