Farmers’ protest in India – Modi’s worst fear

by Garv Taneja

On October 2, 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the resting place of one of India’s most popular reformist leaders and its second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. There, Modi repeated Shastri’s now iconic phrase ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan,’ (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer), first invoked during the 1965 war with Pakistan. Now, just two months after publicly ‘hailing’ the farmers, the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is in a showdown with them.

Distressed Indian farmers are nothing new. Before the 1990s, they traditionally saved and collected seeds for future purposes.  But after 1995, companies like Monsanto started selling GMO seeds and fertilisers that improved yield for a while, until the soil started losing nutrients.  Farmers became fully dependent on Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds, and Dupont’s chemical fertilisers.

Not only has the combination of hybrid seeds and fertilisers further destroyed the quality of farmlands and its crop yield, it has also plunged millions of farmers into a vicious cycle of debt they cannot escape.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, about 139,000 farmers have committed suicide to avoid paying their debt. The only thing keeping most farmers afloat is the Minimum Support Price that every farmer is entitled to receive for their produce.

Now, farmers across India, and mainly from the states of Punjab and Haryana, have been protesting in their regions for months. But after no response from Modi and the central government, they decided to march en mass to the capital.

They reached the Delhi-Haryana state border on November 27, just a day after the one-day strike of 250 million workers, one of the largest in history, which was nearly ignored by the western and Indian mainstream media. On reaching the state border, farmers were met with police barricades, water cannons and gas shells shot at them by the police at the central government’s command.

The reason for the farmer’s dispute is the three neoliberal farming ordinances, which were swiftly passed into law by parliament without much debate or deliberation by the ruling majority, that move to deregulate and open the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) where a farmer can sell whatever produce at a minimum support price (MSP), which is regulated by the government. MSP could be considered a lifeline to Indian farmers, about 86% of whom are small and mid-size farm owners.

The laws which the centre is proposing for the whole nation were already implemented in the State of Bihar in 2006. The APMC system was eliminated and, on average, farmers net income has declined continuously since 2010 — even though land productivity increased. The so-called ‘prosperity’ that the BJP promises resulted in crops being sold at half the MSP, after deregulation. For example, paddy sold at 900-1000 Rupees, while the MSP was Rs.1868. Farmers experience declining standards of living and an unstable means of livelihood. A certain price is offered one day; the next day the price is lower, as dictated by the ‘market’.

The corporate and individual buyers further exploit the farmers by offering them cash in hand for an even lower price. Higher prices are offered only on credit (3 to 6 months usually). Many farmers accept the lower price to meet daily expenses, and to pay their eternal debt. That is an appalling and unacceptable trade off.

Farmers in Bihar have migrated to Punjab and Haryana, now working as day wage labourers. If these neoliberal laws are not rescinded, the whole farming industry will mimic the State of Bihar.

Farmers understand that once the markets outside of APMC mandi (regulated) systems are allowed to operate, APMC and MSP along with it will wither away. They will be left completely at the mercy of large corporations which pay the farmers as little as possible. Therefore, these protests are a struggle for farmers’ very survival.

Quickly, the Modi government jumped to create a fantastical narrative on mainstream media. It portrayed farmers as naïve rural simpletons who just don’t understand the benefits of such laws.  At the same time, it called them ‘Khalistani’ separatists and terrorists, hell bent on breaking India into pieces. This is similar to what the ruling party did to defame students and Muslim activists protesting the Citizenship Bill in 2019.

Unfortunately for the BJP, the farmer is a far more sympathetic character in the popular Indian imagination than the so-called “young hooligans” (students) or the “Pakistan apologists” (Muslim activists). Its attempts at controlling the narrative have fallen flat, and BJP ministers have been forced to negotiate terms with the farmers’ union leaders.

So far there have been six rounds of inconsequential talks between the protesters and the cabinet ministers. Farmers have not moved from their original demand of rescinding the three farm bills passed in September, while BJP leaders are pressing for concessions.

On December 30, the government announced that it had agreed on two issues with the farmers.  However, it became clear that the two concessions made were of minor importance and had nothing to do with either the APMC Mandis or the MSP. Further talks are set for January 4, 2021.

The world and especially the left should pay attention to these amazing protests which are uniquely well planned to continue. Farmers’ unions organised the protests so that only a few people from each village join. Participants go home after some weeks, and others from their villages take their place.

Protesters arrive with all the supplies they need for a long stay, including makeshift homes, cooking appliances, food supply, blankets, mattresses, etc. There is a sense of camaraderie in the air. Every night farmers prepare food for thousands of people.  Their local supporters, even opponents, are invited to stay and dine with them.

Farmers are getting increasingly frustrated with the central government’s inaction and the Prime Minister’s indifference towards their plight. The movement has now turned against two of the richest Indian oligarchs, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani. Both of them have benefited tremendously from the privatisation frenzy started by the BJP.

Many farmers around the country have started demolishing mobile towers owned by Reliance Inc., a telecom company owned by Mr. Ambani, as a sign of their protest and anger.

The protesters have been supported and helped by many farm and labour unions. Some of the major ones include:

·       Bharatiya Kisan Union  

·       Jai Kisan Andolan

·       All India Kisan Sabha (Peasant front for the Communist Party of India)

·       Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha

·       National Alliance for People’s Movements

·       Lok Sangharsh Morcha

·       All India Kisan Khet Majdoor Sangathan (Socialist Unity Centre of India)

·       Rashtriya Kisan Majdoor Sangathan

·       All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha

·       Krantikari Kisan Union

It’s easy to regard these protests as simply anti-BJP.  In part they are.  But mainly they are anti-neoliberalism. This is clear by virtue of the fact that the protestors have not accepted help from the main opposition Indian National Congress Party, which is another capitalist, neoliberal political party.

So far, many non-BJP governed states, including Delhi and Kerala, have passed legislation to not implement the contentious farm bills. But the central government has not budged from its position.

As things stand, the future of the Indian farmers is uncertain. What is clear is that these protests by farmers and workers could prove to be a model for a global resurgence of the left, with great political implications for India’s future, and maybe for the world.