Analysis Economy India

India: The Farmers’ Rise Against Modi Regime

By Umar Shahid

The Indian farmers’ struggle has entered a new phase on 26 January, when breaking through police barricades and sweeping through all hurdles, farmers managed to get into Red Fort and wave their farmer union flags there. Red Fort is a Mughal era relic, which is considered a power symbol in India. Every year on “Independence” Day (15 August), the Indian Prime Minister hoists Indian national flag and deliver speech from its ramparts. This year on Republic Day, the world saw a different scene. Center of Dehli became a battleground between farmers and security forces. Some violent clashes were also observed and according to reports these clashes left one person dead and many injured. Due to these clashes, Indian farmers called off a march to parliament on February 1st and the leaders also condemned the violence. While talking to The Guardian, one farmer told, “We have been protesting for the last six months but the government didn’t bother to listen to us, our ancestors have charged this fort several times in history. This was a message to the government that we can do it again and more than this if our demands are not met.”

Farmers are protesting against three controversial agriculture laws, which are Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. These laws are meant to corporatize the agricultural sector. These laws aim to eliminate Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and leave the prices of produce at the mercy of market forces. Bill also curtails farmers’ ability to challenge contract disputes in court and this aims to “drive up investment in cold storages”. It encourages stockpiling and provides unfair advantages to big capitalists.

The basic purpose of APMCs is to ensure that all of the farmers produce must be brought in the designated market yard and then sold through auction. It is the continuation of “agriculture produce market regulation programs” since Independence of India. These laws ensured a minimum support price for farmer’s harvest. MSP is the minimum price paid and set by the government when it procures or regulates. Through APMC mandi models – a larger section of the Indian population is also benefiting. Food Corporation of India (FCI) is State-run largest procurer & distributor of food grains; it procures 15 to 20 per cent of India’s wheat output and 12 to 15 per cent of its rice output annually. That provides food through various Government- run welfare schemes at subsidized rate which helps poorer sections of society. The difference between MSP and subsidized rates is paid by the Government. It is no coincident that largest procure area of FCI is Punjab state. The epicentre of the current farmer’s movement has been states of Punjab and Haryana. These two states constitute 3 per cent of India’s land area but produce close to 50 per cent of its surplus of rice and wheat.

These laws aim to eradicate all State interference in agriculture and allow market forces to determine prices of crops. This will liberalize agriculture by limiting the role of mandi by offering tax-free rate outside the mandis. It will be beneficial for large retailers and capitalists like those of Ambanis while small and marginal farmers will be among the worst victims. Most importantly, contract farming undertaken by big corporate buyers would skew bargaining power against farmers. The Indian State Bihar is a perfect case study where these kinds of laws were enforced 15 years ago. These laws dismantled government procurement infrastructure and the “open” markets’ promised better remuneration could never be metalized for the ordinary farmers. According to Indian official statistics, last year farmers in Punjab sold rice for MSP at around $25 for 100 kilograms while Bihar farmers were forced to sell the same quantity at merely $16 on the open market.

Soon after the introduction of these laws in September, farmers started the campaign for “Rail Roko” (stop the trains), from 24th September to 23rd October 2020 farmers successfully halted train services by lying and protesting on railway tracks. After seeing no response from their State governments, farmers decided to pressure the central government for their cause. Millions of farmers across India gave the call for Delhi Chalo (Farmers’ march towards Delhi, Capital of India). Since the end of November, Indian farmers successfully established their townships outside Delhi and held a sit-in. On 26 November 2020, Bharat Bandh (closure of India, a 24-hour strike) against controversial labour & agriculture laws was observed throughout the country by 250 million farmers and workers. Since then, farmers have kept up their blockade of Delhi. Opposition parties & several ShowBizz celebrities have expressed their support for farmers struggle. This movement has become a focal point of the struggle of the recent era. Despite all hurdles, farmers kept on struggling and they demand urgent repeal of all laws. The hegemonic rightwing media is playing scandalous role as the hired agents of the ruling classes by projecting the farmers as terrorists, acting on foreign agenda to destabilize the country. Bourgeois mouthpieces are trying to defame farmers’ struggle. Farmers have been branded separatists, misled by political parties. Police prevented them from moving towards Delhi and termed them reckless for taking on the government’s might. The government attempted to break their unity, but farmers have shown a kind of resilience unprecedented in recent history. The government also remarked that opposition political parties are trying to sabotage political stability. A farmer retorted, “If the Congress had the means to mobilise hundreds of thousands of farmers, their women and children included, the party would have won the general election.”

On the other hands, their struggle is also paying off. Center proposed to suspend these laws for the upcoming 18 months and even offered some other concessions. However, farmers want the total repeal of these laws and they asked for a special parliament session to be conveyed and repeal these laws. In the second week of January, Indian Supreme Court also rushed to save the face of ruling class and suspended the implementation of the three farm laws until further notice and decided to set up a committee to comprehend the situation. However, All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee rejected the formation of the committee as this comprised the same people who are known for their support to these three acts.

The Farmers’ Demands Include:

  • Convene a special Parliament session to repeal the farm laws
  • Make minimum support price (MSP) and state procurement of crops a legal obligation
  • Assurances that conventional procurement system will remain
  • Implement Swaminathan Panel Report and peg MSP at least 50 per cent more than weighted average cost of production
  • Cut diesel prices for agricultural use by 50 per cent
  • Repeal of Commission on Air Quality Management in NCR and the adjoining Ordinance 2020 and removal of punishment and fine for stubble burning
  • Release of farmers arrested for burning paddy stubble in Punjab
  • Abolishing the Electricity Ordinance 2020
  • Centre should not interfere in state subjects, decentralization in practice
  • Withdrawal of all cases against and release of farmer leaders

Agriculture is still a predominant occupation in India. According to the World Bank, more than 40 per cent of India’s workforce is engaged in agriculture. It provides a livelihood to nearly 70 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion. Water shortages, natural calamities, debt, increasing input costs, double-digit inflation combined with manslaughter by multinational companies have ruined lives of farmers. A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2018 estimated that in real terms, farmers’ incomes increased by just 2 per cent in a year. The other independent policy experts believe farmers’ incomes in real terms have remained stagnant or even declined for several decades. Since neoliberal reforms were launched in India in 1992, economic disparity has been increasing. A recent report by Oxfam revealed that India’s richest one per cent holds more than four-times the wealth held by the bottom 70 per cent of the country’s population; meanwhile the total wealth of all the billionaires of the country is more than the country’s annual budget. The current Modi regime is aggressively pushing for the neoliberal agenda in the country by amending the labour laws, more relief to the corporate sector, privatization and allowing foreign direct investment in all sectors. With “One Nation, One Market.” slogan, Modi Sarkar is fueling nationalism for corporatizing the economy through various programs like Jan Dhan Initiative. Since the “independence”to the opening of markets, the Indian capitalism’s growth was mainly based upon state interventions in the economy; now everything seems to reverse. While India is facing the worst crisis, apparently due to Covid pandemic, and a collapsing economy, Modi government is aggressively pushing for privatization as the finance ministry has prepared the plan to sell major State-owned assets in the next five years. It is the main reason that the government is not investing in the economy rather distancing itself. The government needed to invest 6.39bn rupees ($86bn) in the agricultural sector to save it but on the contrary, it has reduced its funding; even in many Indian states direct cash transfer programs have also been halted. Similarly, data on both public and private investments shows it has been falling. Private investors are more inclined to invest in stock markets, property or digital industries.

The farmers’ struggle is a very remarkable movement as the country’s “strongman” Modi, with all the power at his disposal, is still unable to contain it. The movement has been able to garner international solidarity. Students’ organizations, trade unions and civil society are also participating in solidarity. The ever-growing farmer’s movement is attracting large sections of population. Despite all their heroism and bravado there are some visible limitations of farmers’ movement. Although communist parties and trade unions are participating in this movement, they are lacking a decisive action or program.

We understand that peasantry does have critical limitations. The peasantry itself has different layers. There are some big landowners, medium landowners and landless agricultural labourer. Despite all sentimental veils around this movement, there are tangible weaknesses. Only six per cent of the farmers could sell their produce to government agencies. A large portion of farmers still consists of landless farmers. For example, according to a 2015-16 agriculture ministry survey, more than 85 per cent of farmers have less than two hectares (five acres) of land. Fewer than one in hundred farmers own over 10 hectares. Debt among farmers is rising, as National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development 2018 reported that 52.5 per cent of all the agricultural households were indebted with an average debt of $1,470. Suicides among farmers are also rampant; National Crime Records Bureau suggests that every day 28 farmers commit suicide in India. The top six states, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Chhattisgarh account for 83 per cent of all the farmers’ suicides. Due to the large informal Indian economy, most of the hard-earned farmers’ profits go to paying a high-interest rate to private moneylenders. In the end, the farmer ends up selling his land to pay off the debts.

The leadership of the current movement wants to confine the struggle to the demands of the landed farmers only. Even the demands did not take into account the interests of poor peasants, agriculture labourers and artisans. They have no or very less concern for the minimum wage rates, debts, natural calamities or water shortages etc. Many small landholders also work in big cities to run their kitchens. Recently, COVID lockdowns have seen the worst effects on their livelihoods. Although, Indian State attempted to destroy the feudal system by abolishing the Zamindari system in the country, even today many regions and areas of the county continue to play host to the oppressive feudal system. In large parts of India, remnants of worst slavery are still visible.

While the nationalist elements are aiming to confine this movement to the interests of the tiny fraction of farmers’ community, the scope of movement is also aligning with working-classes, agricultural labourers and other layers of society on the clear class based program. It is no doubt that this movement has given an enormous impetus to recent struggles. Indian working class is already struggling against privatization, controversial amendments in labour laws, wage shrink and so on. Bharat Bandh was only an expression of the workers-farmers unity but consolidating different movements in large decisive movement is the need of time. Indian communist parties are participating in strikes, protests and movement but their role is more like a spectator than a leading vanguard. It is always the working class which can lead other layers of society for a significant radical change. Communist parties have reduced themselves to electoral politics only and the radical overthrow of capitalist society is not on their agenda.

India has rich history of working-class and peasantry revolts; during colonial era peasant revolts shocked the very core of British Imperialism. Even the “independent India” has seen many tremendous farmers’ movements. However, the degeneration of left has given room to guerilla outfits like Naxal movement which emerged from the peasant movement, later on, spurned political struggle and adopted the path of guerilla warfare. The current farmer’s movement has shook the very core of Indian society. The bravery of farmers has set new precedents. Now it is up to the unity of working-class and farmers to turn this movement into an open rebellion against capitalism and pave the way for the revolutionary overthrow of the current system and replacing with a socialist economy.