The Indian Farmers’ Struggle
Indian farmers successfully act in defense of their communities
The Geopolitical Economy Research Group of the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, sponsored on January 9 a Webinar on the Indian Farmers’ Union (Bhartiya Kisan Union, BKU). Rakesh Tikait, the national spokesperson of BKU, discussed the 2021 victory of Indian farmers, whose sustained protest forced the government of India to repeal three draconian farm laws that the parliament had passed in 2020. The event was co-sponsored by: SANSAD (South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy), Vancouver; Democracy, Equality & Secularism in South Asia (DESSA), Winnipeg; CERAS (Centre sur l’asie du sud), Montreal; Indian Farmers & Workers Support Group, Edmonton; Indian Farmers & Workers Support Group, Vancouver; Indian Farmers & Workers Support Group, Winnipeg; and Punjabi Literary and Cultural Association, Winnipeg.
In September 2020, the Indian parliament enacted, and the president signed, three agricultural laws. The new laws provoked mass protests by farmers, and on January 12, 2021, the Supreme Court stayed in the implementation of the “Farm Laws,” and it created a committee to look into farm grievances.
What were the three laws, and why did farmers protest? (1) The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act gave farmers the “freedom” to sell their produce outside registered Agricultural Produce Market Committee markets (APMC markets, also known as mandis), so that prices would be determined through competitive alternative trading channels. Farmers’ opposition groups pointed out that the law would eliminate the “mandi fees” that the farmers collect, and it would reduce employment for mandi commission agents. Protesting farmers also feared that it would make irrelevant the Minimum Support Price system (MSP, or government guaranteed price floors), which guarantees a minimum income for producing farmers. In addition to supporting farmers, the MSP system is a mechanism for food distribution to the poor, inasmuch as the Food Corporation of India purchases rice and grain at MSP and sells them at concessionary prices to Below Poverty Line families.
(2) The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act gave farmers the right to enter a contract with agribusiness firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters, or large retailers for the sale of future farming produce at a pre-agreed price. Farmers opposition groups said that the law gave the advantage to big private companies, exporters, wholesalers, and processors; and weakened the negotiating power of farmers. It provided the legal foundation for big corporations to dominate the food and agricultural market.
(3) The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act of 2020 removed commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, onion, and potatoes from the list of essential commodities, thereby eliminating stockholding limits on such items, except under “extraordinary circumstances” like war, famine, extraordinary price rise, and natural calamity. Farmers’ opposition groups stated that the law would enable the big companies to stock commodities, thereby enabling them to dictate terms to farmers.
The implementation of the three Farm Laws, therefore, would have deregulated a system of government-run wholesale markets, allowing food processors to buy directly from farmers, which could have resulted in the elimination of government-guaranteed price floors. It would have eliminated the mediating role of the state between farmers and the local and international market, leaving small farmers to make agreements directly with large corporate entities, which is to say, would leave them at the mercy of terms dictated by the large corporations. It likely would have had the consequence of corporate control of agriculture, the displacement of farmers from the land, migration to the cities, and the depopulation of the countryside.
Consistent with global political patterns, the Farm Laws were supported by the Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund and by the U.S. State Department. In addition, 866 academics from several Indian universities signed an open letter in support of the laws.
The non-violent protests lasted for a year, with encampments in three areas on the border with Delhi. Women and youth were active in the protests, with youth playing an important role disseminating information on social media. Other actors joined in the expression of opposition to the Farm Laws. Kaushik Basu, former chief economist of the World Bank, declared that the laws are detrimental to farmers. In February 2021, 413 academics from India and from foreign universities signed a statement asserting that the farm bills pose a major threat to Indian farming communities.
On November 19, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narandra Modi announced in a televised address to the nation that the government would repeal the laws. On December 1, both houses of the Parliament passed, without discussion, the Farm Laws Repeal Law of 2021, which negated the farm laws passed by the parliament in 2020. The absence of discussion deprived opposition legislators of the opportunity to denounce the government for its introduction of the laws and to explain before the Parliament and the public that the laws promoted the interests of corporations. In announcing the repeal of the laws, Modi continued to insist that the laws would have been of benefit to farmers.
“We are raising our voice to ensure that we do not lose our land”
Radhika Desai, Director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, introduced Rakesh Tikait. She noted that Tikait played a key role in the success of the campaign. He led BKU, one of the oldest farmers’ unions in India, in a march in November 2020 to New Dehli, which joined the encampment of protesting Indian farmers at Ghazipur, one of three Delhi border protest sites. In spite of a delegitimation campaign against him, he refused to leave the encampment until movement demands were met. During the campaign, he introduced the important concept of the Grand Council, reviving the tradition of Hindu-Muslim unity in the region, such that Hindu-Muslim unity emerged as one of the distinctive characteristics of the movement.
Desai pointed out that the smallholder farmer is vital to the health of the Indian economy, inasmuch as 47% of the labor force consists of individuals in agricultural. Indian agriculture is able to feed the population, although at a low level. But if agriculture is converted to exportation, Indian farmers and rural residents will starve. Many middle-class Indian expatriots, she noted, claim that the Indian farmers’ movements do not understand the economy, but it is they who are economically illiterate.
Daljiet Singh also introduced Tikait. He noted that Tikait comes from a family that historically has organized and served farmers, and he has been involved in farmers’ union activities in the state of Uttar Pradesh for more than forty years. He has been persistently opposed to market-oriented reforms.
In his Webinar presentation, Rakesh Tikait maintained that the government serves the interests of the big capitalist enterprises. Its program has been the selling of the public sector. It introduced three farm laws, which it claimed would benefit people working in agriculture. But we understood, he stated, that the Farm Laws would benefit big agriculture and not Indian farmers.
We mobilized around opposition to the three laws, speaking with one voice, demanding the repeal of the three laws. Historically the resistance of farmers was concentrated in South India and North India, but this time there was active resistance of farmers from the four states around Delhi. The people came from all over the country with definite programs of their own, but maintaining unity over opposition to the three laws.
The repeal of the three laws in November does not solve the problem, Tikait declared, and we push forward with other demands. An especially important issue is the losses that farmers suffer when they sell their products at low prices. Our comparative analysis of prices shows that the prices of farmers’ products are going down in comparison to the prices of other products. We are demanding a new law that would provide a legal guarantee to a Minimum Support Price for farmers’ produce, and that would expand its scope beyond that of the present MSP system.
In addition to the adjustment of prices, we are demanding the availability of education in the rural areas, to stop the tendency of people leaving the villages for education. Free education and free health care and rural employment are necessary for rural development. Many people are selling their land and moving to the cities, and those without land move to the cities. When two brothers in a family are working the land, one will stay to work the land, and one moves to the city.
We are in struggle, which means that we are raising our voice. People from all over India have come to our support, forging a united front of mobilized workers and peasants, a Pan-Indian movement of Hindus and Muslims.
The big capitalist companies stand against the interests of farmers. The companies want to displace the farmers from the land, displace the people from the agricultural producing sectors, and impose large-scale agricultural exportation. The greatest threat to us it that we could lose our land.
There is no difference between national and foreign private companies. The national private companies seek profit, and they do not work for the people. We need public companies in India.
Non-resident Indians are providing ideological help. Our organizations work all over the world; we seek a united farmers’ struggle internationally, against chemical food and for an egalitarian world.
On elections for political office
The Indian Farmer’s Union does not contest elections, Tikait explained. We do not pay attention to who controls the government. Our strategy is to create a powerful united movement of workers and peasants, in order to ensure that the government serves the people. Therefore, we neither support nor oppose farmers’ leaders who stand for election; that is their right. We are affiliated with twenty-two organizations, and some are contesting elections.
Tikait noted that he declared publicly that he voted for BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian People’s Party, the ruling party since 2014), but the Indian Farmers’ Union did not vote for BJP as an organization. Now people are upset with BJP, because there is a conspiracy, with the support of the government, to convert the country into a colony under the control of the corporations. The people are upset with increasing inflation, the high cost of natural gas, unemployment, and the lack of education.
When a political party is brought to political power in a neocolonial situation through the support of the people, the key to delivery of its promises to the people is the issue of the land. Agricultural land cannot be concentrated in few hands, be they national or foreign. The state, acting on behalf of the people, must nationalize the land, and turn it over to the political control of the people, or distribute it directly to the people as individual or collective property. Such decisive steps of agrarian reform were taken following the triumph of popular, socialist revolutions in Vietnam, China, and Cuba, with the result that in these nations, the question of the land was resolved decades ago, and rural socioeconomic development has been the result. In many nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, decisive steps of agrarian reform were not taken, with the consequence that the issue of the land remains unresolved, and it is continually present as a source of inequality and potential conflict.
In the case of India, in contrast to China, there has not been the taking of power by a political party that defends the common interests of the people against the claims of the national and international capitalist class. However, significant concessions have been made to the historic demands and needs of farmers and the people: a system of government-run wholesale markets and minimum prices for farm produce, tied to food distribution to the poor. If the people were to take political power, these structures could be strengthened and expanded.
But the three Farm Laws of 2020 go in the wrong direction. They point to a truly nightmarish neoliberal world: a countryside without towns or people, only tractors, fertilizers, and modified-plant species neatly aligned in rows; and cities overrun with people, with entire zones engulfed in human insecurity and social chaos. A post-modern world in which no one knows of the social justice teachings of ancient prophets and modern revolutionaries. These draconian laws have been repealed by the united force of the people, led by the Indian farmers’ movement.
Can the peoples of India built upon the victory of the Indian farmers’ movement to forge a united political movement that is able to take control of the state and redirect it toward the satisfaction of human needs, in the name of and in defense of the people? Can the peoples of other nations do the same, so that various nations can cooperate in the construction of a more just and sustainable world? China, Vietnam, DPRK, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Venezuela, and Bolivia are showing the necessary road. May all of humanity learn from their inspiring examples.
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so glad to read this commentary. Yes, it ended well for the farmers in India and the sacrifices they made to get to that goal are highly commendable. They did not get divided, although the government sent its goons to divide them by religion and caste. Farmers knew better and did not divide. There are some other laws they want to get repealed and I will keep you informed once those turn into movements.
India feels like a cursed land under the present government. Every country has a story to tell the world, ours was our ability to live together among so many diverse communities, religions and ethnicities. It was never perfect but it was not a nightmare it has become now, not only for Muslims but also Christians and low caste Hindus. The government is also so eager to privatize which is never a good idea for poor people who depend on government subsidies. We have state elections coming up in 2022, hope other parties win some of the states away from the Modi government.