Ever since November 26, 2020, when over 200,000 farmers marched to Delhi, protesting farmers have been camping on the borders of Delhi, blocking highways into and out of the national capital. Farmers’ main demand is the repeal of the three farm laws that the Modi government introduced in September 2020, which ease the way for big capital in agriculture. The protests have rightly been termed historic, both in scale and in length — as I write this piece, farmers are making communal preparations to stay camped through the harvest season for the long haul. In one farm leader’s words, they will not go home till the laws are repealed1.
Farm Laws and Modi’s Economic Outlook
The Modi government introduced the three contested farm bills in Parliament during the Monsoon session as the country reeled under rising cases of Covid-19. The government unilaterally passed the bills into law despite opposition from other parties, and without consultation with farmers’ unions.
Together, the three laws weaken state procurement from farmers and ease the entry of big capital into contract farming and marketing. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act allows farmers to sell their produce to private traders outside state grain markets and eliminates market fees for traders. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services allows farmers to enter into contracts with private firms or traders, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act removes restrictions on private entities to stockpile cereals, pulses, oilseeds, onions and potatoes.
The Farm Laws were passed in Parliament on the same day as the Industrial Labour Code, which makes it easier for a larger share of industrial units to hire and fire workers on short notice. The Farm Laws are a clear reflection of the Modi government’s economic outlook — to improve the ‘ease of doing business’ and actively encourage the large-scale entry of private capital in sectors which have so far been dominated by small producers or protected by the State.
In its 6 years of power, the Modi government has increased the cap for foreign direct investment in sectors like insurance and defence, initiated the privatization of various government services like railways and ports, and has encouraged the boom in private higher education. It has initiated a US-style insurance scheme in health services and has especially emphasized the conversion of various State subsidies into cash transfers.
In one sense, the Modi government is merely continuing on the economic legacy of the Congress Party, which initiated and has supported the liberalization of the Indian economy since the 1980s. But in contrast to the previous Congress-led governments, which were more amenable to initiating rights-based welfare schemes like the Right to Food and Right to Employment, the Modi government is more ruthless in reducing State expenditures and intervention. Previous governments, though backed by and supportive of big capital, sought to gain political legitimacy from the working classes through electoral promises of welfare schemes and expansion of State support. While Modi also enjoys a particularly close relationship with big business groups, particularly the Ambani and Adani groups, mass support for his government is tied to the ideology of Hindutva or a Hindu-centric notion of India.
The two forces may feed off each other. BJP received the lion’s share of funding in the previous elections. Most television news outlets, owned by business groups who favor Modi, openly support his government. BJP also has a vast IT cell that manipulates popular discourse through social media. As a result, BJP has been able to create the narrative of a victimized upper-caste Hindu who is unable to practice his religion in his own country, with Modi returning India to its historic glory and new economic heights. Dissent on any issue, social, economic, political or religious, is branded anti-national and therefore dangerous. This has resulted in a decimation of electoral opposition and polarized public opinion overwhelmingly in Modi’s favor. The Modi government is trying to take advantage of the situation by wriggling out of many welfarist schemes, hopeful that their control over public discourse will leave them politically unruffled.
Break from the Past
The Farm Laws reflect a clear shift in the Indian State’s relationship to agriculture. Since the late 1960s, the Indian State has supported petty commodity producers in agriculture with various input subsidies, easy availability of credit, and has provided support prices for major crops. The State procures foodgrains at support prices, which are sold at subsidized rates through the Public Distribution System. From their inception, the policies were only effectively implemented in a few states in the north-west and south, where a new dominant class of large farmers emerged as a political force in the 1970s and 1980s, who demanded greater resources from the State.
The liberalization of the economy in the early 1990s changed this picture. While modern agricultural techniques have been adopted over broader areas, State support to agriculture declined massively. Rising input prices, rising debt and decline in State support led to several years of acute agrarian crisis, which manifested in alarming numbers of farmer suicides across the country. Farmers in previously beneficiary states such as Punjab and Kerala have also faced agrarian distress. Farmers movements throughout this period have demanded the implementation of support prices and procurement uniformly across the country.
All political parties, including the BJP in 2014, incorporate these demands in their election manifestos. In Modi’s first term, farmers from different parts of the country led agitations to hold the government accountable to its election promises. In 2017, police fired on farmers demanding the enactment of MSP in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, killing six. In the same year, farmers from Tamil Nadu held a four-month-long protest in New Delhi demanding debt relief after a year of crop failure. In March 2018, nearly 50,000 farmers marched over 200 km in Maharashtra demanding debt relief, adequate support prices, and land rights for tribal farmers. Modi’s Farm Laws run opposite to the spirit of farmers’ existing demands.
Class Character of Protests
It is important to note that the demand to institute and raise support prices benefits larger farmers. Marginal and small cultivators are net consumers of foodgrains, and so may not benefit from an increase in the sale price of food. Landless agricultural laborers may also only see an indirect benefit from the increase in support prices if it translates into an increase in agricultural wages. Additionally, since procurement only works in some states, farmers from poorer states have not been among the major participants in the current protests, since they already sell grain to private traders.
However, it is unfair to equate the class character of the ongoing protests with the protests by dominant farmers in the 1970s. The old agricultural elites have been able to transition into urban professional or business spaces and their economic interests are no longer tied primarily to agriculture. Sections who continue to cultivate have lost out during the period of liberalization.
The interests of marginal/tenant farmers and landless laborers do not figure in this struggle, and protestors still largely hail from agriculturally-developed states. But they are no longer a dominant class at the national level. Instead, the state is now offering the domain of petty commodity producers and traders in the rural economy to big capital.
Locked in Place
Despite their class limitations, the farmers’ protests have directly confronted the Modi government’s alliance with big capital and its subservient media. Farmers have repeatedly raised concern about the close relations between Modi and the Ambani and Adani groups. Facing a boycott from farmers, Ambani’s telecom service Jio is reported to have lost two million customers in Haryana and Punjab in a single month2. They also do not trust mainstream television media, which has portrayed the dominantly Sikh farmer movement as being motivated by Khalistani or Sikh nationalist sentiment. Protestors have instead created their own media line called ‘Trolley Times’ to disseminate information.
The protests have attracted support and attention in an unprecedented way, particularly from the urban professional class. Support for the farmers protests is certainly broader than it was for the Shaheen Bagh protests just a year ago, which challenged the Modi government on its anti-Muslim amendments to citizenship. Though farmers’ unions and the government have engaged in multiple rounds of talks, the government has not moved substantially to withdraw the Laws, and a stalemate continues.
Support for the farmers protest took a hit on January 26, India’s Republic Day. Farmers took out a huge tractor procession into Delhi. While most of the march went off without incident, in some places there were clashes between farmers and the police. Some protesting farmers also stormed the historic Red Fort in Old Delhi. Questions have been raised about the involvement of external actors in inciting violence, possibly with links to BJP3. Regardless, this was the perfect opportunity to discredit the farmers protests in public opinion, which had so far remained peaceful.
After January 26 the government has increased its efforts to remove protesting farmers from their camp sites around Delhi. But farmers’ unions have been able to limit the damage by ramping up mobilization in north-western India through various rallies, protests and mahapanchayats. On the occasion of International Working Women’s Day, thousands of women farmers joined the protests at Delhi’s borders. Farmers are now preparing to camp for the long haul and are not backing down from their demands of complete repeal and assurance of support prices. What happens now will depend on whether farmers can regain control of the popular narrative and get support from broader agricultural classes, particularly landless labourers and cultivators from other parts of the country.