The Threat of Corporate Interests Is a Key Unifying Factor in the Farmer Protests

While rich farmers, who were so far aloof from the struggle, have been compelled to join the small peasantry in the face of a larger corporate threat, it is yet to be seen if the protests will temper existing inequalities.

The present farmers’ struggle knocking at the doors of the capital is a culmination of many streams of ideologies, concerns and a wide class coalition. Like any dynamic mass movement, the articulations of the protestors have been developing and becoming eloquent by the day.

These nuanced articulations have been widening the scope of the impact of these farm laws on the largest sections of the toiling masses, which is further adding strength to the resistance. This unity, seemingly overshadowing the existing fault lines of the Indian countryside, has been achieved in the face of an aggravated agrarian crisis riding on the back of the neoliberal reforms, introduced in the 1990s. This unity is also infusing courage into the movement to withstand the constant vilification campaigns directed against it.

Farmer movements – old and new

The success of the direct procurement policy guided by the establishment of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the Commission on the Cost and Prices (CACP) in the 1960s, was built on ensuring the participation of rich farmers, especially in the northern belt, who had amassed considerable levels of surplus food grain production in the post-Green Revolution period. Charan Singh, the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh managed to rally the rich farmers behind the new procurement policy, a solution to the country’s food deficit and inflationary problem which was starting to threaten its very sovereignty, by luring his rich peasant supporters with the incentive of stable incomes available via the instrument of minimum support prices (MSPs).

Charan Singh’s political lineage was carried forward by farmers’ organisations by the likes of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) in western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the Shetkari Sanghatana in Maharashtra, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) among others, whose social base was built on the rich-middle peasantry and demands of better pricing policies, uplifting of trading restrictions and greater input subsidies. The politics of these farmers’ organisations, naturally, was at loggerheads with the leftist unions taking up issues of the smaller peasantry and wage struggles in the countryside. The present farmers’ movement against the farm laws has often been compared with this BKU phase of agrarian mobilisations.

Farmers take part in a protest against the newly passed farm laws on the outskirts of Delhi, India, December 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

However, there is something fundamentally different in the mobilisations of the past and the ones that we see unfolding in front of us. The earlier farmers’ movement explicitly stood for rich landowners, garbed under the cover of an overarching ‘peasant solidarity’. Many of these organisations in the 1970s and 1980s, stood for free trade in agriculture. The caste-bias and feudal underpinnings of these past movements have often been commented upon.

Also read: A Republic of Protest

Foremost, the farmers’ movement of this earlier period represented demands exclusively of the Green Revolution belt and never actually demanded the equitable distribution of the surpluses. The slogan of India versus Bharat of the 1980s raised by the farmers’ movement was in eventuality to protect the interests of the rural rich, who saw the subsidised food distribution system detrimental to their cause of higher foodgrains prices.

In contrast, the present farmers’ movement against the farm laws for the first time since independence has managed to garner such broad-based mass support by concentrating its attack on the nexus between the central government and big agribusinesses.

Corporate threat is the unifying factor

The neoliberal reforms or the ‘1991 moment’ forms a watershed moment in the country’s agricultural policy, and the context which differentiates the present farmers’ movement from any of the past. This phase of agricultural policy has been represented by the rising cost of production, declining state support in terms of input subsidies and an escalated rise in indebtedness. Punjab has been contributing almost three-fourths of wheat and rice towards the FCI stocks since the post-Green Revolution period, which was made possible through gains in productivity.

The gains of surplus production in the state did spill into the ranks of the lower peasantry to some extent as well. The historically well-entrenched network of government regulated mandis and their procurement operations in the northern state have emerged as one of the sources of sustained incomes. The large number of tractor-trolleys at the Singhu-Tikri borders, which is largely represented by farmers from Punjab, and to some lesser extent by Haryana, is testament to the faster rate of mechanisation in these states.

However, since the 1990s, while the productivity rates of foodgrains stagnated, the levels of indebtedness among the Punjab peasantry also heightened. A study done by the Punjab State Farmers Commission in 2008 found that 89% of farm households in the state were indebted. Further, whereas all land size households were indebted, the small landholding cultivators were more heavily indebted on a per hectare basis. Thus although the impact of the agrarian distress has befallen on the entire agricultural sector, it has been felt more bitingly by the smaller and marginal peasantry.

The early 2000s saw a new phase of consolidated peasants’ movement in Punjab, which grew after years of militancy and has acted as a precursor of the present widespread organised protests against the farm laws in the state. In the new coalition of farmers’ movement, the representation has moved away from the exclusive domain of the rich Jat kisan to a more diverse range of small and marginal peasants. Women have also been seen in large numbers at the Delhi borders and agitations against the farm laws, a facet unseen in earlier farmers’ movements.

A quick glance at the range of farmer groups from Punjab involved in the negotiations with the government is indicative of the wide range of class and ideological affiliations that have unified against the farm laws, which clearly stands for promoting corporate interests in Indian agriculture.

Also read: For Farmers, This Agitation Is an Issue of Survival Against Corporates

The rich peasantry which until now was aloof from the united struggles, finds itself compelled to join the small, marginal peasantry in face of a bigger corporate threat. However, it is yet to be ascertained if the power asserted by the rich peasant-landlord combine in the country’s political landscape has moved towards the promotion of a more equitable role for the small and marginal sections of the peasantry. Although, the fact that the groups representing the richer peasant sections sticking together on the demand of repeal of the farm laws, withstanding the numerous government pressures and now the Supreme Court order, may be hinting towards a certain tilt in the correlation of balance in the countryside.

This trend of issue-based unity at the national level was witnessed in the formations such as the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan (BAA) and the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), which emerged in the first term of the Modi government against the backdrop of the agitation against the Land Acquisition Bill and heightened demand for remunerative prices and loan waivers after the crash of agricultural prices in the aftermath of the disastrous demonetisation policy. It is through the coming together of the AIKSCC, the Punjab organisations, that the Samyukt Kisan Morcha was formed which has been spearheading the agitations against the three farm laws at Delhi and rest of the country.

Presently protest sites have cordoned off the capital from five sides, and the character of each of these camps show the regional and class diversity that this movement has brought together. The biggest contingencies of farmers at Singhu and Tikri borders from Punjab, and Haryana, are camping inside their makeshift rooms built behind their trolleys. Tikri border has a wider presence of small and marginal farmers, from the Malwa region of Punjab- which has recorded biggest number of farm suicides in the state. The Palwal border has a smaller contingency of protestors largely from Madhya Pradesh.

Farmers during a protest against the new farm laws, at Ghazipur Border in New Delhi, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

As a result of campaigns in the region, farmers from neighbouring Mewat region have joined this camp, significant for its large Muslim population engaged in livestock rearing. The Ghazipur contingency includes mobilisations from the sugarcane belt of western Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The camp at the Sahajapur border, the farthest from the capital, sits at the Rajasthan-Haryana border, and includes farmers from the largest geographical breadth. While the camp is being mainly managed by the Rajasthan state committee of the All India Kisan Sabha, it has been continuously receiving streams of farmers’ groups from Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir and most recently Kerala. The protesting farmers at this border have set up tents to stay.

The argument that the protests are restricted to Punjab and Haryana has been dispelled to some extent by the farmer organisations by broadening the demands of the movement. While the foremost demand remains the repeal of the three farm laws, and rescinding of the Electricity Amendment Act, the farmer unions are also demanding establishing MSP as a legal right along with an assurance of guaranteed procurement, which in other words means a continued need of market regulations.

This is specifically significant because the access to regulated markets and MSPs remains limited to a small section of the Indian peasantry and has a regional bias towards the Green Revolution belt. This demand has a greater resonance especially with the majority of small and marginal peasants across the country. Although, the effects of this expanded articulation is yet to be felt on ground, as the biggest peasant mobilizations continue to emerge from the surplus-producing, regulated market-linked regions.

Also read: How Different Are the Ongoing Farmers’ Protests From Those of Colonial Times?

Question of food security

Lastly, the present farmers’ movement has moved beyond previous urban versus rural dichotomy. The uphill and arduous objective of getting the farm laws repealed amidst the deadlock of the negotiating talks is making the farmer unions consciously and creatively widen the scope of the movement. This is being done primarily by dissolving the boundaries between the producers and poor consumers around the question of preserving the country’s food security, which stands threatened by the applicability of the farm laws. This articulation takes place under the circumstances where a majority of the small and marginal farmers are net buyers of food themselves and a bigger section of the rural population is itself involved in non-farm employment.

The essentialism of rural India as characterised in the past movements is being slowly broken down, however, the full realisation is yet to be seen. In this regard, the nexus between the ruling government and the corporate agri-business has been rightly identified to be jeopardising India’s hard-earned foodgrain self-sufficiency and the statutory right to food security.

The impact of the amendment in the Essential Commodities Act, which opens up the possibilities of stockpiling and hoarding and reports of Adani’s big investments into agri-logistics have naturally raised eyebrows to the eventuality of price rise and food inflation as a result of greater privatisation of the food supply chain. Further, the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 allows the corporate owned market yards to act as private mandis, which presently hold no compulsion to make payments at MSPs.

Farmers protest against the passage of new farm Bills in the Parliament and land legislations proposed by the Karnataka government, in Bengaluru, September 22, 2020. Photo: PTI

However, this should not give the idea that all contradictions of the countryside have been glossed over in this ‘unity’. In spite of the very deep rooted caste, class inequalities and the kisan-mazdoor dichotomy in the Punjab countryside, which has one of the largest concentrations of Dalit landless populations, the organisations representing landless agricultural workers are not ready to abandon the fight against the farm laws. They are conducting village campaigns to make the agricultural workers understand the repercussions of the farm laws, including the Electricity Amendment Act, however the articulations of the issues come from the perspective of the ‘mazdoor’.

Also read: Pray, What Is This ‘Reform’ That the Rightwing Peddles?

The Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, a nascent Dalit land rights organisation in Punjab plans to mobilise 1500 families to join at the Delhi borders and hold a Republic Day parade on foot, for they do not own tractors. They plan to make an independent mark in the ongoing struggle by fixing a different route for their march towards Delhi. The organisation aims to bring along entire family units because any member left in the village would face the consequences of the daily wages foregone resulting from the participation. This mobilisation is also significant as the BJP tries to utilise the Jat-Dalit divide to draw a wedge in the protest against the farm laws.

The discriminatory treatment meted out to the Dalit agricultural labourers in the Punjab villages continues to be a reality even while a ‘kisan-mazdoor’ joint struggle is proclaimed in the farm law agitations. However, the farmworkers’ unions realise that a repeal of the farm laws is essential for their very survival, and to be able to carry on the more fundamental struggles of land, wages and dignity.

At the present juncture, the farmers’ protests stand to represent an attack on the neoliberal and corporate-led agenda of the ruling government. Thus the struggle against the farm laws needs to be strengthened and made more widespread, as they threaten the survival of a vast majority of the nation’s toiling masses, and further deepen the existing inequalities and discriminations based on caste, class and gender.

Ranjini Basu holds a PhD from the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and is presently an agricultural policy researcher based in Delhi.