Why are Indian farmers angry?
Two million peacefully protesting farmers have camped at various points on the roads leading into New Delhi, the Indian capital. The area has seen its coldest winter in 119 years, but, night or day, the protestors have refused to budge. More than 60 have died. Several are old and ailing. They have gathered disregarding a virus that has kept others indoors. Some of the demonstrating farmers say they’ve got enough food to last for half a year, and have even set up temporary libraries and schools.
The government’s response to the protests so far has included waiting for the harsh winter to do its thing, using security forces to beat them, and deploying propaganda to demonize farmers as ‘terrorists’ or politically motivated. Government-friendly rightwing media have gone into overdrive, including circulating a picture of protesting farmers eating pizza at a kitchen set up by a voluntary organization; the elitist and ugly implication being that they can’t be ‘genuine’, ‘poor’ farmers if they are eating pizza, a meal reserved for the middle class.
The farmers’ movement’s explicit aim is the repeal of three farm laws which were rammed through parliament without consultation. To summarize them broadly: they relax restrictions on the sale and purchase of farm produce; enable contract farming with agreements; and do away with stockpiling restrictions, thus enabling hoarding and profiteering by private actors with deep pockets. The farmers fear that these laws will leave an already precarious industry at the mercy of the markets. Beyond that, however, the laws have become a symbol for the system’s relentless attack on the dignity of farmers. It is difficult to appreciate the moral force of the protests without a glimpse into this larger systemic cruelty and the agrarian crisis it has caused.
In 2019, 10,281 Indian farmers died by suicide. And that’s according to the government’s own data; which, unsurprisingly, masks a lot. There’s no good way to summarize the crushing processes that foster this human tragedy, but veteran agricultural affairs journalist and activist P Sainath’s five-word summary is the best attempt: ‘the predatory commercialization of countryside’.
Giant transnational seed companies dislodge local varieties with their own. Often, this also means a shift from food crops to cash crops. The most obvious disadvantages are: 1) the seeds are expensive to buy, 2) other input costs, like pesticides, are also expensive, and 3) their prices are vulnerable to global fluctuations. Many farmer suicides, for instance, are directly linked to indebtedness caused by growing GM cotton, a crop whose sale price has been dropping due to aggressive Western subsidies.
There is a beautiful, and painful, story told by the People’s Archive of Rural India, where Kunari Sabari, a farmer from the indigenous Saora community in Eastern India explains how from previously growing crops local to the region, she now grows cotton that makes her ‘run to the market for everything’.
Previously, the government stood in the way of these market forces by procuring produce from farmers at a ‘minimum support price’. It did this minimally, and not for all crops, and not nearly enough. However, with the new farm laws, farmers fear that even this thin line of defence will wither away. Yogendra Yadav, one of the protest’s leaders, has compared government support with a really faulty roof. Instead of repairing it, the government seems to have decided to demolish it, leaving the farmers at home to the uncertain weather of the market.
Tying farming to wild price fluctuations driven by global demand has shown to increase indebtedness, ultimately trapping farmers in a vicious debt cycle, that has often ended in them losing access to land and becoming cheap labourers in the city. In many ways, this is reminiscent of colonial times, when the Indian peasant was made to serve the extractivist whims of the global market.
Allowing big agribusiness to determine what grows on farmlands has other dangers.
First, Western purchasers will want Indian farmers to shift from growing food crops to crops that don’t grow in the West. Advanced countries have wanted India to do this for a while now: buy food grains from the West (because they produce in excess), and grow crops that the West needs but can’t grow. This means that access to food would become import-dependent – for a country ranking 94 out of 107 on the Global Hunger Index. Currently, the government procures food grains from at least some farmers. With these laws, that thin promise of food security is also under threat.
Second, it would encourage a shift to growing standardized monocultures. An article on People’s Archive of Rural India carries a picture of an indigenous farmer named Kunuji Kulusika, with an assortment of food crop seeds arranged on a tray. Indigenous seed varieties like these, passed through generations, are resistant to extremities of weather and less dependent on pesticides. This is exactly the stuff we will need to resist climate-induced food insecurity. Many of these seeds, along with the knowledge required to grow them, are already on their way out. Big agribusiness will only intensify that loss.
It is this acute anxiety about the future of agriculture, upon which 60 per cent of India’s population depends, that is fuelling the ongoing protest. It is a protest against the unwavering assault by big capital, aided and abetted by the state, on the lives of those who feed us. Against economic fundamentalism that has had its way at the cost of working people’s dignity. In one sense, Indian farmers are fighting for the dignity of us all.