New farmers’ movements

SATENDRA KUMAR

 

AS India struggles to control the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing farmers’ protest at the borders of Delhi against the three farm laws – Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment)  Act, 2020 – shows little signs of receding even after a year.

Farmer unions and their representatives have repeatedly demanded that the laws be repealed. The government claims that the three laws would give farmers the freedom to sell their produce anywhere in the country and enter into contracts with unlicensed buyers at a pre-agreed price. However, the farmers argue that they always had the freedom to sell anywhere in the country, and accuse the government of leaving them at the mercy of corporate capital that can now enter India’s farming sector with no government safeguards in place.

As the ongoing farmers’ protest moved from Punjab to the Delhi borders, and gradually spread to the hinterlands of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, both large and small farmers along with landless labourers developed an understating that the farm bills threatened their interests across class. Many smaller farmers have already faced financial difficulties during the Covid-19 induced lockdowns, which have also affected both rural and urban labourers. During the second wave, as the pandemic spread through rural India, it has devastated the already fragile rural economy and deepened the ongoing rural and agrarian distress.

The ongoing agrarian change and crises, along with the new politico-economic conditions, I argue, is set to create new solidarities in the North Indian countryside, and reflect on the farmers’ protests of 2020, which have succeeded in bringing together  farmers and labourers across class, caste, gender and religion amidst the many insurmountable fault lines.

In what follows, I argue that the ongoing processes of socioeconomic differentiation generated, particularly by the neoliberal economic policies since the 1990s, have shifted the agrarian economy towards non-farm occupations and transformed the rural economy and society drastically. The current wave of farmers’ protests reflects the restructuring of the agrarian landscape and ways in which the three farm bills threaten the interest of agrarian populations across social groups. The current wave of ongoing farmers’ protests brought agrarian issues to the forefront of national politics and have renewed agrarian politics that had been marginalized over the last three decades. It provides an opportunity to think about the reconstruction of the rural and agrarian in ways that address both social and environmental injustices.

 

 

In the 1980s, India’s rich farmers’ protests had emerged as a strong political force that played an important role in the overthrow of the Congress government in the1989 elections. Led by the rich farmers of dominant castes, products of the Green Revolution, the new farmers movement of the 1970s and 1980s played an important role to advance their economic interests and shaped Indian national politics. While the Green Revolution produced a class of rich farmers, neoliberal economic policies rendered them economically vulnerable and affected the rural across caste and class groups. Rural economic inequalities increased and class divisions sharpened.

In the 1990s, economic reforms shifted the agrarian economy to non-farm occupations and deepened the ongoing agrarian crisis.1 The combination of a deepening agrarian crises and growing economic diversification resulted in subsiding new farmers’ movement during the 2000s.

As the Green Revolution advanced to the western districts of Uttar Pradesh, farmers’ income stagnated and landholdings became smaller through subdivisions. While inputs cost increased, farm production stagnated. This has resulted in putting richer farmers into a debt cycle. The ongoing reduction of landholding size has made agriculture economically unviable. As of now, small farmers and farmer-labourers account for over 85% of farming households in the Indian countryside. Most importantly, advancement of the Green Revolution introduced an increasingly commercialized version of agriculture that was difficult for small farmers to cope with.2

 

 

A longitudinal study of Khanpur village in Meerut district shows that small farmers and farm labourers both struggled to make ends meet through agriculture.3 Some of them partly worked on farms, and partly earned their livelihood by taking non-farm jobs in the nearby town. Sons of small farmers ended up working as salesmen, security guards and petty businessmen. Artisans and landless have also diversified their livelihood strategies by taking up jobs in an expanding informal sector such as construction and services in cities like Meerut, Ghaziabad, Noida and Delhi. Some of the artisans and labourers from rural villages of western Uttar Pradesh have integrated their generational skills of carpentry and masonry into the new economy.

In Khanpur village, some of the young nais changed into barbers and opened men’s salons and haircut shops, while dhobis became drycleaners and laundrymen by putting up stalls in urban neighbourhoods.4 A few from the artisan castes have acquired middle class jobs in cities and the government sector. This has resulted in making castes and households multi-occupational. Across castes, intra-caste and intra-household inequalities are on the rise. While men work in the nearby cities, farm work has increasingly been taken over by women in rural western UP.

In the wake of these developments, small farmers have gradually come to occupy the central space in the countryside and become key players in the new socio-economic conditions. Being in economically vulnerable positions, a majority of small farmers share economic interests with marginal or farmer-labourers, landless labourers, along with the urban pre-cariat. The continuing process of socio-economic differentiation, added to a sense of growing vulnerability in the face of farm reforms, and the material impacts of Covid-19, are creating a different political dynamic in the north western region.

 

 

A new alliance of  small farmers, farmer-labourers and landless labourers across caste, gender and religion has been taking shape. The category of farmer and labourer are blurred and overlap at the lower rungs of the agrarian economy. Many small and marginal farmers work as wage labourers as their landholdings are insufficient to survive. Their economic proximity with labourers creates conditions for them to work together. Most importantly, non-farm jobs such as salesmen, technicians, and office boys/girls do not provide enough for a decent life, and ultimately people are compelled to fall back on their village resources.

While the first wave of the Covid-19 was primarily urban, the second one ravaged rural India. During the first wave the urban economy was badly affected but the rural economy remained unaffected because the lockdowns were not strict. As a result agriculture, which is the primary driver of the rural economy providing employment to half the population, continued to grow.  However, the second wave was stricter with longer lockdowns in the rural parts of the country, particularly North Indian towns such as Delhi, Meerut, Lucknow, Chandigarh and Jaipur. These long and strict lockdowns not only affected direct crop/farm sales, but also dried up income from remittances to rural households.

 

  

A large section of small farmers, who grow vegetables and cultivate flowers and directly supply to mandis in Delhi, Meerut, Lucknow and Jaipur, suffered badly during the long and strict lockdowns in the months of May and June of 2021, which also coincided with the peak harvesting season for wheat. Village after village was plagued by the pandemic in the rural districts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, creating a severe labour crises during the peak harvest season.

Due to the lockdowns in May and June, APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) mandis had to shut down. Specifically, APMC mandis in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra were closed during the peak harvesting season. Farmers were not prepared for this chaos and unpredictable situation. As the mandis were not open fully for a couple of months, the crops rotted in the fields. Due to the closure of mandis, vegetable and fruit vendors, and processing industries, were also hit.

Furthermore, in the last week of March 2021 and the first week of April 2021, there were rumours and speculations of another national lockdown modelled on the 2020 one. Fearing an inevitable lockdown, several migrant labourers, still recovering from last year’s lockdown, decided to go back home to their villages. What followed was the loss of non-agriculture based income in rural areas and loss of remittances.

In addition to that, a large section of farmers and labourers, who supplement their household income by selling milk, were also severely affected during the lockdowns in Haryana and the western districts of UP. Before the pandemic, farmers sold milk at Rs 50 per litre, but during the lockdowns the prices of milk went down to Rs 25 per litre, which directly impacted the financial position of women farmers engaged in the milk business. 

 

 

In these conditions the farmers realized the importance of the APMC mandis, which the new farm bills had directly targeted and dismantled.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, will not only create volatility in agricultural markets hurting small and marginal farmers the most, but also undermine the Public Distribution System (PDS), which provides poorer households with food grains. The PDS has been a great support and saviour for poorer and landless households during the Covid-induced lockdowns in the north western region. Landless households have survived on food grains received through the PDS during the last one and a half years.

The other two bills: The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, or the Contract Farming Act, 2020, will not only further heighten food price volatility but also give unrestrained entry to the unbridled large capital corporations to expand their operations. Most likely, it will hamper the farmers’ ability to negotiate on equal terms. And, again, it seems that bigger and richer farmers are more likely to gain from the involvement of large corporations than smaller ones, who will be the big looser. Overall, these three farm bills will not only further industrialize agriculture but also create an environmental crisis by making agriculture unsustainable.

 

 

The previous sections have highlighted ways in which the Indian countryside, particularly its north western region, has gone through a metamorphosis due to the Green Revolution and neoliberal economic reforms, which transformed socio-economic relations and created new social structure in which smaller farmers and labourer-farmers along with women emerged as the main stakeholders in agriculture. This new agrarian landscape has opened possibilities for new solidarities across caste, class, gender and religion. And, these emerging solidarities have further accelerated due to economic distress and human loss caused by the second Covid wave.

It seems that a broad-based farmer opposition to the state has been taking  shape, further strengthened by the pro-corporate policies of the BJP government that has used communal politics to polarize agrarian groups in the north western region and the Indian countryside. Corporate large capital will not only disrupt livelihoods of smaller farmers to sustain themselves through agriculture, but also poses a threat to the accumulation strategies of capitalist farmers.

While accumulation strategies continue unabated, large capital has further forced a majority of farmers to find other forms of petty self-employment and wage labour. Though, the process of rural diversification has been ongoing for a long time, liberalization has intensified it. Thus, a majority of farmers now have more in common with landless labourers than capitalist farmers, and especially after the economic distress caused by Covid-19.

Land is an integral part of the farmers’ identity. It gives them a sense of security even as they find work in the non-farm economy and cities. As mentioned above, the Covid-induced lockdowns have only highlighted the fragility of urban life and the ways in which migrant labour at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, depend on the farm and the rural. The three farm laws have not only created fear among the farmers of losing land but also disenchanted them further with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These conditions have merged land (farmer) and caste identity. 

 

 

The Covid-19 experience, dependency on farm income/produce, the fear of losing land/identity and shrinking job opportunities in both the public and private sector have brought young Jat men, hardly interested in agriculture, together with the older generation to join the current wave of farmer protests. The young Jat across religious lines, claim farmers’ identity and identify with the land. 

Finally, the fateful events of the night of 27 January 2021, and the rejection and labelling as ‘anti-national’ by the BJP government, has hurt the dignity of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim Jat kisans, and accelerated the process towards a larger alliance between farmers and labourers including women. The ongoing farmer protests have shown the potential to challenge the communal politics of Hindutva, simultaneously bringing together the big, small, marginal and landless farmer as well as young ones on one
manch
for the cause of farmers and agriculture.

It seems that the farmers’ identity is again rising in the north western region, with the potential to change political equations in North India. More importantly, the farmers’ leadership is constantly growing and reaching out to Dalit labour that had distanced itself from the rich Jat farmer and different outfits of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in the 1980s and 1990s in Punjab, Haryana and western UP.

 

 

In UP and Haryana, the political rise of the Most Backward Castes that were mobilized by the BJP and RSS in the 2000s by projecting them as the ‘victims’ of the landowning OBCs such as Jats5 and Yadavs, has changed the political landscape in the north western region. The conflict zone has now shifted to and between the Most Backward Castes and Dalits. The hostility between the Jat farmer and Dalit labour has subsided. The new generation of Dalit associates more with the Jat marginal farmer than the Most Backward Castes such as Morya, Gaderiyas and Nishad, who are the ‘new warriors’ of Hindutva.

The support of the Bhim Army and Dalit youth to the farmers’ protests is indicative of this emerging alliance between farmers and Dalit labourers. Moreover, the Dalits have suffered from political anxiety
and face an identity crises in the post-2014 economic and political conditions which are forcing them to integrate into the larger Hindu identity.

In addition, the continuing agrarian distress coupled with the doubling of electricity charges, rising cost of diesel and fertilizers, and the unpaid dues to sugarcane farmers by mill owners, have severely affected Jat farmers across generation, caste and religious lines. Furthermore, in UP and Haryana, the BJP-led governments stringent anti-cattle slaughter measures have devastated already broken farmers as stray cattle, without favouring any caste or religion, has continued to eat and ruin crops. The state supported vigilante groups have created fear among ordinary villagers and farmers including labourers and women.

 

 

In the western districts of UP, the Jat farmer had faced difficulty in finding agricultural labour and help as a large number of Muslim artisans and labourers, displaced by the 2013 riot, had left the villages. Most importantly, the fear of being killed by each other when out at night in the fields for agricultural work has devastated both communities. These everyday hardships helped change their perceptions about each other. The realization that they need each other compelled farmer leaders across caste and religion to organize joint Hindu-Muslim kisan panchayats in 2017 and 2018. Rakesh Tikait under the banner of the BKU, organized a massive rally just before the 2019 elections and led a march to Delhi. Both Hindu and Muslim kisans participated in that rally.

In Punjab, the unions have been mobilizing farmers across classes, and gone further recently by building bridges between farmers and Dalit labourers. The ongoing farmers’ protests are replete with slogans of mazdoor-kisan ekta zindabad (‘long live labour-farmer unity’). The BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) has managed to bring on board other farmer unions like the BKU (Dakounda), Kirti Kisan Union, and the Punjab Kisan Union.

From the early 2000s the BKU (Ekta Ugrahan) has been working on the ground to bring together farmers and labourers by supporting the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee (ZPSC), an organization demanding land rights for Dalits, both through funds and protection against physical attacks by the dominant Jats. The ZPSC has succeeded in securing access to panchayat lands for Dalit households and to an extent even helped empower women. These struggles and solidarities have been strengthened by the ongoing farmers’ protests which have provided further ground to unite farmers and labourers.

The farmers’ movement of 2020 has shown signs of uniting the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Jat farmers across the north western region, simultaneously bringing together the big, small, Jat marginal farmer along with landless Dalit labour as well as the youth and women for the cause of kheti-kisani. While a section of young Jat men who work in cities failed to earn a decent salary, Jat women farmers are squeezed by stagnant agriculture production. These conditions are helping bring different sections of the rural population together, reflected in the composition of the ongoing farmers’ movement. The movement’s strength is its broad alliances and solidarity and it has shown the way to link socio-economic injustices to environmental injustices.

The ecological origins of Covid-19 make these connections ever more pressing the world over. While the ongoing farmers’ movement of 2020 has to address the issues of gender equality and wages in a substantial manner, a new dawn beckons amidst the many insurmountable fault lines. It has opened a space to reimagine and reconstruct the rural and agriculture.

 

Footnotes:

1. Satendra Kumar, ‘Agrarian Transformation and Emergence of New Sociality’, Economic and Political Weekly 53 (26-27), 2018, pp. 39-47.

2. A.R. Vasavi, ‘Suicides and the Making of India’s Agrarian Distress’, South African Review of Sociology 40(1), 2009, pp. 94-108.

3. S. Kumar, op. cit.

4. Ibid., p. 17.

5. Jats are classified as OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in UP.