by Umar Shahid, published on Socialist Action, February 20,2021
The article below by Umar Shahid is an update on the historic January 26 mobilizations in India against the neoliberal policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The previous strike/protest of November 26, 2020, the “Bharat Bandh” meaning the 24-hour closure of, included a monumental 250 million participants! [Socialist Action Editor]
I have repeatedly published articles on this movement in India. Why is it important to us? Because the same process has been going on here for a long time and though the immediate repercussions are not apparent to city dwellers, subsistence farmers are long gone and small family farms are on the way out not. This is the age of corporate megafarms, extensive reliance on GMOs and toxic chemical management of our food supply. The people of India have been resisting globalization/colonialism for centuries while we at the center have largely been immobilized. [UNAC Editor]
The Indian farmers’ struggle entered a new phase on January 26 when breaking through police barricades and sweeping through all hurdles, farmers managed to enter Red Fort and wave their farmer union flags. Red Fort is a Mughal-era relic, viewed as a power symbol in India. Every year on “Independence” Day, August 15, the Indian Prime Minister hoists the Indian national flag there and delivers a speech from its ramparts. This year on Republic Day, the world saw a different scene. The Center of Dehli became a battleground between farmers and security forces. Some violent clashes left one person dead and many injured. Due to these clashes, Indian farmers called off a march to parliament on February 1st and the leaders also condemned the violence. One farmer told The Guardian,
“We have been protesting for the last six months but the government didn’t bother to listen to us; our ancestors have charged this fort several times in history. This was a message to the government that we can do it again and more than this if our demands are not met.”
Indian farmers are protesting against three controversial agriculture laws, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act, the Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities Act. These are aimed at corporatizing the agricultural sector, eliminating Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) subjecting prices to the mercies of market forces. They curtail farmers’ right to challenge contract disputes in court and encourage stockpiling and other measures designed to advantage big capitalists.
The basic purpose of APMCs has been to ensure that all farmers’ produce be brought to designated market yards and then sold through auction, the practice followed since Independence of India. This ensured a minimum support price (MSP) set by the government for farmer’s harvest. The state-run Food Corporation of India (FCI) is the largest procurer and distributor of food grains; it contracts for 15 to 20 per cent of India’s wheat output and 12 to 15 per cent of its rice output annually. This provides food through various government-run welfare arrangements at subsidized rates that help poorer sections of society. The difference between MSP and subsidized rates is paid by the government. It is no coincidence that the largest FCI operations are in the Punjab state. The epicenters of the current farmer’s movement have been in Punjab and Haryana. These two states constitute three per cent of India’s land area but produce close to 50 per cent of its surplus of rice and wheat.
The new laws will privilege large-scale retailers and capitalists. Small and marginal farmers will face disaster. The Indian State of Bihar is a perfect example of the consequences of implementing nationwide these new laws. Fifteen years ago the government’s dismantling of its procurement infrastructures and establishment of “open” markets in Bihar saw farmers forced to sell their rice at $16 per 100 kilograms on the “open” market whereas farmers in Punjab sold the same quantities of rice at the government subsidized rate at $25.
Soon after the introduction of these laws in September farmers started the campaign for “Rail Roko” (Stop the Trains), from September 24 to October 23, 2020. Farmers successfully halted train services by laying and protesting on railway tracks. With no response from their state governments, they moved to pressure the central government. Millions of farmers across India heeded the call for Delhi Chalo (Farmers’ march towards Delhi, Capital of India). Since the end of November, Indian farmers successfully established townships outside Delhi via mass a sit-ins. On November 26, 2020, Bharat Bandh (Closure of India, a 24-hour strike) was called against the controversial labor and agriculture laws. 250 million farmers and workers participated. Since then, farmers have maintained their blockade of Delhi. Opposition parties and several ShowBizz celebrities have expressed their support for their struggle. Their movement has become a national focal point highlighting the plight of all Indian workers and farmers.
The hegemonic rightwing media has played a scandalous role as the hired agents of the ruling classes by projecting the farmers as terrorists, acting on foreign agendas aimed at destabilizing the country. Farmers have been branded separatists, misled by political parties. Police have prevented them from moving towards Delhi. They have been pilloried as “reckless” for taking on the government’s might. While the government has attempted to break their unity, the farmers have demonstrated an unprecedented resilience. The government has charged that opposition political parties are trying to sabotage political stability.
Government retreats… for the moment
But the government has backed off, at least for the moment, proposing to suspend these laws for 18 months and to include some concessions. The farmers, however, are demanding the total repeal of all these laws and the convocation of a special session of parliament to do so. In the second week of January, the Indian Supreme Court rushed to save face for ruling class by suspending the implementation of the three laws until further notice and establishing a committee to review the matter. However, The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee rejected the formation of this committee because its members included the same people who are known for their support to the three new laws.
The Farmers’ Demands Include:
- Convene a special Parliament session to repeal the farm laws
- Mandate minimum support price (MSP) and state procurement of crops a legal obligation
- Assure that the conventional procurement system remains
- Implement Swaminathan Panel Report and peg MSP at least 50 percent more than weighted average cost of production
- Cut diesel prices for agricultural use by 50 percent
- Repeal the Commission on Air Quality Management in NCR and the adjoining Ordinance 2020 and remove punishment and fines for stubble burning
- Release farmers arrested for burning paddy stubble in Punjab
- Abolish the Electricity Ordinance 2020
- Center should not interfere in state subjects, decentralization in practice
- Withdraw all cases against and release of farmer leaders
Agriculture remains a predominant occupation in India. According to the World Bank, more than 40 percent of India’s workforce is engaged in agriculture. It provides a livelihood to nearly 70 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Water shortages, natural calamities, debt, increasing input costs, double-digit inflation combined with manslaughter by multinational companies have ruined the lives of countless farmers. A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2018 estimated that in real terms, farmers’ incomes increased by just two per cent in a year. Other independent policy experts believe farmers’ incomes in real terms have remained stagnant or even declined for several decades. Since neoliberal reforms were launched in India in 1992, economic disparity has been increasing. A recent Oxfam report revealed that India’s richest one per cent holds more than four-times the wealth held by the bottom 70 percent of the country’s population; meanwhile the total wealth of all the billionaires of the country is more than the country’s annual budget.
The current Modi regime is aggressively pushing for an intensified neoliberal agenda by amending the labor laws, additional relief to the corporate sector, privatization and allowing foreign direct investment in all sectors. With the “One Nation, One Market” slogan, Modi Sarkar is fueling nationalism to corporatize the economy through various programs like the Jan Dhan Initiative. Since “Independence” Indian capitalism’s growth was mainly based upon state interventions in the economy. Today everything seems to be operating in reverse, with the private sector prioritized. While India is facing its worst crisis, apparently due to COVID-19 pandemic, and a collapsing economy, the Modi government is aggressively pushing for privatization with the Finance Ministry preparing plans to sell major state-owned assets in the next five years. This is the main reason the government is not investing in the economy, but rather distancing itself. The government needed to invest 6.39 billion rupees ($86 billion) in the agricultural sector to save it but instead reduced its funding. In many Indian states direct government-funded cash transfer programs have also been halted. Similarly, data on both public and private investments shows market declines. Private investors are more inclined to invest in stock markets, property or digital industries.
The farmers’ struggle is a very remarkable movement as the country’s “strongman” Modi, with all the power at his disposal, is still unable to contain it. The movement has garnered international solidarity. Students’ organizations, trade unions and civil society are also participating in solidarity. The ever-growing farmer’s movement is attracting large sections of population. Despite all its heroism and bravado there are some visible movement limitations. Although communist parties and trade unions are participating, they lack a decisive action or program.
Critical limitations of the struggle
It is clear that the peasantry does have critical limitations. It includes different layers from some big landowners to medium landowners and poor landless agricultural laborers. There are tangible weaknesses. Only six percent of the farmers can sell their produce directly to government agencies. A large portion of farmers still consists of landless farmers. According to a 2015-16 agriculture ministry survey, more than 85 percent of farmers have less than two hectares (five acres) of land. Fewer than one in 100 farmers own over 10 hectares. Debt among farmers is rising. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development reported in 2018 that 52.5 percent of all agricultural households were indebted with an average debt of $1,470. Suicides among farmers are rampant; National Crime Records Bureau suggests that every day 28 farmers commit suicide in India. The top six states, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Chhattisgarh account for 83 per cent of all the farmers’ suicides. Due to the large informal Indian economy, most of the hard-earned farmers’ profits go to paying off high-interest rate debts to private moneylenders. In the end, the farmer ends up selling his land to pay off the debts.
The leadership of the current movement wants to confine the struggle to the demands of the landed farmers only. Their demands do not take into account the interests of poor peasants, agriculture laborers and artisans. They have little or no concern for issues like minimum wage rates, debt forgiveness, natural calamities relief, or water shortages. Many small landholders also work in big cities to as kitchen and restaurant. Recently, COVID lockdowns have rendered the worst effects on their livelihoods. While the Indian State attempted to destroy the feudal system by abolishing the Zamindari system in the country, even today many regions and areas of the county act to perpetuate the oppressive feudal system. In large parts of India, remnants of worst slavery are still visible.
While the nationalist elements aim to confine this movement to the interests of the tiny fraction of farmers’ community, the movement has sought to more broadly align with working class, agricultural laborers and other layers of society on a clear class based program. It is no doubt that this movement has given an enormous impetus to recent struggles. Indian workers are already struggling against privatization, controversial amendments in labor laws, and declining wages. The 24-hour strike was an initial and vital expression of worker-farmer unity. But of the need to consolidate India’s diverse struggles into large decisive long-term movements remains a critical future objective.
Indian communist parties are participating in strikes, protests and movements but their role is more akin to spectators rather than leading vanguard forces. It is always the working class that can lead other layers of society for a significant radical change. But communist parties today have largely reduced themselves to electoral politics; any challenge to the capitalist order itself is far from their agenda.
India has a rich history of working-class and peasantry revolts. During the colonial era peasant revolts shook the very core of British imperialism. Even “Independent India” has seen many tremendous farmers’ movements. However, the degeneration of the left has allowed room for the emergence of guerrilla outfits like the Naxal movement that emerged from the peasant movements but later spurned political struggle in favor of isolating guerrilla warfare tactics.
The current farmer’s movement has shaken the very core of Indian society. The bravery of farmers and their allies has set new precedents. Today, the unity of the working class and farmers is on the agenda. Turning this movement into an open challenge to capitalist rule, engaging India’s vast millions to defend their own interests, can pave the way to a revolutionary struggle to replace minority capitalist rule with a socialist society that preferences human needs as opposed to capitalist catastrophe.
*Featured Image: Sikh Americans in St. Paul, Minnesota demonstrate in solidarity with striking Indian farmers on December 13, 2020. (Photo: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)