Note: This piece was first published on Discover Society.
Farmers and agricultural workers have been blocking numerous entry points at the borders of New Delhi for more than a month. They travelled from great distances to India’s capital by tractors, buses and on foot, to demand the repeal of three controversial laws passed in September. This has come after a series of large protests were organised in their respective states particularly in some of India’s main food growing states such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Over the past few weeks protesters had to cope with challenges and constraints resulting from the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic and they have been attacked by police numerous times. Moreover, a number of protestors have died from hypothermia. However, they have vowed to continue protesting until their demands are met. The government has urged the protestors to disband yet no agreement has been reached after several rounds of talks, so the protests continue.
India’s farming sector employs more than half of India’s workforce and has been in crisis for decades. This has taken its toll on rural communities. More than 300,000 farmers have taken their own lives since the 1990s. According to the latest reports 28 people dependent on farming commit suicide every day in India. The ongoing agrarian crisis has its roots in the neoliberal reforms that have shaped India’s political economy since the early 1990s and the Green Revolution before that. Due to these reforms, state intervention in agriculture declined and led to rising costs of produce, decreasing incomes and increased indebtedness for farmers. Moreover, the neoliberal policies resulted in the decline of available agricultural land and unequal distribution of land has left the majority of Indian farmers landless or with small and marginal holdings – today 85% of Indian farmers are small holders with less than two hectares of land. In many cases, those with small pieces of land need to supplement working on their own land with wage labour. These trends have led to an unprecedented crisis in the agricultural sector which have accelerated since the liberalisation of India’s economy in the 1990s. At the same time, climate change has led to severe drought and crop failures, and intensified the crisis in several states such as Punjab and Maharashtra.
In 2014, Narendra Modi gained the support of peasants and agricultural workers by promising a minimum of 50 per cent profits over the cost of production for farmers, the implementation of farm insurance and a National Land Use Policy among other policy initiatives. Despite Modi’s promises, many feared the prospect of economic reform and repression against pro-farmer activists. Shortly after Modi’s victory, a call by All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) – the peasants’ front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – convened a host of organizations including numerous political parties and civil society organisations. In 2015 these groups participated in the first large demonstration against Modi in response to the government’s aggressive changes to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. The main organizations involved returned to their respective states and launched protests in Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
On 6 June 2017 police fired on a group of farmers in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, and six were killed. Protests in Madhya Pradesh followed the strike in the Western state of Maharashtra, where farmers a few days earlier had launched a strike by dumping vegetables and milk on the road, demanding debt relief and higher prices for their produce. Shortly after the killings, around 150 farmers’ organizations came together and formed the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), an umbrella group which works with over 200 farmers’ organizations from all over India. In November 2018 this umbrella group brought together representatives from different states of India to march to the Parliament and demand a special session to discuss the deepening agrarian crisis. Two of their immediate demands were debt waivers and higher crop prices. At the same time, a large campaign called Dilli Chalo, which translates as ‘March to Delhi,’ was launched to encourage non-farm groups particularly middle classes to support the farmers’ march. As a result, an alliance of different activist groups, oppositional political parties, trade unions and students cohered to support the farmers and their demands. During the months after this, AIKSCC organized events and gatherings in different states and capitals and invited different farm groups as well as students, lawyers, artists and journalists to join.
Although these meetings had their own foci in each state, a sense of unity, collaboration and inter group connection had emerged among different groups from all regions and backgrounds. This strong sense of unity has been represented in numerous events and protests including the recent mobilisations against the new farm laws which were passed by India’s Parliament in September 2020. The new laws would be a move towards more deregulation for the agricultural sector. They are meant to enable the farmers to sell their produce anywhere including to the private buyers and big retailers such as Walmart, putting the 85% of farmers who own less than two hectares of land at the mercy of private companies and large corporations. Moreover, farmers believe the new laws would undermine their food sovereignty by removing the Minimum Support Price (MSP) which is the price the government buys some of their products such as rice and wheat at government regulated wholesale markets. The MSP has for a long time protected the poorest farmers from the vagaries of the market. Many farmers fear they will not have enough bargaining power to get a reasonable price if these regulations are scrapped and they have to sell their produce to large companies. This would deteriorate their living situation and would be a threat to their livelihood. Farmers whose produce is eligible for MSP would particularly be affected and this includes India’s northern farm states of Punjab and Haryana who are among the main protesting groups.
For the government this is a step forward to encourage large-scale private sector investment in agriculture and consolidate land. Narendra Modi has insisted that the reforms are in the farmers’ interest and have blamed opposition political parties for spreading rumours and lies. The government has insisted MSP will continue and they will still buy staples at guaranteed price. However, such assurances have failed to convince millions of farmers who have repeatedly raised their concern over increased involvement of corporations in agriculture. Farmers have repeatedly stated they will not compromise on their demands.
At the demonstration sites, farmers carry placards with slogans such as ‘we feed the world’ or ‘no farmer no food’. They demonstrate their tribute to India’s revolutionary inheritance by hanging Bhagat Singh’s picture in numerous locations and chanting the revolutionary slogan ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ (Long live the revolution) which was popularised by Singh and his associates in the 1920s during their struggle against British imperialism. Farmers have set up kitchens where they cook and eat together and feed as many people as they can. While men have dominated the public image of the ongoing protests, women have fought shoulder to shoulder and have been the backbone of the protests, from running the communal kitchens, distributing food and giving speeches at rallies. Many of these women are widows or family members of male farmers who have committed suicide over the years, although as the situation worsens in rural India, the number of women who also take their own lives has increased. In spite of their significant contribution to the sector only 12% of women farmers have land titles, which means that women are hardly recognized as farmers. This marginalisation makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation by large corporations.
What is remarkable is a sense of community spirit that dominates the protest sites. Farmers are joined by individual volunteers and sympathetic groups who are helping them to continue their protest. Some have opened their homes to the protesters, others provide food, blankets and tents. The Dilli Chalo campaign which started in 2018 is clearly present and contributes to the growing support for farmers. Apart from various farmers’ organisations, farmers’ unions and farmers’ fronts, numerous communist parties, student groups and trade unions are present too and support the farmers in numerous ways.
Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing protests, what is apparent is that farmers’ mobilisations in India have turned to a site of resistance against the status quo. Within the past few years farmers have become one of India’s most organised groups and have not only brought together large coalition of farm organisations and groups such as large farmers, small farmers, agricultural workers, Adivasis (tribes), Dalits (ex-untouchables), different religions and women farmers, but their distress has led to an alliance with urban activists and civil society groups, workers, students, and oppositional political parties. What is clear is that India’s agrarian crisis and the structural causes of this crisis will not simply be resolved by certain reforms or changes in certain laws. Therefore, unless the neoliberal policies of the Indian state which benefits the rich minority is replaced by more humane and pro-people policies which safeguards the wellbeing and livelihood of the majority; it is expected that the counter-hegemonic force that has been unleashed by farmers’ discontent will continue to mobilise and demand justice.