Current agrarian protests in India against new neoliberal legislation

(A Planeta) (*) (Spanish) (Basque)

Since November 26, India has been experiencing large-scale agrarian mobilizations. They are opposed to three laws passed in September by the government, although they are the result of years of anger over neo-liberal policies against the sector. The laws favor large transnational corporations to the detriment of small farmers. As soon as the laws were passed, the unions began to organize local protests, and in November they started the movement called Dilli Chalo («Let’s go to Delhi»). Hundreds of thousands of farmers marched to the nation’s capital against the land laws, but were heavily repressed to prevent them from entering the city.

Today, January 13, Dilli Chalo entered its 49th day, arguably one of the largest in recent Indian history. A participant in one newspaper rightly referred to it as «the second battle of Independence».1 The mobilized people and their representatives in negotiations with the government have made it clear: either the government withdraws the four laws or they will not stop. On January 8, the 8th round of negotiations ended without this requirement being met.

In addition, the protest is facing the coronavirus but also a cold (16º during the day, 5º at night) that is leaving its mark. By January 4, 2021 (40th day of mobilizations), 60 protesters had already died, mainly from the cold, but also from heart attacks and accidents. Delhi Chalo is therefore remarkable not only for the number of days and the number of people participating, but also for the balance and commitment shown.

Precisely “the unwavering resolve of the protesters and the broad unity it has generated” was applauded by the People’s Coalition for Food Sovereignty in the message of solidarity with the people mobilized in Delhi Chalo, January 11, 20212. PCFS asserts that «The Delhi Chalo is a testament to the power of the rural peoples in asserting food sovereignty and resisting anti-people state policies. It is the energy that we need as we face the many imminent challenges this year with the worsening crisis due to the ongoing pandemic as well as the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit”.

The three outraging laws

The agrarian protests against the government are aimed at preventing three laws passed in September from being overturned. The laws would favour large transnational corporations to the detriment of small farmers. As soon as they were passed, the unions began to organize local protests, and in November they started the movement called «Dilli Chalo» («Let’s go to Delhi»). Tens of thousands of farmers marched to the nation’s capital against the land laws but were heavily repressed to keep them out.

On November 26, a nationwide general strike took place. About 250 million people participated. On December 4 the government and the farmers held negotiations, but the government did not accept the demands. Then on December 8, 2020 the farmers escalated into a nationwide strike. The transporters joined in, threatening not to supply the markets. From December 12, the farmers took tolls. The government offered some amendments to the laws, but the unions demanded their complete repeal. From then until now (December 22) they have kept the protests out of Delhi. Today also, hundreds of farmers from Maharashtra marched to Delhi to join those from Punjab and Haryana. The balance of the mobilizations is at least 30 farmers dead, hundreds injured (including 1 by suicide, 4 deaths by accidents, 10 deaths by heart attack and 1 by cold).

The new laws were introduced when the containment of COVID-19 was still in effect, as part of the financial stimulus package. What the agricultural sector and others needed were relief measures to overcome the period of restrictions (imposed by the government or self-imposed due to the nature of the virus). The rejected bills are:

  • APMC (Agricultural Products Market Committee) Cancellation Act: allows, for the first time, trade of agricultural products outside the mandis (markets) regulated by the APMC, allowing the proliferation of private mandis throughout the country, which will then be able to control prices and then the market.

  • Contract Farming Law: this is a legislative framework that allows for an agreement between the farmer and the buyer before planting at a predetermined price. Experiences show an increase in indebtedness, and therefore, in patterns of inequality. A risk of indebtedness leads to loss of land and concentration.

  • Food Hoarding Law (freedom for businesses): seeks to eliminate the arbitrary and periodic limits on stocks of agricultural products that the government imposed on traders. Instead of arbitrary triggers, the new law introduces price triggers to be used only in «exceptional circumstances. Stock limits can now be imposed only when the prices of perishable products increase by more than 100% and those of non-perishable products by more than 50% in the last year. These limits have been violated a total of 69 times in the last 10 years.

The proposed agrarian laws lead to greater control of the labor and agricultural market by large corporations. Such control over farmers and workers’ lives will have far-reaching consequences on commodity prices, the financial structure, wages, public health and the environment. Farmers and workers are both producers and consumers. Such control will provide total power in the hands of a few companies, leaving most farmers and workers in an unimaginable position of helplessness.

An issue not directly addressed in the laws is the Minimum Support Price (MSP) which is announced for 23 crops but actually only applies to 2 (wheat and rice) in Punjab and Haryana. Peasant leaders have said that the protests will not end until this demand is met. The demand for this legislation goes back to the protests and marches of 2018. In August 2018, a bill to this effect, drafted by the All India Kisan Sangharsh (Peasant Struggle) Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), an umbrella organization of several hundred farmers’ organizations across the country, was introduced in parliament. The AIKSCC was formed in the wake of the Mandsaur agitation of 2017 and continues to lead the current agitation. After 2018, the farmers’ protests calmed down, but these new laws have triggered them again now.

Another controversial law is the Electricity Amendment, still under discussion. Farmers in several states now benefit from subsidized electricity rates. But the governments of the respective states pay the DISCOMs (the electricity distribution companies) the remaining amount on an irregular basis. Currently, the balances of payments are in arrears. With the new law, farmers will pay in full and the state government will transfer the subsidy to them. But the farmers fear that it will not work again, anThe weight of agriculture in the Indian economy (and politics)d that they will get into debt again.

The government has recently passed four labor codes. One of the promises of these reforms was to recognize the more than 400 million informal workers who have been ignored by all governments to date. The government didn’t fulfil its promise.

Women driving tractors to the  protest

The weight of agriculture in the Indian economy (and politics)

India is one of the BRICS, that block of emerging countries that after the US financial debacle in 2008 seemed to be the new economic power: Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC), and where South Africa was added then to them. In 2018 India became the 5th economy in the world ahead of the United Kingdom, but according to the GDP per capita, it is in 124th position.

Like every country in the world, it has continued to be a target of neo-liberalism. Perhaps, at present, seeing it immersed in the struggle of the peasants against the new laws, we can conclude that that capacity projected by the economists of becoming a power, resulted in this ambition to privatize, industrialize and sell itself even more to the transnational market. Despite its spiritual heritage, India is a territory of structural conflict with the most unequal and pro-capitalist system, a continuation of colonization and of that caste system that prevails throughout the country. Recent publications show that what the British Empire extracted from India is equivalent to almost 37 trillion euros (3,329 billion Indian Rupees). But that plundering has continued. It continues.

It continues at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata (BJP), or Indian People’s Party, a nationalist and right-wing party, which currently governs at the hands of Narendra Modi. Modi represents fundamentalist Hinduism, and neo-liberalism in terms of privatization, elite favouritism, economic concentration, inequality and also strong militarism and repression of the opposition and minorities, especially with the Dalit or lower caste population, known as «untouchables». As nationalist, they uses the disqualification of «anti-national» to delegitimize and justify repression against human rights and environmental organizations.

Like all big nationalism, especially being right-wing, it evokes the nation as a whole but prioritizes its elite, using people for their benefit. In India an elite has emerged in recent years, and it has an extreme connection with the current Modi government, because they are all from Gujarat and the government has benefited them in blatant cases of cronyism (Adani took over the privatized airports even though he has never operated those infrastructures).

Photo: Shivangi Bhasin

Many observers in India see the «Gujarati connection» as nepotism, and argue that this government is rescuing the country for the rich even more than its predecessors. . And that elite is an elite indeed, because at its apex there are only two people: Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani. Adani owns mining companies, gas companies, ports, now airports too, and, be careful, because in addition to the coal-fired thermal power plants, one of his most profitable lines is his renewable energy company, Adani Green Energy, which is now planning 8 GW solar power plants. Ambani with 66.000 million dollars is the richest person in India, followed by Adani with 32.400 million. When Modi won the election he flew from Gujarat to New Delhi in Adani’s private jet. Adani has increased his wealth by 230% (over $26 billion) since Modi is in government.

His achievements in the previous legislation also explain the current situation of agrarian revolt, with a rise in unemployment (he hid his figures in view of the elections so that they would not affect his reelection), as well as a debt greater than that collected by the previous government by 50%. In his third year in office (2016), he carried out a demonetization that caused losses of 29 billion euros, and that hit the agricultural sector especially hard. It meant the non-payment of 150 million day labourers. This caused the death of a hundred people. Obviously, it provoked many protests and strikes. Also in December last year, a year ago, there were protests against the Citizenship Law and other reforms. Several activists were killed in the protests.

Agrarian protests in India and especially in Punjab date back 120 years, being central in the opposition to British rule and the insurgency in Punjab, and have also been so during these years of Modi’s government. To begin with, in June 2017 farmers were unhappy that the Modi campaign and the BJP’s 2014 promise that they could make a 50% profit on their production costs had not been fulfilled. Farmers in western Madhya Pradesh protested for several days. In December, agricultural prices collapsed for the second year in a row. The protests increased after the deaths of 6 farmers and more than 20 injured by police bullets. In 2018 they spread throughout the country to demand remunerative prices for their products and freedom from debt. As now, 50,000 people marched the long march (180 km) from Kisan to Mumbai on October 12. In December another march reached parliament in Delhi. This march got the agreement of the Maharashtra government. But when it did not materialize, it led to the long march from Kisan on February 27, 2019.

Yes, India is the scene of great struggles against the extractivist model, against the export model, sold-outs. Against large mining projects, against large energy projects, against large agro-forestry production projects and against the takeover of fishing by corporations. The large monocultures that are imposed on the South, and that pass like a roller through the lands of small farmers and the ecosystems, to be exported and consumed in the North. India is the sixth largest importer of food in the world. These are policies imposed by the big financial institutions, and taken up by national governments and local institutions as a way of making quick money. But in the long run, these decisions are dire because they mean losing food sovereignty, losing ecological heritage, losing food quality, losing ancient culture.

But above all these decisions contradict the current proposals for change related to the climate emergency, which are none other than to produce locally and consume locally in order to avoid transport and emissions. But also to produce at a smaller level, in varied production, in an ecological way or even integrated with ecosystems, so that there are also less emissions in other ways and less impacts. Because, as WHO adviced, we should consume, and therefore also produce more vegetables, instead of products for fattening animals that are also elsewhere. In addition, this model imposes an industrialized and unified model, that also involves a labor model in which workers are surplus and everything can be done with more machines, energy and technology. The peasants become disposable.

For them, this model does not propose alternatives either. Likewise, it is not only the climate crisis, but also the other crises that coincide at this time, the most notable being Covid-19, which in India has had such an enormous effect on health and economy: at the beginning of the pandemic we learned that we have to listen to the Earth, care for the environment and live within the local, caring for our close and community nucleus. We still remember the images of repression at the beginning of implementation of the lock-down rules in India, because a big percentage of population lives outside of the regulated economy. Shadow economy in India adds for 450 million people, and poverty is calculated as 800 millions. An obvious result of these new laws and policies related to farming will be the worsening even more those numbers, meaning a social disaster. The new controversial laws are the development from the market deregulation imposed by Modi after the lock-down. Modi government chose to withdraw state intervention and deregulate the agriculture market to leave people in complete disarray.

And we also have the economic crisis that we have already mentioned, which on a global level began in 2008 but which in many other countries occurred much earlier, on other levels, and from which we had not yet recovered. That crisis was caused above all by that model, that way of influencing territories, in concentrating production and delocalizing both the product and the labor force as well as capital, in order to concentrate profits even more. It was provoked by speculation.

     In Indian agriculture, the texts and statistics divide it into 3 sections that say a lot about its aim, and also the reason for this resistance: food crops, cash crops and plantation crops. The first section includes all the crops that make up India’s rich food (“rich” in both senses): wheat, rice, maize, millet, legumes. Above all, although we tend to standardise things, varying a lot from one region to another, because in that too, India is very rich in climates. And you could subdivide or add to that the horticultural crops (fruit and vegetables). But if we go to the other two (commercial and plantation) we understand that many are consumed by the Indian population itself, but most are for export, and they play a very important role both in its economy and in the food and world economy. The commercial ones include sugar cane (much now used for bioethanol, as fuel), tobacco, cotton and oil seeds such as peanuts, rapeseed or mustard. And in the plantation ones, tea, coffee, coconut, rubber and others. Exportation crops.

Another aspect of the Indian labor system is the presence of agricultural cooperatives. These were developed within the Land Reform, as a point at which Gandhi and Nerhu as well as the socialists and communists agreed. They have had different phases of development, and we also find them of different typology. They are subdivided into four: better agriculture, tenant farming, joint farming and collective farming. Some also grew into what they call false cooperatives, which maintain their structure and name but operate under the control of one or a few people, or even other enterprises. And also subsidized by the state, which are also called «apathetic politicians», in which the institutions have had a preponderant role being in many moments contrary to the social and environmental interest. In many cases, the institutions have subsidized them in excess, creating dependency or control of the cooperatives, without the latter having achieved autonomy or sustainability. Cooperatives focus on the production of vegetables and fruit, but many also produce sugar cane and dairy products. In some cases they have acquired quasi-monopoly size, such as the Amul cooperative owned by 3.6 million milk producers. Because of its economic weight, its ties to the political world are also very strong. The largest sugar production area is the state of Maharashtra, where more than 25,000 agricultural cooperatives were established in the 1990s.

Prisoners (Photo: Shivangi Bhasin)

Protest has another characteristic also relevant in India, and to its multiculturalism (22 languages spoken). In this case, most of the protesting farmers are Sikhs, because the strength of the protest is concentrated in the Punjab, the traditional home of the Sikhs. The Punjab is where most of the country’s wheat is produced, which is why it is known as the «breadbasket» of India, which makes it so prosperous. Because of this prosperity, the Sikh community is also one of the most informed and advanced, socially and politically in the country. The community is characterized by its religion, of which the men have long beards and hair gathered in those turbans, which are now replicated in so many pictures of the protests. Sikhism was an important reform movement of Hinduism in which principles and morality are of extreme importance.

By Mir Suhail

The changes posed by the new laws are none other than those of deepening industrial agriculture. This agriculture is not new in India, since the so-called «green revolution» was implemented after independence in the 1960s. The initial objective was supposed to meet the nutritional needs of the population. It is known that malnutrition and lack of access to food continues to be an endemic evil in India. For instance, at the present one third of the world’s malnourished children live in India. Perhaps we can find reasons for this in the model itself, which was promoted like in many other places of the world.

The introduction of industrial agriculture led to an inordinate devotion to productivism, which progressed to even more drastic forms, and to the export model that we know. This involved the loss of native varieties, loss of soil nutrients making it unproductive, as well as an increase in the presence of chemical residues in food and the environment, and unsustainable practices to obtain allegedly higher yields. But this also led to serious social problems such as the concentration of land ownership and production. Most small farmers had to industrialize in order to compete, but in the absence of economic means they were left with nothing but debt. When they got into debt, they sold their land to bigger farmers who concentrated land, production and power. Food inflation and the economic crisis also forced farmers out of agriculture. When India became independent in 1947, 90% of its population was living on agriculture for their livelihood. Today, 50% of the Indian population is engaged in agriculture (245 million), although according to FAO, 70% depend on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82% of small and marginal farmers.

The use of land for agricultural production also says a lot about how much it is used to meet their food needs, but also to export and to contribute to their economy: India is the country with the largest agricultural/livestock area in the world, followed by China and the US. The use of more land is detrimental to the environment and the population, since less land is used for other needs (from housing itself). But as we saw, using more land doesn’t mean to fullfill the needs of its population.

In India, this situation has caused and continues to cause the expulsion of farmers from the countryside to the cities. Due to their lack of training and resources, most of them end up joining the poor sectors. To all of them we must also add all the rural workers expelled by large projects and infrastructure. But many, faced with the unsustainable situation forced on them by agribusiness, choose to end their lives. The suicides of peasants have been a sad and unfortunately very widespread phenomenon in India. In recent years, however, they have multiplied. In 2019, at least 10,281 people working in the agricultural sector ended their lives, which would mean about 28 people per day, and an increase of 3.4% with respect to 2018. Of these, 86% were farmers with land, while 14% were landless. This phenomenon only speaks to the difficulties this sector is going through in India.

Because of all of this, Indian farmers have nothing else to do but protest and reclaim rights. And Because of all of this, from here we owe them our support.

Women in the farmers’ protests

Although many women have participated (sometimes exclusively), the demonstrations have been mainly led by men. The reason is well known: women take care of the family, a job that is even more important in a mobilization situation. Their role is being recognized and this mobilization also serves to empower them. The Samyunkta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body for farmers’ unions, issued a press release in January stating, «During the Supreme Court hearing it was said, «Why are women in this strike? Why are women and old people being kept in this strike? They should be asked to go home.» The Samyukta Kisan Morcha condemns such statements. The contribution of women to agriculture is unparalleled and this movement is also a women’s movement.»1

The National Council of Applied Economic Research highlighted the gender gap in land ownership in 2018: «Women account for more than 42% of the country’s agricultural labor force, signifying a growing feminization of agriculture, yet they own less than 2% of the land.» Other sources, such as the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), determine that nearly two-thirds of the female labor force is engaged in agriculture. During the big farmers’ march from Nasik to Mumbai in 2018, PARI picked up a story on women farmers, titled «They run the farm, they did the march.»

A tractor driving training day was organized for the young women farmers on January 4, as they plan another show of force on January 26, on the occasion of the Republic Day celebration. The aim is to show that everyone is against these laws, that women are also affected and oppose them.


2“In millions, we are one” (11 de enero de 2021)


(*) Thanks to Jai Sen, list administrator for the listserve World Social Movement Discuss (that was inspired by the World Social Forum) for his contributions and comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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