The Farmers’ Protests in India: Lessons for Marxists — Jai Vipra

At least a hundred thousand farmers have now laid siege to Delhi. Thousands more are set to join them. Farmers have been forced to use this tactic after months-long protests elicited no response from the Indian government. This post provides a brief introduction to the reasons for the protests, the role of the Indian left, and the lessons that can be drawn for the fight against neoliberalism worldwide. 

These protests are occurring in the backdrop of a prolonged crisis in Indian agriculture, where farmers’ incomes have fallen in real terms by about 1.36 percent annually between 2011–12 and 2015–16. The actions of the Modi government, including demonetization, a flawed goods and services tax regime, and throttling the livestock economy by banning cattle slaughter in many states, have deepened this crisis. But the problems of state neglect of agriculture, which contribute to farmers’ overall low incomes, are older.

The Farm Acts and the Interests Driving Them

The protests are primarily against three legal acts. These acts were first introduced as ordinances in June of this year, thereby bypassing the Parliament. They were later pushed through Parliament by disregarding relevant procedures and refusing Members of Parliament the right to register their votes. Together, these acts will likely consolidate the entire agricultural supply chain, from farm inputs to food retail. For instance, the acts open up more agricultural commodities to private hoarding and financial speculation by removing stocking limits. They remove barriers to deregulated private markets in agricultural produce, thereby weakening the system of public procurement and minimum price guarantees for farmers. The promotion of deregulated private markets also means that “contract farming”—that is, direct negotiations and contracts between farmers and corporate actors—can take place outside the purview of state (i.e. provincial) legislation. 

The two important pillars of agriculture in India are the minimum support price (MSP) and the public distribution system (PDS). The government declares MSP on crops and buys them from farmers; some of these crops are then distributed at heavily subsidized prices to the people through the PDS. Half the urban population and 75 percent of the rural population, classified by income, is entitled to PDS benefits under the National Food Security Act, 2013. This distribution, and the very fact of government procurement as a backstop, helps to keep food price volatility in check. Regulated markets for wholesale produce keep some exploitation of farmers from large corporate actors and traders at bay.

For long this system has been under attack from imperialist interests. India’s self-sufficiency in food, and its attempts to universalize food security, have been panned at the WTO by the United States and its allies. These countries argue that measures like public stockholding are “anti-trade”. Notwithstanding their own massive subsidies to domestic agriculturists, imperialist countries seek greater market access by trying to end all public intervention in food markets in the developing world. India has historically stood resolute in the face of such attempts.

There is another challenge to the agricultural system in India, a challenge from its own big bourgeoisie. This class has recently intensified efforts to weaken and deregulate every part of the system so as to capture the entire agricultural value chain. From seed markets to grocery stores, the three acts liberalize and open to accumulation every part of this sector. 

The Deep Crisis of Indian Agriculture

There is no doubt that the agricultural system in India needs fundamental changes. Farming has long been turning into an unremunerative activity, and 86 percent of farmers are small or marginal. The sector has seen slow growth for many years. The government is not wrong when it claims that people need to move out of agriculture and agricultural marketing, and these acts will certainly accelerate the process of moving out (or being kicked out) of agricultural work. But critically, the government has no plan to absorb these people into any other form of employment, whether in the cities or the villages. This is a government that is actively privatizing nationally owned productive companies, and one that has no workable plan for industrialization. Its industrial policy consists primarily of slogans. It has no solutions for rural non-farm employment, and has in fact actively contributed to the dip in rural non-farm incomes with its harebrained economic policies. The future we are staring at, if this government forces a corporate consolidation of Indian agriculture, is not one of “proletarianization” or orderly structural transformation. It is one of many millions living in penury and unemployment. 

Another well-known problem with Indian agriculture is that the MSP continues to be unremunerative to farmers, and has stopped functioning as a market signal. This means that its value as a “minimum” price is not significant for farmers. This is partly because the government has severely reduced its own procurement of various crops in many states, thus rendering the MSP meaningless. Government procurement forms a measly five percent of total agricultural commodity sales. A further dip in procurement sounds alarm bells for the public distribution system, on which many millions of Indians depend for survival. This includes many farmers who are net consumers of food.

Yet another current problem is that regulated wholesale markets have more often than not been captured by local traders and landlords who dictate prices to farmers and wield political clout. But we must also recognize that these markets can be reformed through changes in license requirements, credit arrangements, and storage facilities.

What Can We Learn From the Ongoing Protests?

In short, although there are long-standing problems in Indian agriculture, these three acts respond unimaginatively and counterproductively to them. Opening up agricultural marketing in this manner will not solve any of the issues listed above. At one protest in Mumbai, a farmer leader explained what a corporate takeover of agricultural markets would mean: a big corporate house can come and buy the crop from everyone at Rs. 15 per kg instead of the prevailing price of Rs. 10 per kg. Once all other traders have been removed from the market due to the corporate house’s deep pockets, it can hold farmers ransom and procure at Rs. 5 per kg, selling the finished product at Rs. 50 per kg. 

This simple example shows the process of monopolization through deep discounting. It also shows the first lesson of these protests: an anti-neoliberal movement can be effectively articulated and built, at least in the global peripheries, by organized people directly affected by neoliberal policies. Such a movement is within our grasp if we build unity among the working people. Further, even with their current weak position among the industrial proletariat, left trade unions have demonstrated solidarity with farmers. This shows that worker-peasant unity is also still possible and necessary, even under the ideological pall that neoliberalism has cast worldwide.

The second lesson is that even a differentiated peasantry can be united with issue-based movements. Indian farmers are differentiated along class and caste—there are capitalist farmers, landlords, sharecroppers, small farmers, agricultural workers, and so on. Many till their own lands as well as working on other farmers’ lands. But the peasantry can see itself proletarianizing. In the same way, small capitalists are capable of seeing their class position change as global finance capital starts dictating more and more economic decisions. It is the job of the left to help forge an issue-based social unity by articulating these changing conditions and clarifying common interests. The left must be aware of differentiation so as to sift antagonistic contradictions from non-antagonistic ones, thereby building mass movements. It must approach class not statically but dynamically, by reference to how it changes. Small agricultural traders, vegetable hawkers, and the rural proletariat have common interests because they may all be subjected to a common future of pauperization. 

It has been possible to build such unity among various classes and organizations through many years of hard work and several big and small agitations responding to the agrarian crisis since 2016. In 2018, unprecedented unity among 250 farmers’ organizations led to a long march to Mumbai by at least 50 000 farmers, and awakened the rest of the country to rural distress with evocative images of red flags and callused feet. This unity was forged due to the efforts of the All India Kisan Sabha, a farmer organization linked to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Other regional mobilizations, many of them led by the left, have contributed to the strength we see today.

Caste and casteism have deep roots within the peasantry. Again, it is the job of the communist parties and their farmer unions in India—which work extensively among lower-caste agricultural workers—to mould farmers’ movements in a way that challenges upper-caste participants’ prejudices and exposes the divisions that caste creates among working people. While building this unity, it is important that we do not forget the crucial need to redistribute land, ensure adequate rural employment, and evolve cooperative forms of agriculture. The plight of landless workers and marginal farmers does not resolve itself automatically if these laws are repealed. The problems of women farmers, who constitute the majority of the country’s farmers, are also linked to general agrarian distress but deserve special attention. This is where theory should guide the movement into liberation, instead of the movement spontaneously taking its own course into new forms of domination.

The third lesson is about recognizing the class character of the state itself. After talks with the government failed following a nationwide shutdown called by the farmers’ organizations, the joint movement of farmers declared a new slogan: “the government’s real compulsion—Adani, Ambani, and hoarding” (rough translation mine). Adani and Ambani are the two businessmen set to gain the most from these laws. The slogan is a clear explanation of what lies behind the state power that subjects protesting farmers to water cannons in the winter—the interests of large capital. Farmers have also planned protests at Ambani’s Reliance headquarters, and have made a call to boycott SIM cards sold by Reliance, among other products. These tactics direct anger towards those who pull the strings of government, rather than at an abstract category of “politicians”. 

In summary, this is a powerful movement that has challenged the Modi government, as few other movements have been able to do. Since it is an explicitly class-based movement, it is more difficult to demonize than many of the social movements that have preceded it. The prime minister has gone from saying “the Opposition is misleading some farmers” to “I beg with folded hands, come and discuss these acts with us”. The agitation shows us that the peasantry in India is still strong and must form the backbone of any transformative political project.

Jai Vipra is a technology policy researcher focusing on the economics of digital platforms in the global South. Views are personal.