The Upheaval of the Indian Farming System

The Upheaval of the Indian Farming System

On January 26th, 2021, India’s 72nd Republic Day,  clashes broke out in New Delhi between farmers and the police a few miles away from the location of the annual celebration honouring the day the Constitution came into effect. This was a significant moment in the ongoing protest movement led by farmers against the three bills that eased restrictions on private players in agricultural markets in September 2020. The bills allow private buyers to purchase farm produce outside of the supervision of and without the payment of taxes and fees to mandis; limit state intervention in retail prices making production more efficient, and provide a framework for farming on contract to corporations.

The procedure of passing the bills has been just as unsettling as the state’s response to the farmers’ movement. The bills were passed in Parliament without prior consultation with relevant stakeholders. This manner of pushing consequential laws is common practice for the current Modi government. The Republic Day clashes also saw an internet shutdown in New Delhi, the use of water cannons by the police against protesting farmers and the firing of nearly 2,000 tear gas shells, in an effort to block the march. 

The demonstrations represent the largest-ever mobilization of farmers in independent India. The death toll has risen to over 70 lives, many of whom died because of the cold. Some also committed suicide as a political statement. The overarching demand is the repeal of three laws and the maintenance of minimum support prices (MSPs). In the larger context, however, the standoff can be seen as the fallout caused by the demise of the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution, which began in 1966, involved the adoption of capital-intensive industrial agriculture. This included subsidized fertilizers and irrigation, varieties of rice and wheat designed to consume high doses of fertilizer, and state-led educational projects to help farmers switch to modern methods. Since bumper production eventually lowers rates, farmers were assured procurement at MSPs announced in advance via state-run mandis (markets).

On the other hand, the Green Revolution was more of a Cold War tactic than a humanitarian initiative. After independence, the Indian National Congress, the governing political party, was heavily pressured by communist-led peasant movements to redistribute land from landowners to peasants. But Congress, the ruling party at the time, was dependent on landlords for rural electoral patronage and was hesitant to undertake substantive land reforms. Additionally, China’s recent embrace of communism prompted the U.S to aggressively pursue policies to stop the spread of communist sentiments to the rest of Asia. Therefore in order to prevent a Soviet-style “Red Revolution,” in India, the U.S. administration funded the Green Revolution. 

The Indian government held out the promise of provisioning the hungry with subsidized cereals and pumped massive investments, partly funded by the US, to win over the well-off segments of landowning farmers. There was never any official consideration of alternative ideas for science-based agricultural production, such as focusing on locally available varieties and agro-ecological innovations. But the Green Revolution package produced more challenges than it addressed. The dilemma of non-remunerative prices and debt worsened as state assistance deteriorated. Ecological crises such as declining groundwater tables, saline and polluted soils, the depletion of habitat, and the growth of pesticide-use health diseases resulted in a full-blown agrarian crisis in the 1990s and an epidemic of farmer suicides.

However, it is the outcomes of the Green Revolution-era itself that generated the politically significant farming organizations that have led historical farm movements, including the one we are currently witnessing. Prior to the reforms in the 1990s, these farmer movements were historically central to party politics in India. Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), which remains at the forefront of ongoing protests, was first formed in 1978 under the leadership of Chaudhury Charan Singh, a former prime minister and a well-known farmer leader, who advocated for the abolition of landlordism, consolidation of landholding and resisted taxing agricultural surplus. In 1986, It was reorganized as a non-partisan group under Mahendra Singh Tikait, a relatively wealthy farmer himself. Tikait led several farmers’ movements in the 1980s that consolidated his position at the forefront of farmers movements, these reminiscent of the protests we see today. 

In 1988, Tikait led farmers to undertake the 25-day siege of the city of Meerut’s Commissionerate in an effort to pressure the Government to meet the farmers’ demands for loan waivers, cuts in electricity dues, increases in sugarcane procurement price, and greater farmers representation in the Agricultural Price Commission. Following this, 500,000 farmers under Tikait’s leadership took over the heart of New Delhi, where they remained within earshot of the Parliament for one week. By the end of the siege, the Government had assured the BKU that the farmers’ demands would be met, signing an agreement with them one year later.

Modi hails the laws as watershed reforms that will usher in a new era of prosperity for farmers backed by corporate investments. But farmers fear that the laws foreshadow complete deregulation in the sale of agricultural goods. To this day, mandis signal prices with regular announcements of MSPs, and if they are weakened any further, farmers will be fully exposed to debilitating price pressures. Farmers are protesting not because the existing system is fair, but because it is being replaced with an even more inscrutable system that will further disadvantage them.

The main motivation behind the rules, farmers say, is to encourage corporate influence over food and agriculture, and the hostility of the farmers has particularly been directed at  Reliance and Adani Group, two of India’s largest commercial groups perceived to be close to the Modi government. Underlying this broad base of discontent is the residual failure of the Green Revolution. The principal benefits of the package were lower food grain prices, although the vast majority of farmers and agricultural labourers suffered declines in incomes. In short, the Green Revolution secured cheap cereals in exchange for justice and ecological sustainability.

 At the moment, it looks likely that the government will concede the immediate demand to withdraw the three laws, given the national response they have garnered. It is no longer about the economic development of the country. No longer are the words “MSP  and subsidiaries” heard in media coverage. It has become about politics and maintaining power. People at the mass level (There are more than half a billion people involved in the agricultural sector) would be suspicious of systemic change through ordinances, especially if these changes aren’t directly communicated to them.

The agrarian crisis is not a new phenomenon. It is the result of increasing farmer suicides and mounting farm debt. There is no doubt that reforms in the agricultural sector are long overdue. Over 70 per cent of the population depends on agriculture for income. However, while cultivation costs have risen manifold since the mid-1990s, the farmers’ incomes have stagnated or declined due to outdated farming techniques or fluctuating prices. Seed, fertilizer, and pesticides are firmly in the hands of corporations. Agricultural credit from public-sector banks increased significantly in the past two decades, benefiting agribusiness, not farmers.

Experts on agricultural markets claim that while some positive change has been achieved in a few states, it has remained slow due to the sector’s strong political economy. No amount of tinkering on the marketing end will fix a fundamentally warped and unsustainable production model. Therefore, to actually secure a viable future for farmers, the Green Revolution paradigm must be abandoned for agro-ecological, diverse, decentralized and just agrarian and food systems, introduced to the public in a productive and transparent manner.

Edited by Elina Qureshi.

Photo credits: “2020 Indian farmers’ protest – sitting protest by Randeep Maddoke, published on November 26, 2020, under CC0. No changes were made.  

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