Indian farmers script a victory

8 December 2021 by Sushovan Dhar


Millions of Indians were greeted by pleasant news on 19 November as Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, announced his government’s intention to repeal the three contentious Farm Bills which were intended to ‘fix’ the country’s ailing agricultural sector. The nation too accustomed to this muscular leader’s usual chest thumping and hyperbole, impervious to any criticism, was astounded by this announcement. This retreat by the dominant man who has pushed through major damaging policies while advocating an ultra-right wing Hindutva based hyper-nationalist discourse, brushing aside all criticisms - often with brute force - is something to cheer about.

 Indomitable spirit in critical times

In fact, the uninterrupted attack on the democratic foundations of India has been a recurrent feature in the last seven years. Most constitutional and human rights have been trampled with impunity, particularly the fundamental right to equality, the right to live in dignity, the right to contest and resist the state. Oversight institutions have been systematically weakened; the judicial system has been heavily tampered with, and the functioning of parliament has been severely harmed. On the other hand, growing attacks on the working class with the country’s labour laws getting systematically diluted and the existing ones being routinely violated, mark the Indian political landscape .

The never-say-die attitude and tenacity shown by hundreds of thousands of farmers, their families and their supporters has challenged this course forcing this authoritarian regime to tamely back away for the first time since it came to power in 2014. The grand success of the ongoing farmers’ agitation in forcing this ‘superman’ to bow down has strongly highlighted the paramount importance of vibrant mass movements to halt the Hindutva juggernaut.

The upcoming state elections, particularly in one of India’s largest states, Uttar Pradesh (UP), and Rajasthan, are the immediate reasons for Modi and his entourage to step back. Looking at the electoral drubbing that the BJP has just received in certain by-polls, the government could not afford to take more risks. Earlier in this year, the party was strung by a series of defeats in Legislative Assembly elections in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu despite sparing no efforts or resources.

Public opinion against the UP government was rapidly growing after the Lakhimpur Kheri violence in October where the son of an Union minister was involved in a vehicle-ramming attack on protesting farmers killing four of them and a journalist. The Lakhimpur Kheri incident intensified the challenges that the year-long farmers’ movement had already posed before the Indian government.

Additionally, the spiraling price rise and the revelations about the Rafale deal(the purchase of fighter aircraft) and the use of Pegasus spyware had already put the BJP on the defensive ahead of the UP elections. Things were going horribly wrong in Modi’s country, with rising prices, growing unemployment, and an already shaky economy attempting to claw its way out of the pandemic slowdown.

However, nothing can deny the farmers their legitimate credit.

 The agricultural crisis

While agriculture employs close to half of India’s workforce it contributes only 10 per cent to India’s GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
. The falling productivity and lower crop prices for the Indian farmers render agriculture non-remunerative in most parts of the country keeping farmers perpetually poor. Despite quite a few technological improvements, viz. irrigation, seeds, fertilisers, mechanisation, etc. the Indian agriculture is unable to sustain the sheer number of people dependent on it.

Various governments over the years have promised to raise farm incomes but nothing has materialized till date. The Modi government pledged to implement the recommendations of a government-appointed committee report which was submitted in 2006 but was willfully ignored by successive governments. It also talked about doubling farm incomes by 2022. However, in lieu of systematically responding to the agrarian crisis that has gripped the country since the advent of neo-liberal policies, cosmetic changes in agricultural output prices through agricultural marketing laws will not make any meaningful contribution to the life and livelihood of the Indian farmers. The farm laws had little potential to ameliorate the conditions of Indian farmers. Rather, it was threatening their very existence.

Subsistence farming is the primary source of income for the vast majority of Indian farmers. While some people have it better than others, the majority of them struggle to get fair prices for their produce and are deeply in debt. An average agricultural household in India has debt equivalent to 60 per cent of their annual income. According to the National Sample Survey, the annual income of a farm household was INR 123, 000, and the average debt was INR 74,100 from July 2018 - June 2019. Two major contributors to income are crops and wages. 50.2 per cent of agricultural households in India are in debt.

With decent urban jobs scarce, the majority of the rural population emigrates to cities to add to the ranks of the burgeoning precariat. The 77th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) conducted in 2018-19 reveals a decrease in farmers’ share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. of crop cultivation income. Forget about doubling farmers’ overall incomes; it shows an absolute decline in crop cultivation real income.

For the past two decades or so, Indian agriculture has been in a state of crisis. The most painful manifestation of this has been the rising rate of suicides among farmers across the country (28 per day in 2019). Many of them are indebted to informal lenders such as relatives or usurious money lenders.

Since 1995, over 300,000 farmers have committed suicide as a result of mounting debt pressures caused by non-remunerative prices for their produce. Instead of addressing these critical issues that have plagued Indian agriculture since the advent of neoliberalism, the government has pushed farm bills that farmers saw as the ultimate threat to their survival. More than 85 percent of Indian farmers farm on less than two hectares of land which means engaging and competing with large corporations would be extremely difficult. Under these circumstances, farmers rightly fear that these laws are intended to allow corporate interests dominate over the future of independent farmers.

 Government’s response: the Farm Bills

Since the beginning, the government’s attitude toward farmers’ demands has been one of utter neglect and indifference. The BJP-led government attempted to crush the farmers’ movement at every stage, the most heinous example being the way agitating farmers were mowed down in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh. During the year-long agitations, close to 700 farmers died in protest. Hundreds were arrested under harsh laws. The government used its police force to forcefully chock the movement. The borders of Delhi borders where farmers had staged demonstrations, were effectively turned into open prisons.

Following their Republic Day march earlier this year, the police cracked down hard on some of the farmers’ leaders. Nonetheless, the farmers remained steadfast in their determination to continue the protests. They remained firm in their call for the complete repeal of farm laws, which they saw as “pro-corporate” and “anti-farmer.” The Union government’s claims that farmers were consulted before the laws were passed are utterly baseless since the laws were first introduced through Ordinances in June 2020 before any public consultation or even proper parliamentary deliberations. It was more or less, a backdoor imposition rather than through any democratic convention or procedure.

 Farmers respond to strong arm tactics

Since its inception, the farmers’ movement has evolved in a dynamic manner. The movement started in the northern state of Punjab but spread nationally soon. Farmers’ groups and associations from across the country put aside their differences and worked together to take on the coercive government. Step by step, various leaders from different parts of the country joined hands to create a united front, pushing aside multiple caste and community contradictions in the process.

Every time the movement faced a challenge, it emerged stronger. The slogans and the resolution at all picket lines became a rallying cry for many farmers who were otherwise unable to actively participate in the protests.

In recent months, the farmers’ agitation has evolved into a political movement opposing the BJP’s communal polarizing tactics. It aided in the resolution of tensions in western Uttar Pradesh between Jats and Muslims, two communities torn apart in the aftermath of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots. The movement became a platform for many communities to come together. And, perhaps most importantly, the protesters have instilled resistance in other areas to a government that simply jails its critics or otherwise pursues and harasses them. This allows citizens, including journalists, to be freely arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and cracks down on independent media for “economic offences.”

The rise of right-wing authoritarianism in recent years has put a question mark over India’s democratic credentials. India has dropped in all democracy metrics, including the Press Freedom Index, where it now ranks 142 out of 180 countries, four spots behind South Sudan and three spots behind Myanmar. According to the Human Freedom Index, India ranks 111th out of 162 countries, just four places ahead of Russia. Following repeated assaults from the Indian government, Amnesty International was forced to cease their Indian operations in September. The farmers’ movement addressed many of these democratic deficits.

The government’s ostensible omnipotence has crumbled which is a positive development for Indian democracy. However, we need to wait and watch further developments. Is this going to be a new and constructive dialogue and better reforms, or a sharpening of contradictions? However, it can’t be a question limited within the confines of our national boundaries. Today, we face rising authoritarianism, human rights violations, anti-democratic practices and right-wing nationalism on a global scale. Allowing it to march untrammeled, particularly in the world’s populous democracy, puts everyone at peril. With a population of over 1.3 billion people, India as a country muzzles and restricts basic freedoms for one-sixth of the world’s population.

 Conclusion

The year-long farmers’ strike has finally ended in victory. Indian farmers have written one of the most illuminating chapters in the history of class conflict. The repeal of the three contentious farm laws is a welcome development. Nevertheless, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (joint forum of farmers) has vowed to continue the struggle as long as the Minimum Support Price (MSP) is not made a legal right for farmers. The victory has raised renewed hopes to struggle against the attack on the Dalits, the Muslims, the left, intellectuals and all others. The trade-unions and the working class need to take deep lessons and fight back aggressively to reclaim much of what it has lost in recent times. The victory of the farmers’ movement is also an important lesson of self-organisation for social movements and the working class.




A version of this article earlier appeared in Amandla.

Other articles in English by Sushovan Dhar (42)

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