On the auspicious day of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev, the Prime Minister announced that the government would repeal the three controversial farm laws and then actually did so in the Winter Session of Parliament. This is a major victory of the farmer movement. It is through perseverance and peaceful determination that the farmers got the Indian state to repeal these laws finally. It is also a widely held view that the forthcoming Assembly elections in certain states, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, were a decisive factor. However, in my opinion, the primary factor prompting the repeal was the farmers’ struggle, which remained steadfast despite provocations.
However, the struggles of farmers are far from over. We should not forget that the corporatisation of agriculture is not going to stop with the repeal of these laws. Instead, corporatisation is going to take an indirect and manipulative route because right from the beginning, the idea that capital accumulation must take place in agriculture has dominated the thinking of the government. Therefore, the farm unions cannot afford to lower their guard.
The world has experienced more than three decades of globalisation, and we are now in a position to make sense of its consequences. What is emerging at the global level is a process through which the rich countries, and the rich in all countries, are becoming more and more wealthy, leading to high levels of inequalities across nations and classes. Big corporations rule the world today, and there is no light shining on another future. In such a situation, the welfare state has disappeared with a few exceptions, leaving people to fend for themselves. In capitalism, first, humans are individualised, and then they are turned into cogs in machines. The underlying assumption is that people will not get organised as a collective because they are governed by narrow personal interests. Interestingly, capitalism has also produced unlimited opportunities for individuals to get information and share their concerns on social media. As we saw right through the farmers’ movement, the information flow through social media cannot be absolutely suppressed. As a result, the state became incapable of making the farmers’ protest invisible or defaming the struggle by creating fake news.
Since the farmers and their leaders have shown discipline and consensus by adopting a non-violent path, there is no need to give them sermons about what they should or should not do. However, as a concerned and engaged academician, I would like to raise certain specific issues, both as a reminder and to point out the alternatives available to farmers.( I hope they are taken in the right spirit.) First, it is vital that the farmer unions not only continue to work in their respective areas but also coordinate each other’s activities and share ideas. The impression that once the movement ends, it would never recur must not come true.
Second, the Green Revolution has wreaked havoc on our environment and health. One reason is the intensive water use for irrigation of certain crops, which is depleting our water resources. The other reason is the irrational use of pesticides, which are directly harming people’s health and poisoning our water and lands. I would instead argue that the Minimum Support Prices (MSP) system should have an in-built practice wherein the crops traditionally cultivated in various regions are prioritised. It is widely believed that when money and profit enter any practice, morality is the first casualty. Therefore, such a step is only possible if viable alternatives are available and acceptable to farmers. During the last four decades, I have witnessed how farmers from some regions of Punjab, where water was always scarce and the land semi-arid, began to cultivate paddy after canal water was made available.
The future course of Indian agriculture is going to be determined by the circulation of agricultural commodities. The important thing to remember is that Multinational Corporations (MNCs) are going to enter the fields at the retail level. The Prime Minister’s apology is not unconditional. Rather, it is Galilean, in the sense that he is clear that the farm laws were right, but in the face of organised protest, he realised that his government has failed to convince the farmers of their benefits. When the situation settles, and once the farmers have returned to their villages, the liberalisation of agriculture will begin, except it will be done indirectly. The government of India, irrespective of which political party is in power, will never be able to subsidise agriculture to the extent that the countries like the United States do. The reason is apparent: the differences in the size and scale of agriculture in wealthy nations compared with countries like India. In India, agriculture still occupies a large scale as it has 50% of the total workforce and a 17-18% share in the GDP. Subsidising such a large population is a herculean task that India’s developing economy cannot afford. Without MSP and subsidies on inputs, Indian farmers cannot survive. Unfortunately, the present political and economic dispensation has no benevolence to think along the lines of helping farmers.
The famous French historian Marc Bloch wrote that everyday resistance against tyranny was more successful than revolution in changing society. He argued that in most cases, revolutions created a more coercive apparatus than the previous one. Now, the question is how farmers can put up an everyday resistance against the liberalisation of agriculture. It is possible through collective and regulated farm production, combined with storage and marketing of commodities, starting from the village to district level. It would involve making decisions on which crops to cultivate, how to manage district-level storage, and working out an all-India need-based market orientation.
This would reduce ‘tractorisation’, which is one of the significant factors for the high degree of indebtedness among the peasantry. Punjab has more tractors than it needs to operate its land. Some villages in Punjab have already taken such steps. However, if they continue with individualised farming, it will perpetuate intra-farmer competition and conflict. The best course is to build a cooperative system that resembles a company. There could be many other alternatives for the survival of our peasantry that could as well create a more meaningful existence for everybody involved.
The author is a former professor of sociology at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, and president of the Indian Sociological Society, New Delhi. The views are personal.