by Selina Singh*
Thousands of Indian farmers have parked outside the capital Delhi for more than 100 days. They have pitched tents on five highways that lead to the city and say they will leave only when the federal government withdraws three new farm laws enacted last September.
Half the Indian population depends on agriculture for a living, and farms are almost entirely family-run. The protesting farmers fear these new laws will corporatize Indian agriculture. They may not know what happened to American farmers when Ronald Reagan was president, but what scares them is akin to what happened then—loss of income, more indebtedness, and the empowerment of a pillaging BigAg.
Most of the agitating farmers are from two Indian states, Punjab and Haryana. In both regions, federal and state governments buy up most of the staple food grain that farmers raise. The government also fixes the price of the grain it buys at a Minimum Support (or purchase) Price. To varying degrees of efficiency, this purchase system prevails in most Indian states.
Indian farmers, workers, and the poor depend on the purchase price and the government procurement system. For growers of rice and wheat, this price is a stable and assured source of income. Governments sell a part of the food grain they procure at subsidized rates. Roughly 800 million of the poor rely on this subsidy to be able to afford their food.
After introducing the new laws, the government assured farmers their income would double in two years. But farmers rejected the offer, saying they prefer the reliable MSP system over grand dreams of higher income. They say they will be ruined by the three new laws—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.
Favors for Corporates
Farmers are afraid of these laws because they create a parallel agricultural market, one where there are no transaction taxes. The existing markets run by state governments charge a transaction tax (it is an 8.5 percent tax in Punjab) for their upkeep. If traders would move outside the government-regulated markets to operate in the tax-free open market, farmers expect it will undermine the MSP system.
Initially, farmers suspect, they may get higher prices for their produce from private traders or agro-giants than in the existing markets. But over time, the government-run markets would start failing. Then, say the farmers, they would be at the mercy of agribusiness giants.
The new laws also permit and encourage contract farming, wherein farmers would enter into contracts with companies that would commit to supplying seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs to farmers (or groups of farmers), in exchange for raising crops demanded by the companies at pre-fixed rates. Farmers fear this will have private companies impose stringent conditions on what crops they can raise and how. The risk of rejection of crops over “quality issues” would forever loom over them. They are anxious that contract farming could reduce them to workers on their land, raising crops at the instructions of companies that they enter into contracts with.
They resent that the law on contract farming is formulated in a way that the contracting company would control the input as well as the output of farming.
“Any company we enter into a farming contract with will supply us seed, fertilizer, pesticide, etc. So, our inputs will be under the control of the company. Existing retail stores will go out of business [as they cannot withstand competition from corporate giants]. Then, the grain we produce will also go to the same company,” says Joginder Singh Ugrahan, who heads the Indian Farmer Union (Ekta-Ugrahan).
It is the biggest farmer union in Punjab and represents the interests of small and marginal farmers. A small farmer owns up to 5 acres of land, while a marginal farmer owns less than 2.5 acres of land.
The new law on contract farming bars farmers from approaching civil courts if there are disputes. It says they can take out loans to finance their contractual obligations, but the government will recover arrears on land revenue from farmers who fail to meet contracted obligations. That, farmers say, means their land (and/or other assets) would be auctioned to recover what they owe. In other words, contract farming is luring farmers with higher returns but it could make them even more vulnerable than they are.
Robbing Workers of Jobs
Until the 1960s, almost all farm work was done manually in India, even in Punjab and Haryana, where most farms use advanced machinery today. Earlier, workers took away the chaff and other byproducts of any harvest and extracted fodder or cooking fuel from them. The thresher disrupted this way of life, then the combine harvester, and now farmers sow high-yield seed varieties that rot after they ripen and must be harvested by machines quickly.
At every stage, workers lost out. Opportunities to labor on farms shrank, so-called waste was picked up by machines and sold to factories, for example, to make cardboard from the chaff. Farmers know that farming on terms set by companies will further mechanize sowing, harvesting, storage, sorting, grading, and transportation. They understand they will be the losers again if this shift takes place.
“We don’t oppose technology, but every wave of mechanization has hurt laborers more than landlords. If machines will do everything, how will workers live?” says Lachchman Singh Sewewala, general secretary of the prominent Punjab-based farm labor union, Punjab Farm Workers Union, which represents smallholders and landless peasantry.
“The more grain is sown, harvested, and transported manually, the more workers can find work,” Sewewala says. But as the number of tractors in Punjab increased from 5,281 in 1970 to 488,000 in 2014, the number of person-hours of work performed on farms also declined significantly, a Punjab Agricultural University report from December 2017 has found.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has depicted the farmers’ movement as that of rich farmers and traders, but it is small and marginal farmers who are leading it, and workers are joining them, including factory workers and their representatives in Haryana and Punjab. They are sympathetic to the farmers’ cause because of the possible consequences flowing from one of the new laws that revokes the stocking limits earlier imposed on private food-stock traders.
So far, India’s state governments have kept private traders out of the government procurement system. For the first time, these laws permit private traders to purchase and store unlimited quantities of grain. Farmers expect this to strike a blow against the government-run subsidized food program. They say traders will sit on stock and manipulate prices, as happened not long ago with pulses. Small farmers with low income from land, and laborers, will suffer more from galloping prices.
Support for farmers is widespread due to the compulsions of Indian farmers and workers. Smallholders own 83 percent of all landholdings in India. Cultivators with the smallest landholdings—less than 0.025 acres—earn 76.5 percent of their monthly income from non-farm work. Around 43 percent of their off-farm income is from wage labor, the federally owned National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development reported in 2018.
This reliance on off-farm labor is a consequence of farms shrinking as families grow, and a symptom of the abysmal incomes they generate. While the national monthly per capita income is $123, a five-member farming family with a small plot of land earns only $22.40 per person a month.
According to an August 2017 federal government report, the average size of India’s farms shrank from 5.63 acres to 2.67 acres between 1970 and 2015. The smaller the farm, the less it earns. Also, if 43 percent of a farming family’s income is from non-farm labor, the line segregating farming families from working-class families effectively blurs.
That is why factory workers have joined the protest on Delhi’s borders despite brutal police repression. Manual laborers, small traders, and factory workers sympathize with this movement because they have roots in India’s farms and depend on them.
Indian farmers, tillers, farm-based workers, factory laborers, petty traders, etc., also belong to clans, families, villages, and regions that have a high degree of mutual economic interdependence. There are also contradictions, especially of the Hindu caste hierarchy which has seen elite-caste landlords oppress the laborers who largely belong to non-elite castes. However, farmworkers, factory workers, and landlords—big or small—are joining hands this time, from fear that the new laws will strip them of an assured income, put food in supermarket chains where it will become unaffordable, and mechanize the farms, pushing them out of work. That is why, on February 21, a 100,000-strong gathering of farmers and workers opposed these laws in the Barnala district of Punjab.
Controlling the Narrative
The federal government has repeatedly resorted to obfuscation to control the narrative about its laws. Consider its accusation that private traders in Punjab and Haryana instigated these protests to retain control over grain markets. The Punjab Agricultural University study found that agencies owned by the federal or state government purchased 98 percent of the market arrivals of wheat and rice in the state in 2014. With their two-percent share in the food staples market, private traders are in no position to mobilize a protest at the current scale.
The coming together of disparate interests and groups to protest is a testament to farmer and worker unions, especially in Punjab. Unions in the state have engaged in democratic mobilization since the 1980s. They reached out to people last summer, explaining how the new laws could crush landlords under debt, dispossess them, and make workers homeless and unemployed. And people have come pouring out from their villages to join what they think is a fight for survival—and their way of living.
*Selina Singh is a pseudonym for the author, who is a journalist in Delhi, India. The views expressed here are personal.
Photo: ©2011CIAT/NeilPalmer, CC BY-SA 2.0