India - A balance sheet of the “farmers’ movement”

Winter 2021

On 19 November 2021, prime minister Modi repealed the three farm laws which had provoked an unprecedented year-long protest movement against his government.  It was not a total climb-down, but it was a surprise. 

    On 10 December, the media reported that the movement had been called off and that the protestors were going home.  But whether this is the end of it all, remains to be seen.  The leader of one of the farmers’ unions, the Haryana Bharatiya Kisan Union explained, “We will hold a review meeting on 15 January. If the government doesn’t fulfil its promises, we may resume the protest”. 

    This article aims to draw a balance sheet of the movement. 

Modi’s three farm laws 

The three farm laws were rushed through parliament by Modi, a year and a half into his second term in office, in September 2020 in the middle of the second Covid wave.  The government’s objective was to undermine the existing state-controlled agricultural procurement, marketing and distribution system: the “reforms” would have opened the way for the much much deeper penetration of agribusiness into Indian agriculture.  The timing of the legislation was probably quite conscious.  These laws will accelerate the ruin of the smaller and medium-sized farmers who formed a section of Modi’s electoral base and who probably at least in part, helped him retain power in the 2019 election. He had in fact promised to “double farm incomes”... 

    The laws provoked widespread anger - and action - among a broad spectrum of peasantry - catching the government on the back foot.  A description of how they came into being and what has happened since, helps explain this. 

    The system of state-controlled agricultural procurement and distribution was developed in the 1960s and 70s in response to recurrent famines in the country.  Under this system, the peasants’ agricultural produce is auctioned to traders under government supervision in local mandis (the Hindi word for “markets”) which are under the control of a regional body, the Agricultural Produce Marketing Corporation.  Traders must pay at least a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the produce, which is set every season by the Ministry for Agriculture’s Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices and must also pay a “marketing fee”.  The peasant on the other hand, is responsible for paying for the transportation of his agricultural produce to the mandi. 

    A substantial proportion of the crop is also procured by the state through the Food Corporation of India and distributed at subsidised rates through a Public Distribution System, which is a network of subsidised fair price shops, where sections of the public can therefore buy cheap food.  The state also keeps a part of this produce as buffer stock in case of emergencies.  The mandis, the support price and distribution system form an integrated system.  They allow peasants to sell at a minimum price while the state is able to procure food for distribution.

    Over the decades, this system has allowed a part of the peasantry to have an assured market for their produce, protected them from the wild fluctuations of market prices and competition from agribusiness, and provided a cushion for a section of the poor population to be able to survive on subsidised food.

    Modi’s first law, the “Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act”, would have undermined this system, opening the way for an uncontrolled private market across the country.  The Act would have allowed trading to take place outside the mandis, free of any state regulation and taxes. While this Act was supposed to give the farmer and trader “freedom of choice” in selling and buying, to create, in Modi’s words, “one nation, one market” this was hardly likely.  In a context where 86% of Indian farmers own less than 2 acres of land and cannot afford to transport their produce even to the local mandi, this would have been “one nation, one market” only for agribusinesses. 

    The second law, the “Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act” would have legalised contract farming between agribusinesses and farmers, either for the purchase of the farmers’ produce, or the rental of land for cultivation.

    Under the terms of such contracts, if the crop does not match certain standards, the farmer would not be able to sell the crop at all because he would be tied exclusively to the contractor.  This could have resulted in artificial food shortages, sending prices up.

    The final law, the “Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act allowed for agribusiness to hoard agricultural produce”.  It would have removed current limits except in the event of a steep price rise.  The law was vague on the time period over which such an increase would have had to take place before stock holding limits would have been introduced (such steep rises rarely take place overnight!) and it exempted agribusiness from this provision.  So, it would have opened the way for large agribusiness, especially the four agribusinesses who control between 75-90% of the world’s grain trade, that is, ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Louis-Dreyfus, and large Indian capitalists such as the Ambani and Adani Groups, to hoard agricultural produce while removing price controls on food!  Moreover, this would have opened the way to futures trading on a much larger range of basic agricultural produce than is the case at present, making prices even more erratic and dependent on the stock market casino!  After agribusiness had secured its hold over a sufficient proportion of the market, it would have led to lower wholesale prices for farmers and higher retail prices for consumers.  No wonder the farmers’ unions refer to this as the “Encouragement to Hoarding and Black Marketeering Act”! 

    Importantly, this Act was also an attack on the working-class and the lower petit-bourgeoisie, those sections which spend the majority of their incomes on food.  For in removing price controls, once agribusiness had cornered a sufficient proportion of the market, they would have increased prices - pushing these sections further into poverty.  Moreover, by undermining the public distribution system, the first law attacked the safety net which still effectively protected these sections from starvation.

Class divisions in the countryside

The movement of farmers may have been spectacularly huge at times, but the majority of the protestors come from just three regions in north India: Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.  However, it is these states which are the “food bowl” for the whole country: 20% of the nation’s food-grain stock comes from Uttar Pradesh.  Punjab contributes 12% of all wheat and 12.5% of all rice production in the country.

    What is more, decades of legislative “reform” by Congress and BJP-led regional governments have already undermined the mandi system everywhere else. Regional legislation ended the minimum price for many crops, introduced contract farming and changed the public distribution system from “universal” to “targeted” (i.e., from subsidised food for all, to subsidised food only for those below the official poverty line).  So today only one-fourth of all agricultural produce is routed through the mandi system - mainly the rice and wheat crop in Punjab and Haryana.  Where the mandi system has already been dismantled, for instance in Bihar, the peasantry has already been ruined. 

    While this movement is popularly called the “farmers’ movement”, this hides the fact that it is not homogeneous.  There are large, medium and small farmers, and agricultural workers of all descriptions.  Clearly they do not share all of the same interests.

    In addition, Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh have a particular history which is significantly different from other parts of the country because of the so-called “green revolution” in 1965, which forced to open the Indian market to US companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta.  Indian farmers were obliged to buy their seeds, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides…

    Besides being an ecological disaster and forcing farmers into endless debt, the “green revolution”, if it had benefits at all, could only help the larger farmers.  It was estimated that to show an increase in productivity with these new methods, a minimum of 8 acres of farm land were required.  But in the early 1970s, 30% of farmers in Punjab, 35% in Haryana and 50% in western Uttar Pradesh had less than 3 acres of land!  There was thus an incentive for slightly richer farmers to buy land off poorer ones, with the effect that between 1961 and 1971, the number of households holding less than 5 acres in Punjab grew from 17% to 56%!

    Today 5% of Punjab’s farmers own more than 25 acres of land.  These large farmers have increased their landholdings and diversified their economic activities into petty businesses such as dairy farming or transportation and trading.

    On the other hand, there has been a steady ruination of the small peasantry.  Today 67% of all rural households in Punjab are landless and of those who have land, 60% are small landholders.  Moreover, every peasant household in Punjab has an average debt of R1 million (about £10,000), but has a monthly average income of just R6000 (about £60)!

    The situation is similar in Uttar Pradesh where 74% of farmers have less than 2.5 acres of land, and about 40% of these were in debt.  The ruination of the small peasantry has led to the proletarianization of vast sections of the rural population.  Many small peasants work as agricultural labourers and send members of the household to the cities to work in factories so that they can send money back to keep the household going.  Perhaps 70% of the Indian working class is linked to the land in this way.

    This army of landless rural proletarians is growing.  They get only around 110 days of work a year working for rich peasants or through the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.  The rest of the year they have to work as seasonal, informal and/or daily wage labour, often as construction workers in cities.  But due to the crisis and the lockdowns of 2020-21, most industrial and construction activity has ground to a halt.  Unsurprisingly, Haryana had the highest rate of unemployment in the country at 35.7% in May-August 2021, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

    Due to high debts and unemployment, India’s green revolution belt has in recent decades become India’s suicide belt.  The National Crime Records Bureau reported in 2016 that 11,458 farmers committed suicide in Uttar Pradesh.  In a recent study of just 16% of Punjab’s villages, as many as 17,000 peasants and agricultural workers were found to have committed suicide in the last 17 years; 60% of them below 35 years of age.  Young people in this region see no possibility of a meaningful future.

    Calling the present movement the “farmers’ movement” hides the class difference (and struggle) between the rich and small peasantry and agricultural labourers.  In Punjab, one-third of unused panchayati land (land belonging to village-level administrative bodies) was allotted six decades ago to Dalits (outside the caste system), the majority of whom are agricultural labourers.  But the large peasantry has used their muscle power to keep control of it. Due to ongoing struggles since 2014, agricultural labourers have struck back and recaptured 2,800 acres from the rich peasants.  In the months immediately before the “Farmers Movement” began - in September 2020 - there was a mobilisation of agricultural workers for higher wages (which had dropped to around £2 a day) in Punjab and which was violently opposed by the rich farmers.

    This rural class struggle has had an impact on the mandi system.  The mandis and minimum prices are often in practice weighted toward the rich peasantry who, with large traders, “capture” local mandis and control the auction process.  There is a weak state procurement system, so small peasants who do not have the room to store, or the money to transport their crops to the mandi, are often forced to sell below the minimum price at the farm gate to traders or rich peasants, who in turn get the minimum support price at the mandi.

    By opening the way for the deeper penetration of agribusiness, Modi’s laws would have deepened this pre-existing crisis in the countryside.  But the impact would not have been the same for all sections of rural society.  Some of the richer peasantry may have favoured the introduction of large agribusiness and could have integrated themselves as middlemen.  However, for other large farmers, the new laws would have signalled the end of the systems which have protected them from competition on the world market with large agribusiness. 

    On the other hand, for the mass of small peasants and rural proletarians, these laws would have spelled disaster.  The end of the minimum price system would have meant that their produce would have been bought at even lower rates at a time when they are already chronically indebted. In fact the new laws would have driven the small farmer into the ranks of the millions of unemployed.

The “peoples’ movement”… led by the rich peasantry

When the three laws were first introduced as ordinances in June 2020, peasant unions started holding meetings and organising the peasantry for agitation.  From 25-27 November 2020, more than 200,000 peasants came to set up camps on the outskirts of Delhi.  They came with their tractors, towing trolleys packed with food, anticipating a long haul, and braved the barricades, water cannons, tear gas shells and lathi charges of the Haryana and Delhi Police. 

    The movement was organised in the main by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM, the United Farmers’ Movement), an umbrella organization which brings together over 40 farmers’ unions.  These were diverse forces.  For instance, the face of the movement in recent months has been the right-wing Rakesh Tikait, national spokesman of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Arajnaitik) or Indian Farmers’ Union (Apolitical), whose predecessor, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) was at the forefront of the “New Farmers’ Movement” in the 1980-90s.  At the time, this union focused on demanding state aid in the form of subsidies on electricity and fertilisers, which were overwhelmingly cornered by rich farmers (a 2014 study found that 94% of state subsidies meant for farmers were cornered by them), rather than on public infrastructure and irrigation projects which would benefit all farmers (outside Punjab, 55% of Indian agricultural land remains unirrigated).

    Rakesh Tikait is the son of Mahendra Singh Tikait, former President of the BKU. In his lifetime, Mahendra Singh Tikait organised hundreds of thousands of farmers with their tractors to surround the District Commissioners Office in Lucknow and later, the elite Boat Club in New Delhi, to demand cheaper electricity and higher crop prices.  When he died, the BKU splintered into many factions, with Rakesh and his brother Narendra Tikait launching the BKU(A).  Both brothers were complicit, along with senior BJP leaders, in the 2013 Muzaffarpur anti-Muslim riots which left 62 dead and displaced more than 50,000 people.  Since then, Rakesh Tikait has tried to make a career for himself as a politician, first flirting with the BJP and its right-wing Hindu nationalist politics.  He obviously intends to use the current movement to further his political career.

    There are other political forces at play in the movement from the “left”, however: Punjab was an important centre of the Communist and then Maoist Naxalite Movement, which organised small peasants and agricultural workers against the rich peasantry.  Traces of these organisations still exist in the protests. For instance, the Communist Party of India-led All India Kisan Sabha (Farmers’ Forum) is represented in the leadership of the movement, as is the BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) or Indian Farmers’ Union (Unity Ugrahan).

    However, both organisations have abdicated any responsibility toward the small peasantry and agricultural workers by declaring the movement a “people’s movement” and thus obscuring the question of which class forces are leading it and in which direction it is going.  This tail-ending fits with the main Communist Parties’ electoral tactics of forming “anti-fascist fronts” against the BJP in recent regional elections, often with openly reactionary political parties.  The SKM leadership has made no mention of demands which would reflect the specific interests of the small peasantry and agricultural workers, such as the redistribution of land, raising the wages of agricultural workers and the redemption of all debts.  As a result, the proportion of rural proletarians who joined the protests was small and some sections of rural society such as the large number of agricultural workers from Bihar, who migrate to work in Punjab, took no part in the protests.  Moreover, this leadership had been increasingly willing to compromise on the repeal of third law - the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. Never mind that this is the crucial law, around which the urban and rural working-class and even the lower petit-bourgeoisie could rally, because it concerns food prices!  Similarly, they did not emphasise how Modi’s laws undermine the public distribution system of subsidised food from which 66% of the Indian population still benefits.

    In fact, right from the start of the movement the SKM leadership made no attempt to reach out to the industrial working class which is concentrated in its millions precisely around Delhi - in some instances very close to where the protesting farmers have camped.  This is despite the fact that many workers have natural links to the peasantry, coming from agricultural families which have land in the village.  Moreover, the trade union federations did next to nothing to support the movement.  Demonstrations called by the major trade union federations or even by the unions of the car factories in Delhi’s industrial areas to support the movement were tokenistic and poorly attended.  Despite the fact that the movement completed a full year, no significant political forces have tried to help in the emergence of a leadership for the movement which represents the interests of the small peasantry, agricultural labourers and the working-class.

The rise and decline of the movement

From November 2020, the SKM’s tactic was to camp near important highways which connect Delhi to the countryside, threatening the closure of these arterial roads. From December 2020, the SKM called many “Bharat Bandhs” (Shut Down India Days) which included the stopping of trains in Punjab by blocking the railway tracks, rallies in cities and towns and attempts to close the highways around Delhi.  As the movement gathered steam, smaller delegations from farmers’, workers’ and women’s organisations, and activists from the 2019- 20 movement against Modi’s citizenship laws, came from other states to demonstrate their support.  A newspaper, the Trolley Times, was published for circulation among the different protest camp sites.

    On 26 January 2021 - India’s “Republic Day” - the SKM announced a demonstration demanding the immediate repeal of the three laws.  The SKM and the Delhi Police agreed on a route that limited the march to Delhi’s outskirts.  Despite the measures taken by the police in the days before the protest, such as laying spikes (to deflate the tires of the tractors) and erecting barricades, the demonstration still took place. And the mass of protestors disregarded the SKM’s agreed route, coming into Delhi in a huge show of strength!

    Some industrial workers also went to demonstrate with the peasants from their own villages.  They went to the Red Fort, the historic centre of the city and completely overwhelmed the police there.  Precisely because the farmers had shown their strength and put the Modi government on the back foot, beating back its security forces, the movement became a major point of discussion among the millions of industrial workers who live and work on the outskirts of Delhi in the following days.  This was a golden opportunity for the movement, to invite the industrial working class to join it.

    However, the 26 January demonstration served as a warning to the government and the leadership of the movement of its potential to get out of hand.  The SKM quickly cancelled the march to parliament, scheduled for 1 February.  The movement now saw a decline.  Over the following months, the movement stagnated and the camp-cities emptied out.  The meetings and rallies moved from Delhi’s borders, to the countryside, which blunted their importance and influence.  Mass rallies were cancelled.

Modi revokes the three laws

Unexpectedly, on 19 November, 2021, in a televised address timed to coincide with Guru Purab, a religious holiday, Modi announced to the nation that he was going to repeal the three farm laws.

    In fact the reason behind this is no mystery.  Modi and his ruling BJP are concerned about their electoral prospects in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections, scheduled for February-March 2022.

    Tikait and other SKM leaders had declared that the farmers would campaign to defeat the BJP in both states, which have been centres of the farmers’ movement and are therefore extremely politically significant.  And two prominent SKM leaders, Guram Singh Charuni and Balbir Singh Rajewal announced in July that they will stand for election in Punjab.

    Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in the country, making it of prime importance for any political party.  Many inside the BJP see the state’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, as the only possible heir to Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2024.  Nervous at the prospect of potentially losing their seats in the elections, several senior BJP leaders from Uttar Pradesh had started speaking out against the farm laws.  Moreover, apart from the established regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, several political parties whose influence was formerly limited to other regions of the country have been trying to take advantage of the collapse of the Congress Party, by standing candidates in the state.  Thus, no less than 25 political parties will contest the Uttar Pradesh election in March, making the vote a contest of margins.

    As for Punjab, it was home to the BJP’s coalition partner in its ruling National Democratic Alliance, the Shiromani Akali Dal.  However, on 26 September 2020, early protests against Modi’s farm laws from the Punjab peasantry forced the Dal to withdraw from the Alliance, ending a two-decades long partnership between the parties.  Since November last year, many BJP MLAs in Punjab have been greeted with black flags by protesting farmers and prevented from entering their constituencies or villages, making campaigning difficult. 

    Finally, the repeal of the laws may allow the BJP to reach out to farmers’ union leaders, some of whom have been close to the party in the past.

What now?

The repeal of the three farm laws is of course a victory for the Farmers’ Movement. However, it is a limited one.  The demand for a legally enforceable minimum price has yet to be won. And the crisis of the peasantry which predated these laws will continue. 

    It is possible that the agricultural workers and small peasants might be able to reshape a movement around their own interests.  What is more, they have everything in common with the massive urban working-class, which today has every reason to fight, especially at a time of food price inflation which currently stands at a 14-year high!  After all, the movement has already shown that it is possible to stand up to Modi’s attacks and put the BJP government and its shock-troops in the RSS on the defensive. 

    On 12 December, thousands of agricultural workers stopped trains in Punjab in anger at the fact that the Congress Chief Minister of the state had refused to confiscate land held by rich farmers and redistribute it to the landless and ensure the sale of food at cheap prices.  This is a sign that the fight is not over.

20 December 2021