By Battini Rao*
Farmers’ agitation against the three agrarian laws of the Modi government has snowballed into a major political challenge to the regime. When important institutions of the state like the parliament, and the criminal justice system including judiciary have been systematically hollowed out, and opposition political parties are falling to regime’s moneybags and threats, it is important that large sections of the rural people of India have taken a stand, and are standing as bulwark against government’s transgressions.
Modi government has been monumentally shameless, perfidious and vindictive in its aggression. When the ordinary people of the country were suffering from corona epidemic, economic downturn and unemployment, this government found the moment opportune to force the three agrarian laws on Indian peasantry. It did the same with labor laws.
In its arrogance, it thought that suffering people will fail to organize protests, and even if they do, its police will be able to contain them through brute force. Police of BJP ruled sates of Haryana and UP did try that. They erected concrete barricades, dug up roads, used water cannon and tear gas to stop farmers from marching towards the national capital.
However, the brave farmers of India, particularly form the northern state of Punjab and Haryana, have shown that the political machinations and aggression of even the most authoritarian rulers cannot break the will of the people. Now, when farmers have blocked important entry points to the national capital, the regime, its godi media, and digital goondas are following their time tested dirty tricks and spreading falsehoods against protesting farmers.
Their communal mouth-pieces have tried to brand protestors from Punjab as Khalistanis. Simultaneously regime’s mercenary intellectuals are trying to argue that protests are limited to pampered rich farmers who do not want to lose state subsidies on MSPs, fertilizers and electricity bills. Against such dirty politics of the regime stands the solidarity of farmers, and their will to struggle for what is rightfully theirs.
The significance of farmers’ struggle actually goes beyond opposition to the three agrarian laws of Modi regime. These laws are motivated by the neo-liberal agenda of the Indian ruling establishment, which has been followed by all governments in the past three decades. What distinguishes Modi regime is its complete disregard of popular opposition, its ruthlessness and eagerness to exploit every opportunity.
While earlier governments had to negotiate this agenda politically, the electoral successes of Modi government’s hatred-filled Hindutva politics have meant that it sees no need for such negotiations. It has reduced parliament to a rubber stamp. It has torn the federal structure of the Indian state to bits. It has used central government agencies to target state governments, passed laws like the three farm laws which violate the constitutional division of legislative powers between center and states, and broken up and turned the state of Jammu and Kashmir into union territories without the consent of its assembly.
A pliant judiciary has greatly helped it in these misdemeanours. Modi regime is the union of three most anti-people currents of Indian politics and economy. Authoritarian centralization of state power, revanchist nationalism and communalism, and neo-liberal crony capitalism are its three planks. Farmers’ protest hits at all the three. These are a direct challenge to the hold of a pro-corporate cabal on state economic policy. Hundreds of thousands of farmers sitting on national highways for three weeks in biting cold have shown that popular mobilizations relying on the organized strength of people at large, and under principled leadership can successfully counter authoritarian state power. The failure of regime propaganda against protestors shows that Indians are not buying every fascist falsehood.
Neo-liberalism is the class attack of the rich and the privileged against working people, and it works at diverse levels. Its first target is economic functions of the state, which are used to weaken the bargaining power of working people. ‘Reforms’, ‘deregulation’,‘market freedom’ etc. are ideological tools to confuse people.
Hired intellectuals and establishment media retail these notions to cover up the way neo-liberal economic policies strengthen the rich, and dis-empower the poor. Markets provide freedom to sell and buy. However, buyers and sellers enter market along with their already endowed economic and social power. There cannot be any equality between a wage worker who has to sell his/her capacity to work to survive, and a fat capitalist who buys labour power for the sake of earning more profit.
A small farmer has little equality in market dealings with big corporations which deal with thousands of farmers, and hence have the real freedom to pick and choose. Since the private ‘freedom’ to buy and sell has an inbuilt bias towards the powerful, the latter want it to remain a private affair. On the other hand, the weaker parties in market have always tried to put out their conditions of subjugation into the public domain.
Protests, marches, strikes, or riots are diverse ways through which the weak try to bring their condition in the public domain, so that the public authority is forced to take remedial measures. Laws for minimum wage, workers’ safety, trade union organizing, and market regulation, and against child labour, and alienation of land from peasants are different policies that people who otherwise are at the mercy of the bigger fish in‘free’ market, have forced state to undertake.
Farming for market is an especially precarious activity.Production is linked with plant life cycles and weather. Any disruption in either of the two can play havoc with production.Demand for agricultural produce on the other hand is inelastic. Demand for food cannot be satisfied by any other product, nor can excess agricultural production be consumed in alternate ways. Prices crash even with little over production, while they sky rocket at the whiff of a shortage.
Hoarders, traders, stockists and speculators regularly make a killing in agricultural commodities markets. Marginal, small and middle farmers, who use their own and their family labour in production, are caught in the cycle of crop to crop debt. They have no capacity to hold their produce, and are at the receiving end of market forces, both when production is good, as well as when it is bad.
Pauperisation is an ever present danger. Agrarian distress has broken millions of farmers in capitalist India. Finding no way out, many have committed suicide.Even the colonial government thought it better to intervene in agrarian economy. It passed laws to stop dispossession of peasant land by money lenders and traders.
What distinguishes Modi regime is its complete disregard of popular opposition, its ruthlessness and eagerness to exploit every opportunity
In essence this is what the MS Swaminathan Commission of 2004-06 advocated. Besides recommending that the MSP should be 50% above the production cost, it called for assured and remunerative market opportunities, and an agricultural produce market within a 5 km radius. However, as soon as the threat of mass starvation due to insufficient grain production was overcome, Indian state did not extend such measures to other parts of the country.
Farmers in most of the country were deprived of one set of policies which had helped stabilize increased productivity in the north-western part of the country. Despite high yields in Punjab, the average crop yields in India are about half of those in China, where family farms are even smaller than in India. Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia — all these countries have higher yields than India.
A common argument against the MSP and the existing pattern of grain procurement is that godowns of government owned FCI are over flowing with grains. This is also used to show that India is self-sufficient in agricultural production. This is a complete lie.
The most recent family health survey has shown that close to one third Indian children are malnourished, underweight and stunted. Food godowns in India are overflowing because the Indian government does not care if a significant proportion of Indians, including children, go hungry every day.
At the minimum, India needs to produce double the quantity of grains it produces now to properly feed its people.Public expenditure in agricultural infrastructure, and assured markets and prices to incentivize production are urgently needed to fulfil this dire need. Both positive and negative lessons from the institutional arrangements which expanded grain production in the north-west of India need to be learnt, and their successes replicated in other parts of the country.
Modi regime’s farm laws are meant to precisely undo these institutional arrangements. Their aim is to create a completely unregulated private market in agricultural products in which big capitalists with deep pockets have a free run at the cost of Indian peasantry. It should be noted that at present only about one fourth of the agricultural produce is routed through state regulated mandis, and receives some form of MSP. However, this is the most productive sector of Indian agriculture.
Most of the trade in agricultural produce in other parts of the country is already in private hands.Free markets in farm produce here have done no wonders to increase farm income and productivity. Big capital is not much interested in these markets. How much profit they can extract from an already squeezed peasantry, which barely survives at subsistence level! Their target are the most productive sectors of Indian agriculture.
Modi government is committed to fulfill monopoly capitalist greed. Its farm laws are tailor made for this purpose. These laws create a favourable terrain for private trade, as it will be free from any public regulation, and would not pay any transaction fees and local taxes. Any dispute between farmers and traders/capitalists will be settled at the level of corrupt lower bureaucracy with judicial recourse available only at the level of high courts and supreme court. How many farmers can afford this?
The first mantra of the neoliberal fascist agenda of Indian rulers is private loot at the expense of public welfare. In the pursuit of this aim, if the relatively successful parts of the economy, like the highly productive farming sector in the north-west of the country, need to be destroyed, so be it. Modi regime is the most aggressive and violent agent of Corporate houses. It has no public morality. It shamelessly spreads lies, and tries to divide people. Indian farmers have seen through its dirty game.
However, it will also be suicidal to overlook this regime’s social base. All economically, socially and culturally privileged strata of Indian society, urban svarna castes, and richer classes of the society are behind the union of Hindutva, neoliberalism and centralized authoritarianism forged by this regime. Enough Indians have bought into Hindutva fascist fold to see violence against minorities, degeneration of institutions of governance, and declining economy as normal state of affairs. They are ready to clap for all vainglorious follies of the leader, even while they end up suffering due to his misdeeds.
India is fast sliding towards fascism. Popular mobilisations of farmers, workers, youth, students and enlightened citizenry are urgently needed all over India to stop and reverse this slide. As the history of Germany and Italy shows, once societies get stuck in fascist trap, they come out of it only after wholesale disaster. Will farmers’ agitation enlighten further resistance to neoliberalism, Hindutva and the Modi regime? Or, will it prove to be a temporary flare in the road to darkness?
All left-progressive organisations, democratic forces and citizens of India should come out in support of the ongoing farmers’ protest against agrarian laws and authoritarian rule of the Modi government. This is the moment to forge a practical unity of organized and unorganised working class, peasantry, youth and democratic citizenry. Modi regime represents the most reactionary, anti-people fascist forces in Indian society. Only such a unity with socialist goal can defeat these forces and take Indians towards a democratic and prosperous future.
*President of Progressive Organization of People (POP)