Whither Farmers’ Struggles in South Asia?


By sumanasiri liyanage

Last weekend, I had an opportunity to listen to a detailed and critical account by Prof Pritam Singh of Oxford Brooks University, Business school on the farmers’ struggle in India that began in June 2020 and reached a kind of climax on India National Day. Farmers in India demand three new legislations enacted in June 2020 with regard to agricultural production, pricing and marketing should be repealed. Protesting farmers have emphasized that no amendment is acceptable to them. Three legislations separately deal with interconnected aspects of agricultural production, land use, and stockpiling. One may wander why Modi government pushed through three new legislations when the country has been going through an epidemiological crisis created by Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, Prof. Pritam seems to think it is not matter of surprise as many governments oftentimes used crisis to enact legislations that have serious implications to the masses. Besides that, these legislations reflect the nexus between Hindu nationalism and the Indian monopoly capitalism. Singh has the following to say on the subject. “Agricultural market reforms recently enacted by the National Democratic Alliance government reflect the Bharatiya Janata Party’s determination to introduce agrobusinesses into agriculture and push further its agenda of centralization of economic power and decision-making. The opposition to the reforms by farmers, many state governments, and regional political formations poses the most formidable challenge, so far, to this government” (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 55, No. 41). 

A Rise of Crony Capitalist Class in India

Modern Indian economic history is marked by the emergence of family-based business houses. In the initial phase, Tata, Birla and several others took the leadership in Indian capitalistic development and they were amply supported by the Swadeshi movement even raising capital badly needed for new investments. A kind of symbiosis had prevailed between private large business houses and the main goals of planned economic development occasional grumbling and complaints by private big business houses notwithstanding. Nonetheless, the economic environment has changed considerably since the advent of “open” and market reforms in the early 1990s. Relatively new business groups have emerged with direct but disguised support of the top-level government politicians thus making space for what is popularly known as ‘crony capitalism’. Most notable examples for this crony capitalism are the rise of Adani Group and Ambani Group.

There was an allegation that Modi government flouted rules in handing over six airports to Adani group. The following is what is revealed by a research group: “For many observers of Indian politics, the relationship between Gautam Adani and PM Narendra Modi has become the epitome of crony capitalism. The billionaire’s perpetually expanding empire has been nourished by government policies on energy, deregulation, infrastructure, solar energy, agriculture and mining. Perhaps the most egregious example of a government deal tailormade to suit the Adani Group is the leasing of six major airports to Adani Enterprises.” Commenting on this transfer of airports management for 50 years, Communist Party (Marxist) MP Elamaram Kareem said that “gross irregularities” and “blind favoritism” can be seen with regard to this transaction. In addition to this, there has been charges of tax fraud against Adani group. The details of $235 million diversion were obtained and published by The Guardian.

Prof. Pritam in his talk also emphasized the unquenchable thirst of the crony capitalists to extract surplus value reaching out for unexplored spaces adopting not only ‘capital widening’ mechanisms but also ‘capital deepening’ mechanisms. Adani website has proudly stated that technology-driven farm-to-market ecosystem has turned a growing community of more than 17000, apple growers in Himachal Pradesh happier and empowered than ever before”. Prof. Pritam presumes that the newly enacted legislations were framed in order to facilitate ‘agrobusinesses into agriculture’.

The Constitutional Implications of the Three Acts

Sometime ago, Prof Pritam wrote a highly acclaimed book, Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy in which he had related the lop-sided development in Punjab with agriculture as the core of Punjab economy with the system of centralized planning with principal focus on industrial development in other states. This has frustrated impact on Punjabi nationalism in spite of a relatively high per capita income in Punjab. The three new acts as many have suggested are aimed at weakening federal structure of the Indian constitution. According to the Indian Constitution, agriculture is a state subject so that the state has power to enact bills relating to agricultural production. Nonetheless, marketing agricultural products is in the concurrent list so that the central government can use the concurrent list and weaken the power of the state as the production of agricultural goods and marketing of them are closely related. The difference today is this constitutional jujitsu is aimed at paving the way for agri-business monopolies to go beyond the state legislations. As a result, many state governments have already expressed their opposition to three agriculture laws.

The Issue of Sustainability

In my last column I raised the issue of vanguardism in the struggle for social liberation. Prof. Pritam has argued that Indian farmers have come forward playing the role of vanguard engaging in a prolonged struggle that has already questioned the future of Modi government. Can this struggle by Indian farmers be sustained? Since the farmers from Punjab and Haryana are leading the struggle can Hindu nationalism be deployed as a dissolving variable by Hindu nationalist groups? Prof. Pritam answer all these questions in negative.

            It is interesting to see that the Indian farmers around eighty percent of them belong to small and medium category have developed a mechanism enabling it to be sustained for a long period. Prof. Pritam has demonstrated that some of the traditional Punjabi religious practices have been rejuvenated so that the struggling farmers would not be starved. Food is provided to everybody irrespective of their differences. In addition to that struggling farmers have developed a rotational system of protest that ensures at least one member of a family would participate in the protest while others engage in production activities. As a result food production is not adversely affected. Unlike the wage workers who face immense difficulties of sustain trade union action if it is not resolved in a short period, small and medium agricultural producers have a high degree of sustainability so that it is difficult for the government to force them to give up their struggle.

            Lastly, Prof. Pritam is critical of the agricultural practices adopted by the farmers all over India. Green revolution in the 1960s and thereafter forced farmers to use more and more inorganic inputs that has and adverse impact on environment. The consequence of this commodification of agriculture, both upstream and downstream forces us to rethink of developing eco-friendly agricultural practices. 

At the time of writing, Sri Lankan farmers are engaged in multiple struggles in different part of the country though these struggles may not be compared with the massive fight by the Indian peasants. However, some issues are similar. Especially, agri-businesses are eying for land market and forcing the government to bring about laws to create land market in areas where it does not exist. It is very much in need of developing solidarity between farmers in South Asia since they are facing almost similar attacks by their respective governments.             

The writer is a retired teacher of Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.