Mass Strikes and Farmer’s Protest in India


Farmer’s Protest

India is a vast country with a very large population of about 1.4 billion people. Of these about 70% live in the villages and nearly 30% live in towns. Nearly 40% of the rural population are peasants and another 40% would be landless workers.

Different parts of India we have different kinds of agrarian relations – in some parts feudal landlordism persists where large landlords give land on rent to peasant farmers; in most parts we have peasant farming combined with kulak (rich capitalist) farming. The vast majority are very small and marginal farmers who own less than one hectare per family. There is also a substantial section of middle farmers cultivating about 5 to ten hectares of land. Corporate farming is minimal in India confined to a large tea/coffee plantations in the hilly regions. We have ‘land ceiling laws’ which limit the amount of land an individual can own.

Some regions of India like the Punjab have turned to intensive production for market using irrigation and modern agricultural practices while many parts farmers cultivate crops using old methods mostly for self consumption and less for market. However, virtually all farmers today are linked to the market in varying degrees as they all depend upon inputs of fertilizers, diesel, pesticides and seeds which they have to buy. Most of them are indebted either to banks or private moneylenders for these inputs. While the large farmers manage to make some profit the small and middle farmers are unable to make ends meet and face loss of their only resource – the land.

Marketing produce is very vital for all kinds of farmers. Traditionally markets were controlled by large traders cum moneylenders. This control was broken in the 1970s with the establishment of government and farmer controlled regulated grain markets. The government promised the farmers a minimum price for their produce, and if the market price went below it the government purchased the produce at the minimum guaranteed price (MSP or ‘minimum support price’). This was for a few crops like major food grains, sugarcane etc and not for all crops. Corporate capital is involved in agriculture through control over pricing of inputs like machines, fertilisers and credit (bank loans). The balance of trade between farmers, industries and bank/moneylender is very unfavourable to farmers. Due to this farming has become more and more uneconomical for most farmers especially the small and medium sized farmers and recent decades saw a wave of suicides by farmers who could not repay loans across the country. For most farmers, industrial or other employment is out of question due to very slow growth of employment in these sectors and they have to depend upon agriculture for livelihood.

Indian government gradually withdrew investment in agriculture (in the form of irrigation projects, supply of fertilisers/seeds etc, and even extension of public banking institutions) from the 1990s. Instead, it wanted private corporate sector to do the investment. This meant many things – opening up the land market, decontrolling grain marketing, and allowing corporate houses greater freedom and undoing many laws which protected farmer interests. As a part of this the present government sought to decontrol the grain market by allowing corporate traders to purchase directly from farmers outside the controlled markets and also to gradually restrict or withdraw the MSP regime of agricultural pricing. The government used the Covid 19 pandemic to enact four laws without any public discussion. This ignited the mass farmer protests especially in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

There is no doubt that this movement of farmers is led by kulak segments, but it is largely supported by the small and marginal farmers as all of them are affected by the withdrawal of the MSP regime and face the prospect of being dispossessed. Even landless agricultural workers from many parts like Rajasthan have supported the movement.

The farmers have been conducting peaceful sit in strike on the borders of Delhi the capital of India ever since November 2020. (it continues to this day) The movement peaked in January on the eve of the Republic day (national holiday to commemorate the enforcement of democratic constitution in India). The government which was prepared to negotiate with the farmers initially and offered to suspend the operation of the new laws for a year has since refused to negotiate further and has launched an offensive against the protesting farmers saying that they are anti national.

The farmers have been supported by a wide spectrum of Indians like the university students, intellectuals, artists, etc. besides the opposition political parties. A variety of solidarity actions have been done across the country including rallies and marches in different cities and towns including Mumbai the financial hub of the country. Trade unions of workers too have expressed solidarity by calling for token strikes across the country.

Farmer’s Protest Movement in India

Millions of farmers have been conducting a sit in protest in the outskirts of the national capital, New Delhi since November 26th 2020. This is perhaps the largest ever peaceful sit in protest in world history. These are farmers mainly from the four neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The protesting farmers have kept open the door for negotiation and talks with the government. There have been several rounds of talks in which the government has offered amendments to some clause or the other of the three acts, but the farmers have been determined that the three acts must be scrapped and new laws enacted to replace them. There has been a deadlock on this issue since late January 2021.

The protesting farmers have been supported by rallies in different parts of the country, strikes by organised workers across the country. Workers, peasants, intelligentsia and artists and media persons have been actively supporting the farmer’s protest.

A hall mark of the Farmer’s protest has been to keep the conventional political parties at an arm’s length and a high degree of democratic decision making. Thus even though most of the opposition parties have supported the farmers, the farmer’s movement remains focussed on farmer’s issues.

Background – Growing agrarian crisis

71% of Indian Population lives in villages. Of these 50-60% are farmers and 30% are landless agricultural labourers.

Vast majority of Indian farmers are small farmers who own less than one hectare of land: they constitute about 86% of all farmers.

Despite being the main source of employment to the teeming millions, agriculture only contributes about 17-19% of the GDP. In other words, less than 20% of the GDP is available for distribution among 70% of the population.

Thus, despite significant economic growth, the benefits of the growth do not go to the farmers.

A major reason for this state of affairs is the shrinking investment in agriculture by the state and growing gap between Industrial and agricultural prices with the cost of inputs going up and the cost of agricultural produce not keeping pace.

This has been the trend ever since the country adopted neo-liberal economic policies of opening India to the world market and increasing privatisation in the 1990s.

The result is acute agrarian crises which has forced a large number of farmers to commit suicide and sell off their land.

The decades of growth 1950-1990

Agriculture was a major sector for investment in the early decades of independence after 1950. Large dams were built to provide irrigation and power supply and industries were built by the state for providing fertilisers and other inputs.

In the 1960s and 1970s the state encouraged rapid commercialisation of agriculture by providing technical support, bank credit and market support in the form of assuring minimum support price to major crops and regulating the rural market system in favour of the farmers and reduce the power of traders. This led to the Green Revolution which transformed Indian agriculture as India became self sufficient in food crop production.

The state purchased substantial part of farmer’s produce to create state buffer and provide subsidised food grains to the poor and thus ensure food security.

This eventually benefitted large sections of the peasantry including the middle level farmers.

The Neo liberal policies seek to reverse all this – as the state has stopped investment in agriculture, and the banks have reduced operation and the state has deregulated the pricing of diesel etc and opened the agricultural market for international competition, the middle and marginal farmers are increasingly facing crisis.

The Right Wing Government and Agrarian Crisis

The new government which came to power in 2015 began by trying to change laws to enable grabbing of agricultural land by corporate entities. This was given up after stiff resistance.

Using the unsettled state of the pandemic the government passed three laws in the Parliament without adequate discussion or public consultation. These are;29

1. ‘The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020’, deals with the trade areas of farmers’ produce. It permits sale and purchase of farm produce outside the premises of regulated markets without any market fee, cess or levy. It includes electronic trading and e-commerce of farm produce.

The farmers believe that once the law comes into effect the regulated agricultural produce markets will be abolished ending their minimum support price benefits as well.

2. ‘Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020’. The law scraps the state’s powers to impose stock-holding limits on food items like cereals, pulses, potato, onion, edible oilseeds and oils, removing them from the list of essential commodities, except under extraordinary conditions or in case of a steep price hike.

The two laws in combination allow corporate agribusiness houses to store unlimited amount of agricultural produce and thus control the agricultural markets.

3. Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020’, provides a legal framework for contract farming. In which the farmers can enter into agreements with agri-business firms, retailers or exporters for their produce at a mutually agreed price before the planting seasons. Given the fact that most farmers are small farmers with land holdings less than one acre they will be at the mercy of the large agricultural corporations. Significantly the law does not allow recourse to courts of law in case of disputes.

The cumulative impact of the three laws is to encourage private large agricultural corporations to intervene in agricultural sector hitherto kept protected. Farmers in general feel that they will be at the mercy of the corporate sector and eventually forced to alienate their lands to them. They want the state to continue to play an important role in protecting the small and medium farmers’s interests.

Working Class

As noted above the bulk of Indian working class is in the rural sector working as landless agricultural workers. They are mostly not unionised and work without any legal protection, even though there is a law which guarantees minimum wages. However there is no machinery to enforce this law. As a part of the neo liberal reforms which caused much rural distress and unemployment, the government enacted the Rural Employment Guarantee Act under which the government is supposed to ensure a minimum employment of about a hundred days in a year. This too is implemented only in a few districts for want of funds. On an average Rural workers work for 46 to 58 hours a week (that is 8 hours for all days of the week) but earn only Rs.3000/ to Rs 4000/ per month. This amounts to about Rs. 20 to Rs 30 per hour. Some idea can be gleaned of its value by the fact that one Kilogram of wheat flour costs Rs. 20 in the retail market.

The urban working class is highly differentiated, with a small minority which is in the so called organised sector with formal employment. This only constitutes about 5-7% of the working class. This segment is the most organised, with trade unions, security of tenure, access to social security and legal protection. Most of the labour laws apply only to this segment. The vast bulk of the working class (nearly 95%) is in the so called informal sector or unorganised sector, which contains both workers in unregistered enterprises and workers working as contract or casual labourers in the registered enterprises. What is common to all of them is that they have no legal protection, or access to social security and are largely unorganised as the trade unions generally do not take up their cause.

The informal sector consists of ‘self employed’ workers who are hired for specific services by others, or who may run small shops on the pavements vending food or articles of daily consumption. Then there are casual workers who are hired on a daily basis and contract workers who are indirectly employed by large enterprises through contractors. Women workers are mostly engaged as domestic help again without any legal protection. All of them typically are not unionised, without any legal rights or protection or social security. They are doubly oppressed as most of them also are from the castes discriminated against. They work for an average of 40 to 60 hours a week earning about anywhere between Rs 10 per hour (for casual women workers) to Rs 60 for the self employed workers.

This brief outline of the Indian working class will give an idea of the state of things in India, which may really be very different from any other country except the Scandinavian and west European countries.

Usually reports of ‘massive strikes’ in India are misleading. These strikes are not real mass strikes or general strikes (except in very rare cases) but token strikes called by the official unions to protest against some policy of the government. Since these unions claim vast membership a part of it may really join the strike action, but the vast majority of even unionised workers simply ignore them. Yet the unions claim that
all members joined the strike. Usually it follows a pattern: the strikes in states ruled by the opposition political parties are usually more successful as they get support from the government in power in that state against the central government. In the states ruled by the parties allied with the central government, the strikes are usually a failure.

Nevertheless, workers go on genuine strikes and other forms of protest action but these largely go unreported. These are still localised and small actions protesting against the anti labour practices of the employers.

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