On December 8, more than 50 lakh people were estimated to have observed a countrywide Bharat Bandh at around 20,000 protest sites, in as many as 22 states in India. The farmers were joined in their agitation by mass organisations, trade bodies, sectoral federations, and about 24 political parties.
A day later, on December 9, farmers’ unions rejected the draft proposal presented by the Central Government listing proposed amendments to some of the provisions of the Farm Laws. Unmoved by obfuscations, the agitating farmers adopted a stern attitude as a precursor to a meeting scheduled for the same day – a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to their demand of withdrawing the Electricity Bill, 2020, and repealing the three Farm 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.
Amidst other concerns, a deep-seated fear echoed by the farmers is that their lands will be taken over. In a conversation with NewsClick, Vikram Singh Gill, a former employee of the agriculture department, currently involved in the protests said: “Our parents educated us and married my sisters off just because we had some land. They told us to barter everything but not land, because it is our mother. Now, the corporates want to snatch it from us. We cannot let it happen.”
What about these laws is inducing such fear among the farming community? The answer lies in the inevitable escalation of economic distress, indebtedness and proletarianisation of farmers, which the Farm Laws are bound to cause.
Vijoo Krishnan, peasant leader and joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, said: “Indian agriculture has been facing an acute agrarian crisis. The neoliberal economic policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation from 1991, which different governments have been implementing, have led to this kind of a crisis, where agriculture has become unviable. This is because of increasing costs of production at a time when there are no remunerative prices for their produce. That is leading farmers into a cycle of indebtedness, as a result of which many of them are also losing their land.”
The primary concern of the farmers is that the dismantling of the system of public procurement of grains and withdrawal of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) will propel them further into crisis, completely destroying the livelihood of small and marginal farmers. About 70% of rural households in India still depend on agriculture for their livelihood and close to 82% of them constitute small and marginal farmers. The worry is that in the absence of public procurement, farmers will be left at the mercy of open markets and global fluctuations of prices. This sets the stage for a takeover by large private players, who will begin to dictate the terms and conditions of their engagement with the farmers.
Agriculture becomes remunerative for farmers depending on the prices they get. These prices are determined by the demand and supply situation in the market. In case of the global market, farmers will have to compete with the cost of production and scale of production internationally. Vikas Rawal, Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, explained that in this global demand-supply situation, “Indian farmers face a lot of disadvantages. As a result, systems of public support like public procurement become critical. Within this state created by demand and supply, prices are determined by the extent of competition you have. Even in the existing system, manipulation by commission agents and traders sometimes work to the disadvantage of farmers. When these are replaced by much bigger entities, the farmers fear that they will be marginalised even further. That is the problem with corporatisation. The fear is that the corporates are even bigger than the existing traders, and that would tilt the balance of power further against the farmers.”
A situation of the sort will result in falling farmers’ incomes, forcing them into the spiral of indebtedness and economic distress. In case of distress, the only collateral that the farmer has is his land. Rawal explains that it is this process of penetration of monopoly control over capital which results in small farmers being pushed to sell off or mortgage their lands to cover their losses, causing ‘proletarianisation of farmers.’
As a result of proletarianisation, farmers may be forced to become migrant labourers, get absorbed into the working classes or they may end up becoming wage labourers on their own land. In essence, even if they retain titles to their land, they may lose control over their labour and the product of their labour.
Together, the three laws aimed to liberalise and deregulate the market for the agrarian sector. The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act targets the Public Procurement system operational through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). The regulations and controls over private players and large agri-businesses will be removed to set up a private trader-based system with no guarantee of procurement or MSP.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act introduces contract farming. The farmers will now be engaging with big traders and agribusinesses on an unequal playing field where these giant corporations will be dictating the terms of engagement – cropping patterns, quality and prices. Farmers will lose control over their labour and will be forced to eternally produce as per the demands of agri-businesses and multinational corporations.
The third legislative step amends the Essential Commodities Act to effect deregulation of cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, oilseeds, onions and potatoes. It removes the existing limits on stocks and storage of these commodities, opening the gates for large-scale hoarding and black-marketing of these commodities, formerly listed as ‘essentials.’
Calling these three laws ‘a package,’ Krishnan said: “The government is shirking its responsibility of assuring Minimum Support Price and telling us that these corporate companies will give you higher prices. Companies have interacted with farmers earlier as well, especially in the case of vegetables and so on, and farmers know that experience well. We have the experience of Bihar which gave up the APMCs in 2006, where farmers are not getting any benefit. The traders are literally procuring at dirt cheap prices and then they are profiteering from it.”
In fact, it has been argued that it is not just the farmers, but also the government, which needs the MSP-procurement system to meet its obligations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the National Food Security Act. In the last three years, public agencies have procured close to 40% of the total paddy production (45 million tons) and 32% of wheat production (34 million tons) in the country to provide for PDS. In an emergency situation such as the ongoing pandemic, procurement of huge quantum of grains from the open market will be unaffordable for the government.
In that case, why is the government hell-bent on persisting with the Farm Laws?
Krishnan explains that the three farm laws have been brought about at the behest of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and advanced capitalist countries, which have repeatedly been asking the Indian government to withdraw their system of public stock-holding and subsidies on agriculture and food.
The system of public procurement, stock-holding and distribution of food-grains were set up by developing countries after independence to ensure food security for large sections of their population who were poor. These systems and regulations for agriculture by developing and third world countries have acted as a barrier for these capitalist countries to:
access developing country markets to dispose of their grain surpluses;
robbing the tropical regions off food security and self-reliance and pushing them to become food-import-dependent;
Acquire control over land use of tropical land-mass, and;
Persuade third world governments to throw open tropical lands and agriculture to global trade.
The incessant promotion of the three Farm Laws by the Indian government is a reflection of their commitment to this imperialist agenda of the advanced capitalist countries. This shows that the farming community is absolutely right in voicing their apprehensions regarding loss of their lands. Their collective spirit in challenging the obstinacy of the government is a proof that they are equally insistent on defending their land.
The writer is an author and a researcher with Tricontinental: Institute of Social Research. The views are personal. She can be reached on Twitter @ShinzaniJain.