India: farmers rise up against reactionary agriculture bills

Farmers in India launched a protest movement days after the government passed three reactionary agricultural bills in the parliament on 20 September 2020. This article will explore the Farm Bills, the struggle of Indian farmers, capitalist anarchy in agriculture and the revolutionary way forward.

Initial protests were observed across 20 states. It is reported that flash protests erupted in about 10,000 locations, involving 15,000,000 farmers revolting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Farm Bills: from Punjab to Bengal, and from Bihar to Tamil Nadu. The most substantial protests happened in the agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana. Other areas with big protests included Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which are also considered important states for agriculture. Protests were also held by organisations not associated with farmers. On 25 September, all the farmers and workers protesting in solidarity observed a Bharat Bandh (literally: ‘shutting down’) – a complete cessation of all public and private work in a handful of states.

Farmers have been protesting against attacks by the state for many years, but the current protests are a step up in both quantity and quality. Protest tactics include sit-ins, political rallies, gate closures of warehouses, railway track blockades and – at least in some places – piling burning tyres on roads. The Bharatiya Kisan Union in Punjab is besieging factory gates and facilities run by large corporations, including grain stores, toll plazas and power plants. Other farmers’ organisations, including the Kirti Kisan Union, Azaad Kisan Sangharsh Committee and Kisan Sangharsh Committee staged a joint protest and a sit-in outside the houses of Manoranjan Kalia and Hans Raj Hans in Jalandhar, and Shwait Malik in Amritsar, Punjab, all members of parliament for the ruling BJP. The Hindustan Times reported that farmers closed down gas stations and other businesses run by Reliance Petroleum and the Essar Group in over 20 locations. In Moga city in Punjab, protestors stormed and occupied granaries and crop warehouses run by the large capitalist conglomerate, the Adani Group.

In Haryana, farmers from Bharatiya Kisan Union blocked roads. The Times of India reported that farmers staged sit-ins in Kurukshetra, Ambala and Yamunanagar, blocking national highways that run through the entire state, as well as train tracks. Despite the warnings from Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of the liberal-secular, pro-capitalist Congress Party, the railway blockades were continued by the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee in Amritsar.

Central leaders from the BJP (Modi’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist party) ordered state-elected officials to visit farmers regions and explain to them the benefits of the new bills. When the MPs from the BJP visited their constituencies in Haryana, they were met with fiery slogans and black flags waved in their faces. In utter humiliation, the BJP MPs accused the Indian National Congress (INC) of inciting the farmers. INC is a party that is anti-worker and anti-farmer to its core, and was keeping itself away from the farmers’ protests until recently, when it offered symbolic statements in favour of the farmers. In an embarrassing u-turn, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD): a right-wing, Sikh-centric party that has ruled Punjab for decades and is currently in coalition with central BJP, also staged sit-ins with their members outside several BJP leaders houses.

On 29 September, representatives from 31 farmers’ organisations and unions met with Amarinder Singh. The Chief Minister had nothing to offer to them except hollow words, saying that he will take the matter to the supreme court. After listening to the Chief Minister’s un-assuring speech, farmers decided to escalate their struggle, starting in October 2020, under the banner of the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC, a national farmers’ organisation). AIKSCC decided to reject all offers of talks with the government unless the bills are withdrawn. They plan a complete lockdown of the national capital Delhi in November. The AIKSCC leadership states that they will continue to fight with or without political support from any of the mainstream parties.

Why are farmers protesting?

Two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population depend on farming for their livelihoods. India’s agricultural sector makes up around 17 percent of the nation’s total economic output, amounting to about $2.3 trillion. The three bills introduced and passed by the Modi government on 20 September are The Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020, the Farmer’s (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020.

The bills reduce middlemen and traders’ intervention in agriculture, and directly encourage large corporations to deal with farmers – all in the name of providing farmers with the freedom to sell and purchase produce. The bill allows farmers to deal with large corporations outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), which guarantees a minimum support price (MSP) to the farm producers. MSP is a kind of universal basic income for farmers: a guaranteed minimum price to be paid to a farmer for his produce. Companies dealing with farmers outside the APMC can get around MSP, and such outside dealings are incentivised in the bills with tax breaks. The bills also encourage hoarding without any limits on quantity or time, further increasing the types of crops that can be stockpiled. Futures contracts are also facilitated, through which all types of speculative vultures are welcomed into the sector. It is clear that these bills were crafted to give capitalists a free ride to exploit farmers.

This is not the first time the Indian government has sought to liberalise Indian agriculture. During successive Congress governments, such attempts were also made. Liberalisation efforts by the previous governments over many years have trapped farmers in a vicious cycle of a growing cost of cultivation, high level of uncertainty over crop outputs, suppression of crop prices, increased debts and a lack of modern farming techniques, as we will explain later.

Past farmer protests

This is also not the first time farmers have protested. Major demands raised by farmers’ protests over the years remain the same, namely loan waivers and an increase in MSP for their produce. There has been a rapid increase in both the number of farmers’ protests and their intensity. Farmers protested in November 2019 against the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), aiming at slashing import duties for many agricultural products, devastating local farmers. In February 2019, farmers protested against the government plan to install a $44 billion oil refinery in Maharashtra through destroying mango and cashew nut farms belt, along with coastal fishing.

In December 2018, farmers protested against high debt levels in the Congress-led Rajasthan state. As a result, in the run up to elections, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi promised loan waivers of up to 200,000 rupees ($2700). To date, the promise has not been fulfilled, and farmers have been pushed further into debt. In September 2018, farmers paralysed Delhi and demanded better loan waivers, lower fuel prices, a better MSP and an end to privatisation. Protestors were met with water cannon and police brutality. Other notable farmers’ protests happened in 2016 in Delhi. This happened when Karnataka State refused to release Cauvery river water to Tamil Nadu, triggering severe water distress and crop failures, leading to the highest-ever level of farmer suicides. Farmers protested and marched toward Delhi to demand a relief package. In 2016, police opened fire on farmers in Madhya Pradesh, who were protesting to demand higher crop prices from traders and the government. Six farmers were killed.

The failure of these isolated struggles over the years compelled the farmers to reconsider and escalate their actions. What we see, currently, are well-coordinated and large-scale protests and actions throughout the country. However, there are still hopes among participants that the state, its parliament, and judiciary will listen to their grievances and fulfil their demands. However, the reality is that, in this crisis-ridden capitalist system, the situation of the farmers will not improve.

The state of Indian agriculture

Farmers are compelled to buy expensive grain and resources through taking out loans, work tirelessly with their families in the fields for months, and then hand over their harvest to middlemen and traders at throwaway prices. A significant portion of money earned goes towards servicing debt. The two major seeds and fertilisers recorded the highest-ever price increase from last year: 25 percent increase for fertilisers, and 80 percent for seeds. Although pesticides prices have not risen, pesticide application per hectare has increased, significantly adding to cost. The cost of fuel (another farming necessity) has also massively increased over the years.

Loan sharks, in the form of cooperatives, middlemen, banks and microfinance brokers offer their services to distressed farmers. The cycle of loans is never-ending, resulting in mounting debts and interests. The Reserve Bank of India’s latest data shows that agricultural loans stand at the equivalent of $187 Billion, and are increasing rapidly as compared to agricultural GDP. Farmers’ debts are reported by the media as a major cause of suicides. Official figures suggest there are 1,000 farmer suicides per month in the whole country, with Maharashtra state having the highest at 300 per month. The real figures, however, are much higher.

Farmers’ income is directly proportional to farm size. Data shows that farmers can only make a reasonable living wage if their farm holding is above two hectares. But 86 percent of agricultural land in India is classified as small-and-marginal land holdings (less than two hectares). This means the majority of Indian farmers are either barely making a living or are heavily indebted. Slight crop failures due to climate change, or market failure due to price drops, are catastrophic for farmers and their families.

Apart from this, the continuous efforts of the government to help local capitalists and multinational corporations is negatively impacting farmers’ earnings. In 2017 and 2018, the Modi government suppressed the earnings of farmers by slashing import duties for several agricultural imports. Traders and middlemen always pass costs on to farmers and protect themselves from losses.

Another major factor of discontent among the farmers is their earnings are not keeping pace with the continuous increasing cost of living. Under capitalism, profiteers at every agri-supply-chain juncture try to squeeze as much value out of farmers as possible. Furthermore, trapped in a constant cycle of mounting debt, farmers see their hard labour as worthless. Profiteers in the crop markets always seek to ensure farmers get nothing for their produce. Loan sharks also make money from farmers by selling them loans. The discontent arising from expensive inputs, alienation, debts and middlemen bondage are both driving farmers to despair, and compelling them to protest.

Three farm bills: the good, the bad and the ugly

Although the APMC markets are set by the government in all states, in reality they are controlled by private profiteers and cartels. There has always been a battle by the large corporations to eliminate small, petit-bourgeois players from the Mandi (market) system, get their grips on the agricultural produce and dominate the market. For many years, underinvestment in science and technology has left India behind in agriculture technologies. Reports suggest that agricultural technology is operating at 1 percent market potential. Multinational companies with advanced agricultural technologies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, ADMC, Deere & Co., Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, BASF are seizing hold of farm produce in different countries across the world, including India. On a capitalist basis, the Indian government will always welcome these multinational giants when they come to rake in the country’s agriculture, rather than thousands of small companies and middlemen.

Small farmers, who are in abundance, are highly indebted to middlemen and traders who are license-holders and purchasers in the Mandi system. These middlemen, who might control 500-1,000 farmers apiece, often exploit these farmers for economic and political gain, and act as power brokers during elections. They also use farmers, forced into subservience through debt, to stage rallies in front of government offices for their business-related demands. Middlemen are not only a source of credit without collateral for a farmer, but also broker information about which crop the farmer should sow in the next season, along with information about pesticides and seeds. Consequently, these middlemen make fortunes, and while the farmer languishes in poverty for their whole lives.

For large corporations, the Mandi system is seen as a wild west, filled with commission agents, middlemen and corrupt government officials, all bound up with countless bureaucratic procedures. Modi’s Farm Bills are therefore encouraging corporations to deal outside the Mandi system. Such dealings are incentivised through tax breaks. With this bill, small middlemen are destined to be wiped off the agricultural landscape, bringing in the domination of large traders and corporations. The bill will no doubt affect poor farmers, although, at the same time, it is a devastating blow for small middlemen as well.

Through this bill, farmers are encouraged to sell their product to anyone they like, giving the impression, on the surface, that the government wants to liberate the farmers and empower them. However, the bill only benefits the big players who will be allowed to monopolise prices, pushing down the price paid to the farmers, making sure farmers get nothing, while at the same time forcing ordinary people to pay even more for produce. In a country that ranks 94 out of 107 in the Global Hunger Index 2020, with a third of its population suffering from malnutrition, such policies will lead to another man-made famine.

Anarchy of capitalism

Even under APMC, it’s not farmers, but traders who control the market, and decide which crops should be harvested based on ‘market forces’. This has resulted in a massive stockpile of grains in India for many years. About a 100bn tons of grain is lying in government warehouses, with no prospect of it being distributed to the people. The government is reluctant to release the grain at lower prices, because of the pressure from the private agricultural mafia, as this will distort the market. Millions are starving but the government is holding onto its grain stock, even during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Rather than distributing to the poor, in April 2020 the Modi government decided to sell rice stocks to companies making ethanol fuel, as part of a green agenda for India. Furthermore, huge quantities of stored wheat are exported as cattle feed to Europe and the US at prices lower than the local grain market price available to the Indian poor.

In another example, due to the price boom of turmeric in 2018, farmers were forced by middlemen to plant turmeric. The bumper crop resulted in prices dropping by 24 percent in 2019, leading to substantial wholesale stocks and increased farmer suicides, especially in Maharashtra.

Since the trade liberalisation policies in 1991, there have been massive foreign direct investments in Indian agriculture. Multinational companies are given exclusive rights for exploitation. In one example, PepsiCo sued Gujarat farmers for Rs. 10 million for harvesting patented potatoes, which provoked a public backlash, defending the farmers’ interest against the MNC. The following are the major players in India for various crops:

India farmers table

RBI data shows India received $246 billion FDI in the agricultural sector in the last 10 years. Last year, FDI alone constituted a quarter of total Indian agricultural GDP. Under the Farm Bills, farmers cannot seek legal support from a civic court against large companies. It is anticipated that large capitalists will make direct deals with the farmers for future produce for up to 10-20 years, throwing the doors wide open for the speculation market.

The bankruptcy of mainstream politics

Indian politics and economics have been bound to the capitalist system since independence in 1947, when the British colonialists were driven out by mass movements of the working class and poor. However, workers were unable to gain power due to the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist parties. The post-independence Indian leadership fell into the hands of pro-capitalist parties, which have been running the country ever since. Now that the system is in senile decay, India’s politics, economics and related administration systems are rotten to the core. Decaying capitalism breeds corruption and crime, which in turn define who rules India. The media reports that the majority of India’s parliament is filled with corrupt thugs, murderers, rapists and gangsters. Black money oozes from every pore of India’s democracy. Mainstream politics is nothing but a stage for in-fighting between different sections of Indian capitalists over division of the loot.

Every political party and alliance represents the interests of particular capitalists, with MPs serving as their foot soldiers in the parliament. All legislation and policies that are passed in the parliament have the purpose of transferring massive amounts of public money and resources into private hands. This legislation is always sugar coated with nice public messages about being ‘inclusive’, ‘people friendly’ ‘bringing progress’ etc. The situation is the same with the current Farm Bills, which are portrayed as helping poor farmers. Lying and deceit are inherent in the Indian capitalist legislature.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his election campaign, said that MSP was here to stay, and that the government would do more to help and support farmers. But when he came to power, he did precisely the opposite. All opposition parties also bear responsibility when it comes to looting and plundering public resources.

In the Congress-led Punjab province, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal supported Modi’s Farm Bills during their preparatory stages in various committees. However, when farmers’ protests began erupting, they immediately switched sides. The Congress party, during its rule, was also tainted with changing APMC laws to increase privatisation and liberalisation. In 2013, the UPA government outright gave the equivalent of $1.23 billion in cash grants to corporations for marketing their products. After coming to power in 2004, the Congress government persuaded all states to adopt the APMC Act 2003 to liberalise state agriculture markets. Under the Congress government, different states developed and passed private contract farming acts that massively privatised agriculture in India and brought in multinational giants.

As mentioned, the reactionary SAD has a stronghold in Punjab. They derive their power and social base from their control of major Sikh Gurdwaras (temples), exploiting the religious sentiments of the people. The party uses a mix of religious fundamentalism and Punjabi nationalism for their anti-working class politics. They have always been part of the mainstream ruling coalitions, including with the current BJP in centre. They never hesitated to sell out poor Punjabi farmers at every historical juncture. The SAD leadership supported the Farm Bills and stated they are ‘revolutionary’. Harsimrat Kaur said that the opposition is misleading the people and in reality these are very good bills. That was until huge numbers of farmers and workers started pouring into the streets, at which point they had their u-turn and started opposing the bill.

Communist Parties in India are not much different from other mainstream parties, as they have abandoned all their communist principles, even departing from class struggle and embracing identity politics to woo the middle classes. In Communist-ruled states such as Kerala and West Bengal, the leadership not only failed to oppose liberalism, but aggressively pursued and implemented it. The people, disgusted with their liberal politics, voted for opposition parties, which are often right-wing. This led the Communist parties to conclude there is a general spectrum of right-wing fascism prevailing in India: democracy and secularism are in danger, and that they should protect these values by aligning themselves with other right-wing parties against the fascist BJP. This strategy is the height of counterrevolutionary opportunism. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other left parties in the ruling spheres are no friends of the farmers. To support multinational corporations and capitalists, the CPIM government in West Bengal ordered the shooting and murder of protesting farmers. Indian farmers and workers are aware of countless events, such as land grabs from farmers in Singur, shootings of farmers in Nandigram, the Marichjhapi massacre following the forcible eviction of Dalit (lowest caste) farmers, and the bloody Operation Lalgarh (supposedly targeting Maoists). All this happened in a state where the so-called ‘Communists’ were in power for decades.

During the current farmer protests, the leadership of all the major Communist parties released a joint statement with the heading “Strongly Protest Destruction of Indian Parliament”. They even characterise the farmers’ struggle as an attempt to uphold the values of Indian parliament, which all Indian Communists should fight for, leaving behind class politics. The statement failed to criticise the capitalist system and its parliament, which created the anti-farmer bill, but instead, restricted its criticism to the manner in which the BJP handled the vote on the bill in parliament. The statement failed to mention any alternative solutions for the problems facing the farmers: including the privatisation and the liberal policies that could be overturned by genuine communist politics.

The need to overthrow the capitalist system!

Indian farmers have shown immense heroic courage and determination in taking up the fight, as they have always done in the previous years. This time, they understand that mainstream political parties offer no solutions, and they decided to keep their movement away from them. AIKSCC is planning a nationwide shutdown on 5 November and a march to Delhi on 27 November. The committee members are contacting various other organisations, including labour unions, for joint action.

Congress, CPI(M), TMC and other parties are shedding crocodile tears for the farmers’ plight. They have no solution except harping on about ‘democracy’, ‘secularism’ and ‘a fair judiciary’ under capitalism. The previous and current actions of these political parties are fully exposed. People are openly discussing their anti-worker and anti-farmer nature.

The Modi government’s popularity is facing a nosedive. Even allied parties are deciding to break away from the BJP, such as SAD in Punjab and the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP, a self-described social democratic party) in Haryana. Farmers’ protests have jolted the BJP internal ranks as well. Recently, Punjab’s BJP General Secretary resigned from his post.

Despite the heroic efforts of the farmers, there are few limitations that they must confront to succeed in their aims. The most important is to identify the black sheep among them. These are the petit-bourgeois middlemen, as well as a few corrupt leaders of unions and farmers’ organisations. These careerist infiltrators will hold the farmers' movements back at every step and later will opportunistically sell the whole movement out.

Qualitatively and quantitatively, the current protests are at a higher level than farmers’ protests in previous years. This is also due to the general decline of farmers’ living conditions under the rotten capitalist system, which is in the worst crisis of its history. This system cannot guarantee a decent living, proper remuneration for their produce and, above all, control over their land and produce.

Under this system, farmers have no choice. They cannot even migrate to cities, where unemployment is already at peak levels and the coronavirus is rampant. The only choice available is to take control of their means of production. They cannot do this alone. They have to get solidarity from the workers to expropriate industries linked to agriculture. The All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee should approach all trade unions across India and call for an indefinite general strike.

An indefinite general strike would not only bring down the corrupt right-wing government, but would challenge the whole capitalist system. Only then will the stage for the socialist transformation of society be set, as an indefinite general strike raises the question of the power over who runs society. Indeed, it is the working class that runs any society, not the capitalists, bankers or politicians living in their comfortable homes.

Only through overthrowing this bloodthirsty capitalist system and replacing it with a workers’ state will we abolish the control of capitalists over agriculture and industry in India. A socialist planned economy will end the power of banks, companies and multinational corporations. Farmers will be provided with healthcare and education, alongside Roti, Kapra aur Makan (Food, Clothing and Shelter) by the workers’ state, free of cost. Only under a socialist planned economy will 100 percent of farmers’ loans be waived-off forever, and farmers will be able to decide their own fate. What is needed is class struggle, and the working class in India needs to take decisive steps towards organising itself on revolutionary lines, based on the ideas of Bolshevism, to win this struggle.