'Long live farmer-laborer unity': Contextualising the massive resistance going on in India

Interview by Veena Dubal with Navyug Gill

January 3, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Law and Political Economy Project  — Although it has hardly broken through the parochialism of the US news cycle, India is currently experiencing what is perhaps the largest strike wave in world history. In this post, Veena Dubal interviews Navyug Gill about the strikes, the agricultural reforms that led to them, what those outside India can learn from them, and what the future might portend.

Venna Dubal: Farmers and laborers are engaged in a massive protest in India right now, but few in North America are paying attention. Why is this protest happening, and what are the goals of the protestors? 

Navyug Gill: As of right now, there are perhaps 300,000 people camped at the major arteries of the capital city New Delhi in India. These are farmers, laborers, and their vast supporters across all segments of society, organized by 31 trade unions. They have been there for almost a month, since November 26, and their numbers grow each day.

The immediate aim of the protest is to force the government to repeal three agricultural bills passed into law in September of this year. These laws are designed to deregulate and privatize the agrarian economy. They (1) allow private corporations to purchase crops without fees or taxes at market prices [as opposed to prices set by the government]; (2) give corporations the power to stockpile commodities in unlimited quantities; and (3) allow corporations to engage in contract farming without proper legal recourse for farmers, in the event of a dispute.

These bills were promulgated in June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic lockdown, without consulting any farmer or laborer unions Right from the beginning there’s been an incredible groundswell of opposition which led to a popular mobilization across society that culminated in the march on the capital. At present, the protestors and the government are at a tense impasse.

Can you situate the protests within the history of Indian agrarian political economy over the past half century?      

I think in order to understand the depths of the current protest, we need to go back to the Green Revolution period in the late 60s and 70s.

Remember that post-independence India was food insecure, and had to import grain just to feed its population. In response, the Indian government, in conjunction with the World Bank, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and US State Department, implemented a set of new productive technologies and strategies designed to increase agricultural output. This included the introduction of high-yield hybrid seed varieties, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and mechanization through tractors and submersible tubewells. As a result, there was an exponential rise in wheat and rice year after year. The government chose Punjab [and a state carved out of Punjab in 1966 – Haryana] because it is an exceptionally fertile region: well irrigated, high-quality soil and suitable climate. It also had experienced and dedicated farmers who self-cultivated their landholding. In other words, this was the region where the government could maximize returns with these new capital-intensive technologies. It was the laboratory for developmental capitalism.

At this time, in order to induce farmers to adopt these changes, the government instituted two key procurement mechanisms. One was the “minimum support price” or MSP, and the second was a government market or what we call mandis. The MSP is the price the government commits to paying farmers for their crops. A mandi is a physical space where farmers [from the Punjab and Haryana regions] bring their produce to be sorted, weighed stored or shipped, and to get paid accordingly. There’s no bidding because the sole buyer is the government, which purchases all the wheat and rice at the respective MSP. The government then resells this produce on the wholesale market [including to private companies], but they also direct the food through a massive public distribution system. We must remember that India is still a largely malnourished or undernourished country. Outside of major urban centers, huge swaths of the population actually depend on government subsidized food.

The mandi and MSP systems only exist in Punjab and Haryana, and by and large do not extend to the rest of the country. And that’s why the protests have been concentrated in that region. In other parts of the country private companies can buy directly from farmers, which is why their incomes are so low.

How is the minimum support price or MSP determined, and what is the public policy that has motivated this system for all these many decades?

The government consults a commission that sets the MSP through a complicated equation that takes into account input costs like seed, fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, as well as the price of hired and family labor. The details become the subject of periodic debate. It’s somewhat similar to the Canadian health care system where the prices for medical procedures are set and adjusted at intervals by the government in consultation with doctors and independent experts. It’s not exactly a simple process – but that’s what agricultural economists do.

The idea behind the MSP is that farmers should know in advance the price that the government will pay for their crop.  This, the government believed, would get the farmers to adopt the Green Revolution technologies, including high yield seeds, pesticides, and tractors.  If the farmers could anticipate how much they would earn, then they could decide how many acres to plant with these new methods.

With the MSP and mandi system in place, Punjab had a massive increase in output. To give you a sense of what happened, Punjab makes up 1.5% of the territory of India; it has something like 2% of the population.  But for decades it produced 60 to 70% of the grain—both wheat and rice—that feeds the entire country. This increase is what has allowed in India to be food self-sufficient.

But India’s Green Revolution is not entirely a success story, is it?

That’s right.  The Green Revolution also had a severely detrimental effect on society. From the start, environmentalists saw that the fertilizers and pesticides were poisoning the soil and depleting the water table. Social activists observed that these changes were causing friction in terms of caste hierarchy and gender relations. Economists warned that such dramatic increases were unsustainable, and that wealth was being concentrated in fewer hands with rising indebtedness.

In response, a range of scholars, experts and leaders articulated alternative visions for how to re-organize the agrarian economy so that it is not so dependent on these monocycle crops: wheat and rice.  These alternatives were universally ignored, year after year, decade after decade. We have had periodic farmer agitation to raise the MSP to account for increasing costs, labor, and inputs, and to make the mandi system more transparent. This happened throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s.

In fact, there’s a very important document called the Swaminathan Report which was actually commissioned by the government in 2004.  It was a comprehensive review of agricultural policy  – from land redistribution to access to credit, irrigation methods to technology adaptation, production targets to farmer suicides – and contained scores of serious recommendations for how to adjust and correct some of the problems that had come up in the MSP and mandi system. But it too has been ignored, both by the Congress and the BJP parties [Indians two major political parties].

So there has been a great deal of research on how to fix the mandi system, and now, instead of following those recommendations, the government has just passed a set of laws that will destroy the system entirely and put it in the hands of private interests.

Exactly. That is what makes the current situation so volatile. It’s really galling when you hear economists justifying these new laws by saying we needed to do something, because nothing was being done. There are an abundance of suggestions on the table. There are so many ways to actually bring about meaningful change. People have been articulating them for a half century, and yet they have just been dismissed or maligned.  And then suddenly, the government adopted these completely neoliberal laws, without any input from the farmers and unions and others who have been working on these issues for decades. We are now in this strange predicament where, far from a radical overhaul, many people just want the government to adopt its own recommendations [from previous commissions and reports]

It seems like these new laws came out of nowhere, in the middle of a pandemic.  Why were they passed this year? 

There’s speculation that the two major companies that are going to benefit the most from these changes, the Adani group and the Ambani group—both of which have monopolies in multiple industries—were putting pressure on the government to allow them entry into agriculture because that’s where they can realize the most profits in the short term, with other sectors of the economy stagnating and India going into a recession.

How can we understand this alignment between these major industrialists and the right wing, Hindu-supremacist BJP government in India? Is the BJP beholden to Ambani and Adani in some way—politically, ideologically, or otherwise? Both the Ambani and Adanis have seen their fortunes double since Modi has been Prime Minister.

I see a kind of alignment of interests. But I don’t think one is completely beholden to the other. The companies could do similar things through the Congress, and the BJP could always find other billionaires. Indeed, almost every Fortune 500 company in this country donates to both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Right now Ambani and Adani have found in the BJP a vehicle to enact their profit-driven mission.  They’ve had ties to [Prime Minister and BJP leader] Modi from his early days in Gujarat [where he was Chief Minister]. There’s a very famous photo of Modi getting on a plane to take office as Prime Minister, and the plane was the private jet of the Adanis. And, of course, Adanis and Ambanis have donated huge amounts of money to the BJP. It is now by far the richest political party in India.

Meanwhile, the BJP wants nothing more than to have these powerful capitalist interests fund their political vision, which is neoliberal Hindutva. To the usual triumvirate of “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” or one language, one religion and one country, we must add, one market. This is implicated in forcefully eroding regional autonomy and undermining constitutional provisions that protect minorities and state’s rights. It also means withdrawing government control and ownership of public assets to follow a global course of deregulation, privatization and financialization.

That is how large corporations are poised to benefit most from right-wing Hindu majoritarianism – a pernicious partnership.

Yes, Ambani and Adani are certainly part of Modi’s march towards a fascist Hindu state. In many ways, they—and not the government—already control many sectors of the economy. Mukesh Ambani’s group, Reliance Industries, has been compared to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil because Reliance holds a near monopoly in every sector in which they have a presence, including telecom, oil, and retail. Gautam Adani, similarly, has or is trying to establish monopolies in India’s infrastructural sectors—airports, ports, etc. 

But this concentration of private economic power has been highly criticized. How did lawmakers justify passing laws that would lead to the private monopolizations of the agrarian market–especially when so much of India relies on government food subsidies?

The question is actually sort of hard to get one’s head around, in terms of how the government could put the food security of 1.3 billion people in the hands of profit-seeking companies. The best way I can try to make sense of it is as a fanatical, delusional faith in private market activity to bring about general prosperity, even though this has been disproven and discredited around the world. That would be the charitable account.

And it’s important to understand that in no way are the Ambani and the Adani groups going to revolutionize agriculture. They’re not going to add innovation or efficiency. They’re going to be extractive and speculative and deepen financialization and profit-seeking.

Part of the context here is the larger neoliberal agenda where public systems of distribution are demeaned, decried and denounced, so then the most conservative option can seem like the only possible solution. These new agrarian laws deploy the language of “choice” and “freedom” to create a parallel private system alongside the public system. At first glance, it does not look like the outright dismantling of the public system. It’s even justified through the language of “reform.” But the hundreds of thousands of protestors know full well that it will do exactly that.

Can you detail how this parallel private system will eradicate the public market?

What farmers and laborers foresee is that if the government sets an MSP at, say, 1800 rupees per quantil [100 kilograms] for rice, the private companies might offer to buy it at 1900 or 1950 outside the mandi. So farmers will be enticed to sell their crop to them for short-term gain. And they may do that for one or two or three or even four seasons. And then when the government mandis are not getting any farmers to sell to them, it will only make sense for them to dissolve and close. That is when the private companies will have all the power to leverage their control over the distribution chain to dictate prices. A quantil of rice might drop to 1100 rupees, or 500 rupees. Farmers pressed at the time of harvest will actually have no options.  It’s a kind of bait and switch that we’ve seen before differently in the consumer sector with Walmart or Amazon, or how your own brilliant work explores and exposes for Uber/Lyft. Far from “choice,” this is the making of a monopolistic cartel before our very eyes.

In addition to strangling farmers, there is a parallel diminishing of regional autonomy vis-à-vis the central government.  Under the public system, state governments are able to charge an assortment of taxes and fees on the purchase of crops within the mandis. In effect, the central government pays those charges that end up as income for the state government.  But with these laws, private companies will be able to purchase crops outside of mandis, and thereby not have to pay any tax or fee. As a result, state governments will lose a valuable source of income, and become even more dependent on the central government to enact local initiatives and projects. It’s not for nothing that the opposition has spread to all corners of society.

That’s horrifying. It will ultimately put the availability of food for millions of Indians in the hands of these profit-extracting companies, whose chief executives have strong ties to social and political parties that espouse Hindu supremacy.

Yes, and what’s more, the new laws also allow for private companies to stockpile grain in unlimited quantities while removing government safeguards.  Doing so will give them free reign to manipulate supply and demand: build up their reserves when prices are low, and then wait until prices rise to sell for obscene profits. So much for market rationality!

At the same time, the country might be one major drought away from a famine. We must recall that large numbers of Indians require subsidized food, and that the government is only able to provide that because it has the stockpiles from being the largest purchaser from farmers. When that goes away, you can foresee one of two things in the event of a disaster. Either the government will have to buy food from private companies, which will give them another chance to make their margin of profit on the public provision; or, instead of subsidizing food, the government will resort to giving individuals money directly in the form of cash transfers to “empower” them to buy food from a private company at their own discretion. In both scenarios, a public system is dismantled to further enrich private interests. This too has parallels with so-called universal income schemes elsewhere in the world. 

It also seems like ultimately it could create or build on a dangerous culture of individual responsibility—instead of state or collective responsibility—for food security specifically. That would be disastrous in a nation that is already home to one third of the world’s malnourished children.

Could you help us to understand the part of the reforms that allows contract farming?  What does that mean, and what are the implications for the agrarian economy?

Sure. One of the three laws allows private companies to engage in contract farming. This means they can enter into binding agreements with farmers to produce and deliver certain crops. So, at the beginning of the season, the company can tell a farmer, we need x pounds of wheat from you and we’re going to buy it at y price. Always in need of money and security, the farmer will agree, and take an advance to finalize the deal.  Then, six months later at harvest, when the farmer delivers the crop, the prices might have gone up, or, if the prices go down, the company could refuse a portion for spurious reasons (like appearance or size), or throw up all sorts of other obstacles to pay less than the agreed upon sum. And as per the new law, there is no proper legal recourse. The farmer is not able to file a case against the company in civil court. Instead, the law stipulates that such disputes must be adjudicated by a sub-divisional magistrate, who will have limited authority and almost certainly be beholden to the company. Any honest person will admit that it is impossible to imagine a farmer having a chance in court against an Ambani.  

It seems like so much is on the line–not just for Punjabi farmers, but really for all of India. The protests are about much more than the lives livelihoods of laborers and farmers. They are about access to food more broadly. Is that why the protest movement has become so huge? And what forms have the protests taken? 

The movement has been utterly remarkable. The political acuity and fearlessness that people are demonstrating on the front lines is astounding. I think we in the West have a lot to learn from the example that we’re seeing there in so many different ways, from the mass politicization campaign, to direct actions against corporate interests, to the logistical feat that has sustained hundreds of thousands of people on the streets for months. For example, over the summer farmer unions printed up 100,000 pamphlets explaining these laws to people and distributed them in just one district. So if you watch a random clip on YouTube or WhatsApp, the ordinary person being interviewed is actually far more informed then somebody sitting in a studio in Delhi trying to explain these laws.

As far as the types of actions they are taking, it covers a wide spectrum. The farmers shutdown government buildings, blocked railway lines, forced open toll plazas and surrounded the homes of politicians. On the corporate side, they directly targeted the Ambani and Adani groups and their many subsidiaries – boycotting their petrol pumps and large malls, disconnecting their cell phone towers and removing SIM cards, and ceaselessly ridiculed their TV news channels as the “godi media” [discredited/beholden, literally ‘in the lap’ of the government].  

What is happening is they are actually confronting capital for the first time in recent memory in Punjab. And their movement has become one of the largest in postcolonial Indian history. Often we see protestors fighting against the government, or fighting between religious or linguistic or ethnic groups, but here it’s a fight with private corporations that are positioned to destroy people’s lives.

Has the government responded? Have they deployed disinformation campaigns as is common in other contexts?

This is very important. For the first time, I think the disinformation campaign that the government usually relies on is in shambles. The BJP IT cells are short-circuiting; they have fallen flat and do not know what to do. For months they hurled every accusation against this protest, from “these people don’t know that this will benefit them” to “it’s just a few disgruntled elites” to labelling them “separatists,” “Maoists” and “terrorists.”  And each time they have been quickly disproven and even mocked and pushed aside. As a consequence, the perception of the government as invincible is coming undone. Such condescension toward people in fact reveals the colonial mindset of the BJP.

I think this failure of disinformation is partly a result of the tenacity of the organizers on the ground. Within a span of weeks, they have set up not just Facebook and Twitter and Instagram accounts, but also a news channel, and even a newspaper. It’s called the Trolley Times, ingeniously using the humble yet practical symbol of a trolley, which is usually hitched to the back of a tractor and used in cultivation but has now become the makeshift home for thousands on the streets. It is being printed in Punjabi and in Hindi, and translated into English online. What this demonstrates is the degree to which people have been politicized, to counter government claims and articulate their own narratives.

There have also been new sorts of solidarity across different linguistic and ethnic and religious lines that are quite heartening.  The movement began with Sikh farmers and laborers, and then became multi-religious in the sense of large numbers of Hindus and Muslims and from other parts of India joined in. There is this amazing camaraderie that has developed that I think is a direct refutation of the BJP vision of Hindutva, of Hindu supremacy and the subordination of all others. The BJP really doesn’t know what to make of it, or how to respond.  The usual tactic is to marginalize and exclude and instigate massacres of Muslims and Christians, but they have a difficult problem dealing with the Sikh community. Some of this has to do with the fact that much of their political messaging is about the role of the Congress in committing a genocide against Sikhs in the 80s. Ideologically, they also claim Sikhs as part of the Hindu fold, and so need to posture a bit differently. Nevertheless, Sikhs have consistently rejected Hindutva, and engaged in a collective struggle that transcends precisely those divisions.   

All of this is seriously limiting the government’s options.  With international attention focused squarely on India, the BJP is not going to be able to engage in the kind of dirty tricks or outright violence that they’ve done in the past. Given the situation, that’s a small but hopeful sign for shaking up the global international order.

This movement will undoubtedly have political and economic implications, but it may also have social ones. As you have mentioned, it has brought together people from different religious backgrounds. Can you also reflect on the kinds of class and caste solidarities that have been forged in the last month and the potential long-term impact of this struggle on Punjabi society?

The main slogan of the protest is “Kisan-Mazdoor Ekta Zindabad” which means “Long Live Farmer-Laborer Unity”. We should see this as an aspiration, an organic attempt to forge connections amid extremely fluid and difficult conditions. This is because there is an inherent tension between the kisan and the mazdoor: usually kisans wants higher purchase prices for their crops from the government, while mazdoors wants higher wages from kisans. At the same time, the kisan is by and large a Jatt, while the mazdoor is a Dalit. So, a class hierarchy is simultaneous to a caste hierarchy, which means the nature of the tension becomes both economic and cultural.

Keep in mind that Dalits are 32% of the population of Punjab, which is the highest proportion in all of India. A majority work as landless agricultural laborers, owning less than 5% of cultivatable land. They suffer various kinds of subordination, from social stigma and public discrimination to low wages and grinding poverty.  

At the same time, in the course of this struggle the kisan and mazdoor unions have forged a remarkable solidarity. First, both face a common threat from neoliberal Hindutva, which will devastate the wellbeing of everyone in the region. Also, the kisan unions (led by Jatts) are among the most progressive forces in Punjabi society, and have supported mazdoor unions (Dalit-led) in their own struggles against conservative Jatts in the past. The most important instance of this is the campaign by the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee to help Dalits secure ownership of their legally-mandated share of common village lands. Finally, the experience of the protest itself has brought Sikh principles of radical equality to the fore: people are not only siting and sleeping alongside one another, but cooking, eating and cleaning together, and together confronting the state. This is almost impossible to fathom in the conventional Hindu social hierarchy. For these reasons Punjabi Dalits have come out in support of this movement.  

No doubt this solidarity is contingent, and that is does not mean caste-based discrimination and exploitation has altogether evaporated. But if there is hope, it is that this struggle will further empower kisans and mazdoors to bring about greater equity in Punjabi society. Regardless, these people will not be the same when they return to their villages and towns. So, without romanticizing or exaggerating, I think we too need to invest in that possibility.

What might happen from here? What are the goals of the protests? Is it just to keep the MSP and mandi system intact?

The immediate aim is a full repeal of the three laws, as well as waiving an electricity bill and dismissing legal cases for stubble burning. On these issues the protestors are utterly resolute. A few farsighted leaders have also begun saying that this struggle is not just a matter of preserving MSP and mandis in Punjab. Instead, they say there should be an MSP and mandi system across the country. Farmers in other states should receive a fair price for their crops and not suffer the nightmare of market volatility. In other words, we can actually create stability for farmers along with fulfilling the needs of people and protecting the environment. In fact, if the MSP/mandi system was expanded, the government could engage with farmers to determine collective priorities for agriculture: figuring out which crops were needed, where they were to be grown and at what prices, in order to ensure both food security and sustainability, and perhaps even surplus state income through exporting. Others have gone further, to demand greater regional autonomy and to develop an agrarian model that supports small and medium size industries for long-term economic prosperity. That might be the start of real agricultural reforms.  

Veena Dubal is Associate Professor of Law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco. Navyug Gill is an Assistant Professor of History at William Patterson University.