Twenty-first century India’s farmers have written themselves into the history of the country and into the international chronicles of historic protests. It’s an irresistible force that is finally giving voice. Just as the 250 million who joined the nationwide strike by the trade unions had articulated the anger and distress of the working poor.
The solidarity, scale and pared-down simplicity of their call, that is, for the repeal of the three laws rushed through without consultation by the Narendra Modi government in September, as a confirmation of stealthily issued ordinances, is imperative and compelling. The farmers’ protest has called out the Modi government as essentially autocratic, and the BJP as unrepresentative of the farming poor, who are the predominant sector of India’s population and economy.
The protest has established that if dissent or disagreement is ignored, the discontented will make their presence felt. It proved that brutality against dissenters and the discontented cannot be used as a solution. The use of violence by the State against people is especially dangerous, when the individuals deployed to unleash the violence belong to the same rural base as the protesters. The inadequacy of the Modi government is stark, because it failed to realise the reality of the umbilical connection between the law enforcers and fighting forces and the kisan, even as it plagiarised Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”.
The Modi government, described by the ordinary protesting farmers from Punjab as “arrogant,” can now do one of two things: pivot or perish. The swelling numbers of farmers representing the collective discontent are a fact that cannot be fictionalised as a conspiracy or as anti-national.
Pivoting will require trashing the three laws -- Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities Amendment Act -- legislating the minimum support price mechanism into law for government and private buyers in agricultural markets, and rewriting the law on commercial rates for power consumed by farmers, cancelling fines for stubble burning. If the Modi government does what is being asked, peacefully and unanimously by the 40 representatives who attended the second round of meetings with agriculture minister Narendra Tomar, then it can save face.
To defy the demands by India’s farmers is as politically risky for the BJP as it would be reckless for the Modi government. If the BJP were an urban phenomenon, it could try and confuse its constituents about the character of the protest and the position of the farm union leaders who have virtually surrounded New Delhi. But it is not. The politics of an ephemeral Bharat Mata has been overturned by the reality of farmers, men and women, precisely articulating their problems, their clear-eyed understanding of how their protest shall continue and what is the minimum outcome they are waiting for.
The remarkably controlled and peaceful farmers, especially from Punjab, as the Modi government ought to understand, have quit their fields at the beginning of the rabi crop season. The winter wheat, rice, pulses, oilseeds, is a commercial crop, sold to sustain the permanently indebted farmer. As every economist and cultivator-politician like Narendra Singh Tomar and Rajnath Singh is well aware, farming is a zero-profit and negative profit sector the world over. Generation after generation a few farmers barely break even, that is, zero profit, while the rest remain in debt, that rolls over, season to season. The cash they make is not profit.
Having harvested the kharif crop, which for the 86 per cent marginal and small farmers of India, is the crop they stock to feed their families and sell only the tiny surplus that is left over, missing the rabi season, which is irrigation and therefore power intensive, means that they are impoverishing themselves in order to change the rules enacted by the Narendra Modi government. Recent reports indicate that around 40 per cent of the rabi crop has been sown in Punjab. Without the 60 per cent that remains to be sown and cannot be sown without the men, who are joining the protest in increasing numbers from Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra, the Indian economy could be looking at an unprecedented crisis, deeper than the current level of contraction and recession.
India is the third largest producer of wheat, rice, pulses, cotton, peanuts in the world. Its trade in agricultural commodities is around $40 billion. The states that produce the surplus which keeps the Indian economy ticking, including Karnataka, where farmers have called a seven-day protest from December 7, have all registered their solidarity by joining the protests that surround the national capital. This is not conspiracy or a blockade masterminded by terror outfits; it is farmers who have reached the end point.
Nine days of protesting out on the highways in the coldest weeks in 70 years is a visual document drawing attention to the land alienation of farmers who once owned the tiny plots they cultivated, to the thousands of farmers who have committed suicide because they had lost hope in dealing with the accumulated debt. India’s marginal and small farmers never expect to the debt free; they hope to keep their debts within manageable limits.
Around 500 have committed suicide, according to reports, in Punjab between June and September. Farmers, men and women, are clear that the new laws will deepen the crisis, unless they are cancelled.
The demand is clear and simple; and new laws are needed. The new laws must be drafted in consultation with the farmers’ organisations, who know what they need and what is due to them as the backbone of India’s economy, as the backbone of its law enforcing machinery, its fighting forces, its cheap, unprotected labour force, the source of the endless army of domestic workers who ease the lives of India’s middle class. To negotiate for anything less, by breaking up the totality of the demands, as the farm leaders point out, would be a sellout.
Good faith as a negotiating principle has been rejected by the farmers’ unions. The farmers are seeking structural changes that would shift the paradigm within which agriculture and farmers have been perceived by the “modern” State. It is the Narendra Modi government’s hard luck that it finds itself in the mess which is as much of its own making as it is an accumulated mountain of grievances.