India’s Farmers Are Mobilizing Against the Modi Government

Shinzani Jain (Jacobin) 5 April 2024

The Indian farmers’ movement has posed the biggest challenge to Narendra Modi’s government since it came to power. With elections approaching, farmers are mobilizing once again to challenge rural impoverishment under a destructive neoliberal model.

Just over three years ago, Indian farmers mobilized in one of the biggest social movements the country has seen for decades, and delivered a significant blow to the government of Narendra Modi. Since the beginning of this year, they have resumed their protest campaign.

An umbrella organization of farmers’ unions from the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh issued a call for a “Dilli Chalo” march to Delhi in February. The farmers faced heavy-handed state repression at the Punjab-Haryana border. One twenty-three-year-old farmer, Shubhakaran Singh from Punjab, succumbed to a head injury that he received while advancing toward Delhi.

The Dilli Chalo call was spearheaded by two groups, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) (Non-Political) and the Kisan Mazdoor Morcha (KMM). SKM (Non-Political) is a breakaway faction from the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a collective front of farmers’ unions across the country that led the farmers’ movement in 2020–21. On February 23, the SKM itself joined the ongoing call for protests.

The SKM then issued a further call asking the farmers’ organizations to go to the Ramleela Ground in Delhi for a conference. More than fifty thousand farmers from around the country took part in the assembly held on March 14, which culminated in a plea for unity among all the farmers’ organizations. The farmers’ organizations also unanimously urged the electorate to defeat the Modi government in the upcoming elections. Demands

The primary demands raised by these farmers’ unions include a legally guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for a basket of selected crops, a reduction in input costs, the waiving of farm loans, and the repeal of the Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2022. They want MSP to be calculated in line with the recommendations made by the Swaminathan Commission, the national commission on farmers.

The farmers’ organizations unanimously urged the electorate to defeat the Narendra Modi government in the upcoming elections. In 2006, the Swaminathan Commission recommended that the farmers be paid 50 percent over the comprehensive cost (C2) as MSP (C2+50). This has been a core demand of the farmers since 2006. C2 includes imputed costs of family labor, imputed rent of owned land, and imputed interest on owned capital. The central government’s Commission of Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) calculated and publishes C2 every year in its Price Policy Reports. The farmers’ unions launched the previous round of protests to oppose three farm laws introduced by Modi’s government. In December 2021, the groups decided to call off the protests when the Indian government withdrew the farm laws and agreed to discuss the other demands of the movement, including guaranteed prices and a withdrawal of criminal cases against protesting farmers. A committee was constituted to decide on matters like the promotion of zero-budget natural farming, scientific changes in the crop pattern taking account of the country’s changing requirements, and ways of making MSP more effective and transparent. The committee was to include representatives from the central government and state governments as well as farmers, agricultural scientists, and agricultural economists. A New Round of Protest However, the farmers who are back protesting argue that the committee completely failed to deliver on its promises. Badal Saroj, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha and a leader of the SKM, identified some core issues with the constitution of the MSP committee. He noted that the SKM members who should have been appointed to the committee were not appointed while the people who did receive committee places had publicly expressed their opposition to MSP for crops. Low returns for their produce have been forcing farmers into constant indebtedness.

According to Saroj, the Modi government was trying to implement the three farm laws through the back door. In the interim budget, for example, it had allowed the private sector to get involved in post-harvesting activities such as storage, processing, marketing, and branding.

There are also deeper underlying factors behind the discontent of Indian farmers. In surveys conducted during the previous round of protest, farmers reported that they were living in a state of perpetual crisis, not even receiving a minimum price for their produce that would cover the cost of cultivation and human labor. At the same time, the input costs of fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, and electricity have been increasing. Hardly able to meet the costs of cultivation, they are forced to borrow at every step.

Low returns for their produce have been forcing farmers into constant indebtedness. Agriculture has not been a viable source of livelihood for the country’s farmers over the last two decades. Adding to their woes, government procurement of agricultural produce has been falling consistently over the years. For instance, the government’s wheat procurement fell by 53 percent in 2022–23 as compared to the previous year.

According to a survey conducted by the National Statistical Office, farm debt per household increased by nearly 58 percent between 2013 and 2019. The report notes that more than half of agricultural households were in debt, with the average outstanding loan per household was Rs. 74,121 in 2018. Average household incomes in rural India are a little over Rs. 300,000.

Farm suicides in India have risen sharply the last two decades. According to the recent figures published by the National Crime Records Bureau, nearly fifty-four thousand farmers and farm laborers committed suicide between 2018 and 2022. Between 1995 and 2018, almost four hundred thousand farmers committed suicide in total. Agriculture still continues to engage a large chunk of the population in India for want of better options. According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey report for 2021–22, about 45.5 percent of the total workforce is still engaged in agricultural and allied activities, which accounted for 18.3 percent of India’s gross value added for 2022–23. While the contribution of India’s industrial and service sectors to GDP has increased, these sectors have failed to absorb the surplus labor engaged in agriculture.

The increasing fragmentation of agricultural landholdings has also made life harder for the majority of small and marginal farmers. Since the first Agricultural Census in 1971, the number of landholdings in India has more than doubled, from seventy-one million in 1970–71 to 145 million in 2015–16. The number of marginal landholdings (less than one hectare) has increased from thirty-six million in 1971 to ninety-three million in 2011.

As the number of landholdings increased, the average landholding size more than halved, from 2.28 hectares to 1.08 hectares between 1970 and 2016. At the same time, the number of landless agricultural laborers rose from 106.8 million in 2001 to 144.3 million in 2011, while the number of cultivators declined from 127.3 million to 118.8 million during the same period. For the first time, the number of agricultural laborers exceeded that of farmers.

A Deeper Crisis
These negative trends — declining profitability, increasing input costs, lack of alternative opportunities, stagnating productivity — are ultimately symptoms of a deeper agrarian crisis. That crisis stems from a history of negligent policies by successive governments in India.

In most Indian states, land reform ended up being a theoretical aspiration that was never turned into a reality. At the root of the problem is the skewed nature of capitalist development undertaken in India immediately after independence and the failure of land reforms in most Indian states, with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, West Bengal, and Tripura. In most states, land reform ended up being a theoretical aspiration that was never turned into a reality.

In the absence of egalitarian agricultural reforms, government efforts to promote agrarian development ended up benefiting the rich and landed rural farming classes disproportionately. Class and caste inequalities thus widened alongside agricultural growth and increasing productivity.

Greater inequality also resulted from the Green Revolution, under which ownership of land, resources, and accessibility of agricultural credit enabled the rich and landed rural peasantry to reap disproportionate gains. This trajectory of inequitable development resulted in mass poverty, unemployment, and a decline in purchasing power for the rural peasantry. This in turn led to lagging growth in the size of the internal market and dampened the progress of industrialization.

By the early 1990s, India found itself in the midst of a full-blown balance-of-payments crisis. The Indian government responded by implementing neoliberal economic reforms, liberalizing trade and finance and privatizing public enterprises. Within the agricultural sector, these reforms translated into deflationary fiscal policies and a reduction in public investment for agriculture, including rural infrastructure, irrigation, agricultural subsidies, and research.

A decline in rural and agricultural spending also adversely affected employment generation in rural areas. Cuts to subsidies for fertilizers, fuel, and power sent agricultural input costs spiraling. The opening of international trade also coincided with a fall in the international prices of nonfood grain crops like cotton and oilseeds. At the same time, the protection provided by the government to the peasantry in the form of agricultural subsidies and MSP weakened.

It is no surprise that this agrarian crisis has been pushing farmers from all classes — rich and poor, landed and landless — to demand a change in their economic circumstances. Despite the multifaceted nature of the crisis, debates in the Indian media tend to focus on peripheral aspects of the question. Once again, the pages of national newspapers are filled with discussion of MSP or diversification of agriculture — not to mention constant reports on the disruption farmers’ blockades have been causing for ordinary people — while the deeper issues are overlooked.

The 2024 Elections
India is scheduled to hold general elections in April and May 2024. In preparation for the campaign, Modi’s government staged a grand ceremony in January 2024 in which the prime minister himself inaugurated the Ram Mandir temple at Ayodhya, the former site of a mosque that was demolished by a mob in 1992. The religiously charged atmosphere was designed to appeal to India’s Hindu majority even as the issues that are central to their lives — unemployment, hunger, farm suicides — remained unaddressed.

The primary impact of the farmers’ movement has been to bring these material issues back to the forefront of discussion. This wave of farmers’ protests has once again dented Modi’s image of invincibility. According to Badal Saroj of the SKM, the movement has led to a consolidation of the political opposition in states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and to some extent Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh:

Owing to the organic nature of the struggle, the movement has pushed the situation beyond the control and expectations of the government. The issues that they intended to conceal are back in everyday discussions of the people.

The farmers’ demand for a legally guaranteed MSP at the rate of C2 + 50 percent has been publicly endorsed by the opposition bloc that calls itself the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). The leader of the Indian National Congress, Rahul Gandhi, made the following pledge:

If the INDIA bloc comes to power after the general elections, we will give a legal guarantee to MSP. Whenever farmers have asked for something from the Congress, it has been given to them. Be it loan waiver or MSP, we have always protected the interests of cultivators and will do so in future.

We have to recognize that the depth of the agrarian crisis makes it impossible to resolve it through quick fixes. The perseverance of the farmers reflects the excruciating situation through which they have suffered over the last few decades. This will motivate them to keep mobilizing again and again. Through their continuing struggle, they will keep bringing the material issues faced by the people of India back on the agenda, irrespective of who gets elected this year.


Links Search