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“The farmers already know the solutions” – Solidarity with Indian Farmers

Mathew Edassery

December 20, 2020

Mathew Edassery is a Social Worker from the South Indian state, Kerala; and now resides in Canada. As part of his Social Work degree he studied the rise of right-wing nationalism in India and he was in Gujarat following the 2002 pogroms against Muslims facilitated by Narendra Modi. He actively organizes with climate justice groups in India and Canada and is a member of Indo-Canadians for Humanity and the International Socialists in Canada.

He speaks to Socialist Worker/ about the inspiring uprising of farmers in India against attempts to deregulate and restructure agriculture in the interests of big business by the right-wing Modi government.

A huge farmers’ agitation – primarily in India’s northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan – to repeal three new laws has been under way for many months and has been supported by many other sectors like trade unions, student organizations, university teachers’ associations, a range of political parties and others. A Bharat Bandh, or all-India strike of farmers, was called for December 8 after several rounds of talks between the farmers’ unions and the government failed to yield results.

What the farmers’ strike represents has deeper meaning than just the three farm laws that were introduced by the Modi government in an undemocratic way.

The intent of these laws was clear since they were first introduced as an ordinance before becoming law. The laws are designed to put more power in the hands of corporations at the expense of farmers. The laws have even led to splits within the ruling class and resignations within the ruling coalition of the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)  losing its long-time allies solely due to these laws.

Agricultural sector

Agriculture continues to employ and feed the largest section of India’s working population. As per census data of 2011, nearly 55% of the workforce in India continues to be engaged in agrarian production, either as cultivators or as agricultural labour. It is neither marginal nor insignificant. Agriculture must remain central to all discussions of the Indian economy, the crisis in which it finds itself today, and political thought on the way forward.

This is what most farmers are saying: it is not just about the GDP, it is a matter of food security.

It is also a matter of employment, but there is a class divide in who labours and owns. in 1970-71, 70% of all land holdings fell within the small and marginal categories: landholdings of under 5 acres. This figure increased to 78% by 1990-91 and to 85%  by 2010-11.

There is no part of India where small and marginal farmers exert any power or control over the market in agricultural produce. The state willfully ignores the grossly inequitable structure in place while assuming small and marginal farmers have the possibility of exerting free ‘choice’ in entering a relationship with private traders, let alone agricultural corporations.

The Green Revolution of the 60s was followed by the market liberalization of the 90s, and at that time the Minimum Support Price (MSP) was introduced to protect the value of crops against diminishing value by establishing a minimum bid in the markets. The BJP is now going back on studies that support not only maintaining but increasing the MSP, and it has become a major issue in the farmers’ strike today. The MSP covers 24 crops but the implementation by govt is limited to 3 – 4 crops (paddy, wheat, cotton etc) and this is preventing diversification of crops and leading to a less sustainable agriculture.

Most farmers across India don’t even have access to the MSP, or to the regulated markets (mandis) which are predominantly in the northern states. The regulated markets are few, and small farmers don’t have the ability to transport their crops for sale. The smaller and marginal farmers farm for subsistence, not for production for sale; when they sell its to a trader who takes it to a market, and these middlemen reap the benefits.

As a result, more than half of India's farmers are in a debt cycle. Many don’t even have a bank account or land title. There is no credit from banks, only local credit lenders who also sell the fertilizers and sometimes even buy the same crops from the farmers they lend to, and usually belong to the village upper caste. The bargaining power of small farmers is very weak. This results in land-grabs and other abuses.

All governments in India have completely failed to protect small farmers from this onslaught – not just the ruling right-wing BJP, but the supposedly liberal Congress Party that ruled for much of the period that led to this situation.

This has led to a crisis for farmers in India, which according to India's National Crime Records Bureau, led to 10,281 farmers killing themselves in 2019.

Three new laws

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) bill, will force farmers to deal directly with corporations and private buyers, removing regulated markets (the mandis) and paving the way for deregulation. The government plans to open up private mandis which will be tax free for the buyers. The farmers allege this will eventually shut down government-regulated mandis which ensure a MSP for goods traded there.

Another major issue is that all disputes that were previously adjudicated by civil courts will now be placed before sub-divisional magistrates (SDM) or collectors. Both are members of the bureaucracy and not the judiciary, and are heavily influenced by the corporate sector. This is a direct violation of fundamental constitutional rights, and removes the right of redress before a court.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services bill, deals with pricing. The bill will push farmers, corporations and private buyers to negotiate contracts. However, several farmers have voiced their concerns over not having the bargaining power to negotiate with corporate giants.

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) bill, means “modernization” of India’s food supply chain by reducing stockpiling, removing commodities like “cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes” from the current list of essential commodities. The state used to procure high demand foods such as these, but they have now been removed from the procurement list, opening the door to the corporate sector for these staples. It also aims to “drive up investment in cold storage” and give farmers the “freedom to produce, hold, move, distribute and supply” their products.

But in practice, small farmers in rural India can’t just sell to “anybody they want.” They wouldn’t have the ability to compete with corporations when it comes to stockpiling and producing on a large scale, giving rich investors an unfair advantage and an opportunity to manipulate market prices.

A large section of small and marginal farmers already sell to private traders, as noted above. There is little evidence to show they have gotten a better deal than the MSP in this process. The middlemen who purchase crops from them invariably occupy a higher status in the social hierarchy of caste and community, and tight networks along these lines control the market in food grains, wresting all control out of the hands of cultivators.

Undemocratic and unconstitutional

Agriculture is within the exclusive legislative jurisdiction of the States of India, not the central government, and the bills have been challenged in court as unconstitutional. Farmers’ organizations were never consulted, not even those belonging to the farmers’ wing of the ruling BJP. No stakeholders except corporate ones have had a say.

When the bills were introduced in Parliament in September, 2020, the demand by many MPs to send them to select parliamentary committees was denied by the Speaker. The bills were railroaded through the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament) with no debate and a voice vote held amid shouting, tumult and confusion. At the very same time, several regressive labour laws were passed during a walk-out by the Opposition in protest over the three bills.

The undermining of democratic processes and the total disregard for public consultation has been evident in other regressive legislative changes: the repeal of Article 370 governing Kashmir (thus revoking the special status/limited autonomy granted under the Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir), the Citizenship Amendment Act that targeted Indian Muslims and a lockdown ordered with hardly any notice, resulting in untold suffering for millions of migrant workers.

What is noteworthy and common to all these actions was a refusal to consult the people affected beforehand and a determination to not hold a dialogue afterwards. The facile option of labelling all those who disagree with one or other of the actions of the government as “anti-national” is to avoid substantive discussion and debate, and to vilify and criminalize dissent.

Social movements are discredited in various ways by the national media and even social media. The BJP has its own IT cell which pays people to comment on social media. But the fact that the farmers’ movement started in the Punjab and was outside the BJP’s rulebook, caught them off-guard. The BJP has been playing the Hindu-Muslim divide for a very long time, but the Sikh community couldn’t be as easily discredited as Muslims – although the BJP tries to, by branding the Punjabi farmers, who wear their religion with pride, as “Khalistani ” (i.e. Sikh nationalists who call for a Sikh homeland).

The farmers are infantilized in the corporate media, portrayed as knowing nothing, as just misguided by people around them. In fact, the protests started long back in Punjab, when the change was still an amendment, not a law. These attempts to discredit the movement are exposed by support from ex-servicemen, athletes, and winners of national recognition and medals, who are choosing to renounce and give back their awards in protest and in support of the farmers.

In Delhi, the freezing winters are very brutal. The farmers are mostly elderly and are out on the streets. They have made make-shift caravans on the backs of their tractors and they are cooking and sleeping in the streets. Nobody is going to do that unless they are fighting on an  issue critical for their livelihood.  

The question has been raised pointedly: was this done in the belief that during a pandemic and the restrictions on public gatherings, organized protest would not be possible?

Government attempts to contain the movement

Following the pressure of the protests there were three rounds of discussions with the farmers and all of them went off track. At the first one, the government repeated all its arguments: “you have been misguided,” “this is all for your own good.” The farmers walked out.

At the second one, the government said “we’re trying to work on things, we hear what you’re trying to say.” At the third one, the government made an attempt to meet some of the demands with some amendments, notably access to the courts for dispute resolution, and a reassurance in writing that the MSP would be maintained. But the farmers never asked for these bills, they were not consulted in the first place, so amending them would not meet their demands.

Everybody agrees that there need to be changes in the agricultural sector: in how the mandis (markets) work, in how the MSP is maintained. Those debates have been happening for the last 15 years and all the studies and reports are there. There was no need for the government to come out with these bills which provide a gateway for the major corporations to bully the small farmers and get what they want.

This is why the nature of the protests has shifted: now the farmers are adamant on two things. First, they don’t want any amendments to the bill, they want all three laws completely withdrawn. Secondly, have realized there is a lot of corporate influence and they want to confront that.

They have called for a boycott of two major Indian conglomerates, the Ambani family and the Adani family projects. These two are the major funders of the BJP, ever since Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat. Their nexus is very well known in India. The BJP is the richest and most well-funded political party thanks to the corporate sector, in particular Adani and Ambani, and this fight has again exposed those connections.

Adani and Ambani: Modi’s corporate nexus

Around 71 Indian television stations are controlled by Reliance Industries Limited or Reliance Group (an Indian multinational conglomerate) also known as the Ambani group: they claim 95% of the television audience.  

And despite the theoretical argument that the BJP’s agricultural reforms will give farmers the “freedom” to trade with whomever they want, the “free” market, as we know, benefits the corporations. The mega players like Reliance will effectively set the price they get and, over time, narrow their options for getting better prices elsewhere by stockpiling and controlling supply.

And the two other bills, the one dealing with promotion of contract farming and the other removing stocking limits on many essential items of daily use like cereals, pulses, oils and onions, will also benefit large players like Reliance more than anyone else. Corporate legal contracts disadvantage farmers, who have generally had bad experiences with discrepancies in contact farming in the past and there is no chance of a level playing field against multinationals.

The Financial Times has pointed out that similarly favorable policy changes have helped the Adani Group to grow phenomenally in a short time in other sectors: “When the Indian government approved the privatization of six airports in 2018, it relaxed the rules to widen the pool of competition, allowing companies without any experience in the sector to bid. There was one clear winner from the rule change: Gautam Adani, the billionaire industrialist with no history of running airports, scooped up all six.”

So this is how things are run under the BJP: deregulation for small farmers and more regulatory power and corporate “welfare” rules for big business. It can clearly be seen who stands to benefit.

Adani and Ambani groups registered 53 new agro-based companies in the last few months. They have built up their warehouses and silos for procurement and stockpiling – all before the laws came in. You can see this going back to 2015-16, when they were building their infrastructure waiting for a favorable policy change in procurement.  

The farmers’ movement might be the Trojan Horse India needs to wake up to corporate cronyism, due to its wide popular support.

International solidarity

There have been protests in Toronto, Ottawa and other places in Canada in support of the farmers, and there is a history to this.

There is a huge Sikh population outside of India, and Sikhs from the Punjab are playing a predominant role in this movement, because that’s where the new law will have the greatest impact. While the issues are important to all farmers in India, in southern Indian states like Kerala - where most farmers want the minimum support price, which needs to be regulated - there is less of an immediate impact compared to the northern states. Most of the rest of India are in solidarity with the protests, even though they may not be as directly affected.

More than 90 per cent of the population of Punjab are farmers, though many have migrated from the Punjab. When the Green Revolution happened in the 60s (a government-run project to increase productivity after the famine hit India) most of the developed nations wanted to implement it as well: Canada invited a lot of Sikh (Punjabi) farmers to come over here – to the US and UK as well, all the places where solidarity protests are happening. These people have direct roots in farming, they have relatives who are still farmers, many of them protesting over here still own farm lands in India and this is going to affect them. It might be shared family land, it might be their own land but there are direct connections.

That’s why we can see a lot of pressure by the community here, especially in Canada and UK. The Sikh community is very strong, politically, socially, economically. Even Justin Trudeau was forced to put out a statement – which he did not do when there were NRC protests (National Register of Citizens protests again the citizenship reform targeting Muslims) – which was more of a human rights violation than this, to be honest. But there is also a long history of oppression and persecution of Sikhs within India: attacks on places of worship, targeted arrests, calculated pogroms.

The Hindutva right-wing is trying to portray the international support as the “Khalistani element”: expatriates trying to destabilize India. The BJP cannot even convince their own allies and is seeing splits in its own ranks.

The movement: a victory in itself

The movement has shown people the possibility of phenomenal solidarity in India. This is already a victory against a government that is very high-handed in using violence against any kind of dissent. It has already achieved success in terms of how people perceive it, and by putting the government on the back-foot when it has never backed down before because of its crushing majority in Parliament.

The way they did it was beautifully planned: they built this whole revolution silently for the last 4-5 months. They waited for the crop season to start, they sowed the crops first, they decided only a part of the village would come to the protest, the remaining part would stay back and do everybody’s farming. So fewer farmers came to the protest but they were prepared with six months of produce that they can live on. Last time, for a similar kind of protest for similar reasons in 2018, the government shut it down, but this time they were unable to due to the excellent planning and organization.

More than 50 farmers unions have come together and even more are in solidarity across India including student unions and other trade unions. That the organizers have been able to unify all these elements that usually don’t come together under the same umbrella is another success, in the face of government intimation, forcing the government to try to quell the movement by offering amendments.

On the last International Humanitarian Day farmers protested holding placards with photos of all the political prisoners in India currently in jail, which shows how they are willing to show solidarity and move beyond the farmers’ protest. It is exciting to see how that leadership is changing, and even being willing to name Ambani and Adani with the boycott. One of the major ways the farmers have built the protest is by moving away from the Reliance (Ambani) telecommunications network to other providers, and lots of people have started doing so. This has exposed corporate cronyism in the government widely to the nation.    

The movement is independently strong, and has stayed away from the partisan identities that normally have had sway over protest movements, particularly the divisions between religious communities the BJP has fostered through its propaganda. Past movements have not impacted elections; it will be interesting to see how this one translates into the democratic process and changes the power dynamics in the elections.

It is nonsense that farmers are “uneducated”: they are the best to know what they’re doing and they are leading the way. The farmers already know the solutions: we should listen to them, not the corporations that are exploiting the resources and people of India.



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