‘We will fight over and over again and generation upon generation, but we will not let our lands go,’ reads a banner at the protest site on the outskirts of Delhi. Thousands of farmers have been camping here since November 2020, demanding the repeal of three farm laws bulldozed through parliament by the central government that September. After initially protesting locally, farmers, led by their unions, made their way in a convoy of tractor trolleys and trucks – thousands of them, extending for miles – towards the capital city of Delhi on 26 November 2020. They came waving their trade union flags, equipped with food, stoves, utensils, blankets and other essentials to last them for months. They chanted: ‘We are here to stay; we will leave only when the government repeals these draconian laws.’
The three laws taken together ease restrictions for corporate players to function in the country’s agrarian markets. They mark a retreat of government responsibility from public procurement of food grains and provide a deregulated environment in which big agribusinesses will be able to push farmers to enter into contracts for the supply of agricultural produce on terms that may be unclear and unfavourable to them. The farmers fear that these laws were enacted to enable the corporate takeover of agriculture and will make smallholder farming unsustainable, forcing them to leave their villages and reducing them to seeking casual labour, or toiling in factories on starvation wages in unwelcoming cities.
India is overwhelmingly agrarian – over half of the total workforce of 482 million people is engaged in agriculture and it is a way of life for these communities. Of the 263 million agricultural workers in the country, 45 per cent are farmer cultivators and the rest are much more vulnerable landless labourers. Of the farmer cultivators, 84 per cent operate on a small scale, owning less than two hectares of land each.1 Over the last few decades, the cost of production has risen steeply – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, diesel and other farm inputs controlled by large private agri-corporates have all shot up in price, raising the year-on-year cost of cultivation by 8-10 per cent. But the minimum support price of food grains has been revised at about half that rate year-on-year, leading to a steady fall in farm incomes and pushing huge numbers of small farmers into a debt trap. Desperate farmers with their backs to the wall have been fighting for reforms in the agriculture sector, demanding minimum assured prices and government procurement of farm produce, more state regulated markets (or mandis), and public investment. They would like to see effective government action to provide employment opportunities in rural India, institutional credit facilities and improvements in public health and education infrastructure. But the three farm laws do just the opposite; the government has laid the ground for farmers’ eviction from their lands.
A university of resistance
On 26 November 2020, as thousands of farmers – women and men – from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh marched to Delhi, the police barricaded and blocked them from entering the city limits. The farmers decided to camp right where they were stopped. Soon they had set up mini-townships at three different entry points to the capital, naming them after well-known heroes of independence and land-reform struggles under British rule. Their tractor trolleys became their little homes and they set up small communities mirroring their life back in the villages. Within days, libraries and reading rooms opened, several health clinics popped up, laundromats, hot water heaters and phone battery charging stalls were installed, and a large number of community kitchens began operating with plenty of food for everyone.
The unions erected makeshift platforms across the sites, which now stretch over 40 kilometres in different directions. During the day and into the evening these podia feature not only speeches by the union leaders but also cultural performances highlighting the pressure points of the agrarian crisis: rural indebtedness, unemployment, the condition of public schools and hospitals, women’s lack of resources and the power of the corporates in their lives. Gradually, these platforms have turned into a school, a university of people resisting, providing the intellectual tools for understanding the diverse oppressions which the dispossessed endure as Dalits, as marginal farmers and as women. Their political resistance draws from this understanding.
In the last few years, India’s rightwing regime has disenfranchised the poor and the marginalized, section by section, community by community, forcing them to fight their battles for justice in silos. On the farmers’ platforms there is a growing realization that the only effective resistance is through building solidarity and exerting moral pressure. So, on International Human Rights Day, 10 December, the protesting farmers dedicated the day to political prisoners and demanded the unconditional release of human rights defenders, student activists and intellectuals currently incarcerated in Indian prisons without trial. On 18 January 2021, they celebrated the contribution of women farmers to the movement, and on 8 March, International Women’s Day was celebrated, drawing over 50,000 women farmers and rural labourers to the camps. On 27 February farmers, mostly upper caste, celebrated the birth anniversary of Guru Ravidas, a late-15th-century lower caste poet who is revered by Dalits. They marked May Day in solidarity with all workers. The birthdays of Muslim freedom struggle heroes are commemorated to affirm faith in the secular traditions of the land, which are under threat from the divisive Hindu nationalist politics of the country’s ruling party. International messages of solidarity pouring in not only from the Indian diaspora but from the major unions of Canada, the US and the UK, have helped the farmers to locate their movement as part of a protest against a larger, global corporate capitalist agenda.
Changes in the agricultural sector have been a long time coming. The neoliberal market reforms brought in by a previous administration in the 1990s remained unimplemented in the agriculture sector. Policy advisers have been harping on about the need to shift people from small-holding agriculture to provide cheap labour in the manufacturing and service sectors. But there are simply no decent jobs available in these sectors to accommodate a gigantic shift of the rural workforce to the cities, even if such a thing were desirable. Successive state attempts to hasten this process, through reform commissions and committees, have remained unsuccessful largely due to resistance by farmers.
This time, making cynical use of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as its overwhelming majority in parliament, the government decided to push through what had not been possible earlier. Not just the Farm Bills, but also the 2020 Labour Codes on Industrial Relations were adopted in the same session of parliament, without discussion. The Labour Codes are the biggest shakeup of labour laws since India’s independence and carry grave implications for all categories of non-farm labour. They change the laws relating to trade unions, working conditions and safety nets, sweeping away labour rights protections which are seen as a hindrance to ‘Doing Business’. Deregulation and ‘rationalization’ is the name of the game. No wonder that such a policy thrust has seen India vault from the 143rd position in the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ index in 2014 to 63 in 2020.
Under the new Codes, the state absolves itself of all responsibility to guarantee a minimum wage and safe working conditions, or to do away with contract labour. Workers’ political rights to collectively organize were also stripped.
The Codes were enacted at a time when labour was under a punishing lockdown-induced crisis. On 24 March 2020, with just four hours’ notice, and with no provision for relief to the millions of people whose livelihoods and security would be endangered, the entire country was shut down. All industries were ordered to stop operations without any statutory orders about payments to workers. Workers who had come from the villages and small towns of India to earn a living in the cities suddenly found themselves abandoned by their government, and in sheer desperation they started walking back home. Millions walked silently, sometimes in journeys of hundreds of kilometres, in peak summer, hounded and harassed by the police, in order to return to their villages. Many died on the way of dehydration, exhaustion and hunger.
It was hoped that the desperation of these unprotected workers would bring about policy guarantees of social security and a national minimum wage, and would result in an environment conducive to working-class unity. After all, the crisis of labour had been beamed onto TV screens all over the world – a woman labourer lying dead on a railway platform with her toddler playing by her side, exhausted migrant workers falling asleep on a railway track and 16 of them getting mowed down by a train, or women giving birth on the roadside and starting their long walk once again with a new-born baby. But, just months later, the new labour laws dashed all such hopes and removed hard-won rights.
In the same lockdown year 2020-21, while India’s GDP contracted by 7.7 per cent, the ranks of Indian dollar-billionaires swelled from 102 to 140, according to the Forbes 2021 List. Their combined wealth nearly doubled to $596 billion in just one year. The country’s stock market scaled new peaks, with the benchmark Sensex touching a new high.
On 16 December 2020, farmers at one protest site – at the Tikri border – were joined by hundreds of women farmers from Punjab. As they descended from the buses, the women held the union flags but were also seen clutching something else – large and small photo frames held tightly against their chests. These were the portraits of their sons and husbands who had died by suicide over the years when they could not repay farm debts. From the pandal where they assembled, holding the pictures high, farm leader Joginder Singh Ugrahan’s voice reverberated across the assembly: ‘The debt-ridden families have been carrying their dead on their shoulders. With the new laws, the crop of suicide will only swell.’
According to official data, over 350,000 farmers and farm labourers died by suicide between 2000-2015, after which the government stopped compiling data on farm suicides. The small state of Punjab, which is at the forefront of the ongoing farmers’ protest, saw over 16,000 suicides in the same period. In Punjab, 64 per cent of total farm income goes to repaying loans; some 13 per cent of farmers have debts so large that they exceed two-years’ worth of their annual income. Various studies confirm that debt-ridden farmers have started leaving farming to join the swelling ranks of wage labourers putting pressure on an already over-crowded labour market. There is nothing ‘inevitable’ or ‘modern’ about this terrible transition; to a large extent it is policy-induced.
Those leaving farming often end up in low-paid informal employment in grain markets, on construction sites or pulling carts to transport goods. Their migration is mostly temporary and circular as the non-agricultural sector fails to absorb them as workers on a permanent basis.
These surplus labourers also cannot rely entirely on such jobs for sustenance. Consequently, they remain tied to their farming roots, clinging to any plots of land they might have in their villages as a fallback option. Land and farming are where they have ties, they represent a way of life still yearned for. This explains the intensity of struggles against their dispossession of land. Even for marginal farmers, whose holdings may only provide a very subsidiary income, it is still crucial for their bare survival. Being able to grow some of their own food, however little, is much valued because they are cash poor and inflation is running high.
It is the rights of this labour that have been pulverized by the new laws. While workers in India’s vast informal economy could not put up a fight against the labour codes, the farmers are determined to fight it out. As Joginder Singh Ugrahan put it: ‘The farmers not only know how to farm, they also know how to protect their fields.’
So, the farmers continue sitting peacefully and implacably at the Delhi borders, putting up a spirited fight against the state, as the months roll by and the media circus that greeted them moves on. Eleven rounds of talks with the government have not led anywhere. They are still calmly and confidently resisting the state’s war of attrition.
Whether or not the laws are repealed, this movement has won. It has forged new alliances and breached old fault-lines. It has given India hope. The farmers’ movement is now a battle not just for the farmers against three laws, but for a more just future for India’s dispossessed.
1 These figures are based on Government of India estimates from the 2011 census (the most recent) 2 Anju Agnihotri Chaba, ‘Farmer suicides: armed with data…’, The Indian Express, 11 January 2018, (The report mentioned in the story was suppressed by the government and never made public.)
Navsharan Singh is an independent scholar and activist whose current work is based around the agrarian crisis in Punjab, particularly how it affects landless Dalits and women. She is the author of Landscapes of fear: understanding impunity in India (Zubaan, 2015) and holds degrees in Economics and Political Economy and a PhD in Political Science.