[News] Farmers’ Protests in India: Fight of a People Against Neoliberalism’s Killing Machine (Part 2)

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Sun Jan 3 13:38:25 EST 2021

Protests in India: Fight of a People Against Neoliberalism’s Killing
Machine (Part 2)By Saheli Chowdhury  –  Dec 28, 2020

The present situation

The protests began on September 23 as thousands of farmers and agricultural
workers of Punjab started blocking railways and major roads in protest
against the three farm bills that had been presented in the Parliament at
that time. Protests also started in the neighboring state of Haryana
spearheaded by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), one of the leading
organizations of AIKSCC, which the state administration tried to repress
even imprisoning leaders on false charges. Two months later, on November
26, farmers from Punjab started their “March to Delhi”, and on the way they
were to be joined by protestors from the neighboring states. As they tried
to enter Haryana they were stopped by police barricades on the bridge
between the two states, and tensions escalated as Haryana police used tear
gas and water cannons
the farmers on the cold winter morning. The farmers, who had come equipped
with tractors, trucks and road-rollers, finally managed to break through
the barricades and continue on their way. As they reached the outskirts of
Delhi, where the first rallies of farmers and farm workers from Rajasthan,
Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had arrived, they again faced
paramilitary, barricades, barbed wires, trenches, tear gas and water
cannons, causing some to comment that Delhi was appearing more heavily
guarded than the India-Pakistan border. The Home Ministry even wanted the
state government of Delhi to turn over the stadiums under its jurisdiction
to be converted to temporary jails to detain the protesting farmers, which
was turned down, with the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal declaring
that “the farmers are not terrorists”. Finally, after a lot of tussle and
threats, the protestors were allowed to start their demonstrations at
“designated sites”. Since then, hundreds of thousands of farmers and their
allies have been blockading all major roads to Delhi, braving the cold wave
that has gripped entire northern India, and their numbers are swelling
every day as new people are joining. There are women and children also,
though much smaller in number compared to the men.

Despite provocations, the protests continue to be peaceful. At all the
protest sites in and around Delhi, the protesting farmers have built “cities
within a city
complete with tents, community kitchens, food banks, solar panels, water
geysers to combat the cold, toilets, libraries, and other necessities and
amenities of life. There are also primary medical clinics run by real
doctors, and an ambulance service. All this has been the result of
community organizing as NGOs, local residents, students’ organizations,
organizers of local gurdwaras and mosques have participated in the
construction of these “cities” and are providing help and funding, like
they had done for the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors last year
and earlier this year. Sikh organizations from around the world have
provided funds too, according to various reports. The farmers had already
come equipped with stocks of food to last two months, six according to some
reports, and their stocks are continuously being replenished by their
allies both in the city and in their native places. There continues to be
huge police presence around the protesting farmers’ camps, trying to
“separate” the city from these “cities” and to “maintain law and order”.
However, according to some reports
local residents carrying food or clothing for the protestors are being
allowed to drive upto the edge of these “cities”.

On December 8 a national strike was called by trade unions and social
organizations in solidarity with the protesting farmers. Recently, farmers
have also started a relay hunger strike at various protest sites around
Delhi. Farmers and agricultural workers of far-flung states in the south
and the east who have been unable to go to the national capital due to
curbs on movement for the pandemic, have been organizing in their home
states. By now hundreds of protests have occurred all over the country. In
the southern state of Kerala, organizations pertaining to the platform of
AIKSCC started a protest
December 12, to be continued indefinitely. On December 16, over 50,000
farmers rallied to Kolkata
the state capital of West Bengal, in support of the farmers protesting in
Delhi, and the rally was joined by students’, women’s and youth
organizations and the Left parties of the state. On December 20, close to 2000
farmers from Maharashtra
the banner of AIKS started a march to join their counterparts in Delhi. On
December 26 they were stopped at Shahjahanpur at the Rajasthan-Haryana
border by the Haryana state police, and since then they have been
organizing a sit-in demonstration on the highway.

RELATED CONTENT: Farmers’ Protests in India: Fight of a People Against
Neoliberalism’s Killing Machine (Part 1)

The demonstrations have not been without losses, either. Until the time of
writing this, thirty-three protestors lost their lives
to cold, exhaustion, illness and accidents, including a religious leader
who took his own life as he “failed to tolerate the plight of the farmers”.
Homage was paid to them all over the country on December 20. These
incidents have only strengthened the resolve of the protestors.

The government and the BJP, for their part, have tried to undermine the
protests and malign the protestors
calling them ‘anti-nationals’, ‘terrorists’, ‘separatists’, and declaring
that the protests have been ‘infiltrated by the far-Left’ and ‘paid by
Pakistan’, like they did in case of all previous protests in the country,
but this time these moves have been mostly ridiculed. Trying to fracture
the protests along religious lines has failed too. The subservient media
also has drawn the ire
the protestors for peddling government propaganda, with demonstrators at
multiple sites displaying posters naming and shaming the media houses. Some
volunteers have started a bilingual biweekly newspaper
“Trolley Times” to cover the protests (trolley means modified tractors).

Until now, multiple talks between the protest leaders and the government
have failed, as the government continues to stubbornly cling to the farm
laws and only wishes to tolerate some “amendments” to them, while the
protesting farmers demand a complete rollback. The general secretary of the
AIKS and a leader of the organization in West Bengal, Hannan Mollah, who is
present in Delhi, has expressed his irritation over the “insincerity” of
the government and its “complete refusal to listen to the country’s
farmers”. “They are probably thinking that if enough time passes we will
get tired and the protest will dissipate,” he said. “But this time we are
not returning until our demands have been met.” Several demonstrators at
different protest sites have expressed similar sentiments. “We will remain
here until 2024 (time for the next parliamentary election) if the need
arises,” reiterated a protestor at a site at the Delhi-Haryana border.

State governments headed by non-BJP parties, for their part, have tried to
adopt positions against the farm laws. A number of states have declared
that they will not implement the laws, citing the constitutional provision
that agriculture is a state subject. The government of Punjab became the
first in the country to pass bills
the laws at the state legislative assembly. The Legislative Assembly of
Delhi passed a resolution against the laws in a special session of the
assembly on December 17, during which the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind
Kejriwal tore copies of the laws
a show of solidarity with the protestors. The government of Kerala tried to
convene a special session
the state legislature to adopt a resolution against the said laws, but the
governor of the state (who is a representative of the central government in
essence) has denied permission for it. It is expected that the government
will pass a resolution in the regular session scheduled for January if
unable to convene a special session. Along similar lines, the Supreme Court
of India, on December 17, refused to allow the central government to evict
the protestors
declaring that the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental right
enshrined in the Constitution of the country.

RELATED CONTENT: Indian Farm Widows Join Protests Against Agriculture

The demands and the reasons

The demands articulated by the protestors are simple: repeal of the three
farm laws and the amendment to the electricity law (that seeks to remove
subsidies to electricity used for agricultural purposes), and assuring the
minimum support price (MSP) to farmers as recommended by the National
Commission of Farmers – better known as the Swaminathan Commission (after
the renowned agro-scientist who headed it). The commission had presented
its report in 2004 but none of the successive governments has discussed it
in the Parliament. The ruling party and the national government have
flip-flopped, failed, and outright lied about the implementation of the
MSP. In fact, the MSP issue has been a catalyst for the current protests.
In 2014, on the campaign trail for the parliamentary election, BJP (at that
time in the Opposition) had promised that if they came to power they would
implement the major recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission within
twelve months. Within twelve months of coming to power, they informed the
courts that those recommendation could not be implemented because that
would lead to “distortion in market prices” [of crops]. In 2016 the then
Agriculture Minister denied ever having made any promise like that; in 2017
the government discarded the Swaminathan Commission in favor of the “Madhya
Pradesh model” (a model that led to huge protests and police firing on
protestors in the state in 2017), and in 2019 the then Finance Minister
lied and said that the government had already implemented the MSP
recommendation. What they did implement was nothing but a manipulation
the original recommendation. On top of that, only a tiny fraction of the
country’s farmers – 6% according to government data – receive that MSP.

There is also a demand for convening a special session of the parliament
dedicated to the agrarian crisis, similar to what was demanded by the Kisan
Mukti March two years ago. Another demand that is expected to come up in
the course of the movement is the waiver of farm loans and making a better
agricultural credit system available to farming families – preferably
through public or cooperative banks, because in this case also the
government does not have a good record. When agricultural debt waiver
schemes were announced, those came with a lot of conditions that deprived
most farmers from accessing the schemes, while the bulk of the
compensations went to banks and agribusinesses
not to the agriculturists themselves.

At the Kolkata rally on December 16, a middle-aged man, a potato farmer
from Hooghli district (famous for potato cultivation and also infamous for
farmer suicides in recent years), expressed his apprehensions to me: “The
PM says that we can sell our produce to anyone anywhere in the country.
Very well. Now tell me, who has both the money and the means to do that? I
don’t own a truck, not even a matador (smaller vehicle for carrying goods).
Neither am I able to rent one, it costs a lot – and then you know the price
of petrol (gasoline), diesel – rising every day. If I get the news that
some company is buying potato at a high rate in Tamil Nadu (state in the
extreme south), can I take my product and go there? No. But the cold
storage owner can – and it will be he, and people like him, who will
benefit from the new laws. He will buy potatoes dirt-cheap from us, and go
and sell it at higher prices elsewhere, because he has the means to do
that.” This is exactly what P. Sainath means when he says that the new farm
laws will only strengthen the grip of the middlemen on Indian farmers, and
is exactly what is already happening in West Bengal, Bihar and many other

A friend of mine, a college student who hails from a family of rice
cultivators in East Bardhaman district (called the ‘granary of Bengal’ for
its role in rice production, and the region worst affected by farmer
suicides in the state), adds to this: “It will be very much like the Jio
thing (referring to the telecommunications company Reliance Jio owned by
the billionaire Mukesh Ambani). Just like they first achieved a near
monopoly by offering cheap rates (on calls and internet), and now that they
have the market under control, they are increasing prices and even
dictating the country’s telecom policies, similarly the corporates will
offer good rates on crops for two-three years and then they will control
even what we eat.” He is not wrong, especially given the fact that Reliance
already engages in contract farming in parts of the country and has
expressed support for the new farm laws, together with the Adani Group that
wishes to “tap into the country’s agribusiness potential”. With their
declarations the reality that it is the corporations that are running the
government is exposed by now, which led farmers and others to brand the
current government ‘Ambani-Adani government’ and call for a boycott of
products of those companies.

At the same time, many scholars and activists have pointed out
when the largest capitalist economies like the United States and countries
of the EU provide billions of dollars in subsidies to their agricultural
sectors, why should the agricultural economy of India be liberalized to
corporate interests? In the present situation the farm laws that are needed
should have looked very different from the ones that the government has

But what about the pandemic? Are the protestors – by now numbering a few
hundred thousand – sitting on roads in and around Delhi for a month and
will be sitting indefinitely, not afraid of contracting the infection and
dying? “We are already dying,” retorted some protesting farmers to the
Delhi police personnel who had tried to warn them of COVID. “If we do not
die of the virus we will surely die of poverty.” Many have expressed
similar sentiments, hailing the current uprising against the farm laws as a
battle for the lives of common Indians. It may sound extreme, but it is
true as the new acts would also lead to widespread food insecurity
they are very likely to disrupt the already weak public distribution system
(PDS), according to apprehensions expressed by the renowned economist
Prabhat Patnaik and D. Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of
India (CPI). India has consistently slid down the Global Hunger Index
spite of neither experiencing war nor economic sanctions) and is placed
much behind its poorer neighbors in the subcontinent. Calculations of food
availability and consumption data show that both per capita food
consumption and per capita food availability have decreased during the
neoliberal era
falling below the same for 1960s or ‘70s, prompting some economists to
conclude that India is living through an invisible famine. The recently
released National Family Health Survey
data paints a dismal picture of chronic malnutrition and wasting in
especially women and children, and it has to be kept in mind that the data
of the survey was collected before the pandemic; the next phase of the
survey (to be conducted in 2021) is expected to show a worse image.
Moreover, in the last few decades India has experienced an unprecedented
concentration of wealth
the hands of a minuscule corporate elite, with the top 10% of the
population owning 77% of the national wealth. In 2017, 73% of all wealth
generated in the year went to the richest 1%, while the poorest half of the
country (67 million people) had only 1% increase in their wealth. All this
results in the situation that close to 800 million people have to depend on
the public distribution system – “rations” as it is called in India – for
food grains and edible oil (number provided by the government of India in
its first pandemic package). This system has already been dismantled
continuously over the last three decades. With the proposed dilution of the
government’s procurement markets (APMCs) as mentioned in the new farm laws,
it is feared to collapse entirely.

This fear is not an exaggeration, say the people suffering acutely from the
situation. “We, the growers, are also consumers of food,” explained a
coordinator of the AIKSCC in my district, South 24 Parganas (West Bengal).
“A single person cannot cultivate all types of crops. Many of us do not
even cultivate food grains (main constituent of our diets) or vegetables;
some grow cash crops which are not even food (like cotton), so most of us
are net purchasers of food items in the market. We are the ones being
harmed both ways – we get next to nothing on our produce as most of the
times we are forced to sell at a loss, and then when we try to buy what we
need the high prices send most things out of our reach.”

The rural crisis is no longer limited to the countryside, it has become a
social crisis now, a national crisis. Hence, as P. Sainath says
“It is time for non-farmers to stand up” – to stand with the farmers of the

*Featured image: Women raise slogans during their protest against the farm
laws in Bathinda, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Credit: PTI Photo*

*Saheli Chowdhury is a millennial from West Bengal, India, studying physics
for profession but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history
and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She
works for Orinoco Tribune.*


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