More than 9 months ago, farmers’ unions joined forces to protest the three farm laws approved by the Modi Government and being imposed onto the state governments for implementation. Braving water cannons, batons, teargas, blockages, etc., the protestors reached Delhi borders in Nov 2020 and on 26 January 2021. 400,000 tractors and 1.5 million farmers reached the borders for the Republic Day Parade in and around Delhi, the capital of India, to carry on a peaceful, deeply-felt protest. These protests were organized with the participation of more than 32 mass-based organizations of Punjab like the BKU Rajewal, BKU Siddhupur, Kirti Kisan Union, BKU Lakhowal, BKU Dhakaunda, BKU Qadiyan, some from Haryana like BKU Chaduni and UP like BKU Tikait, all India organizations which had in 2017 formed the All India Kisan Sangharsh coordination committee, like the AIKMS, the AIKM, AIKS Canning Street, AIKS Ajoy Bhawan, AIKKMS, NAPM, Shetkari Kisan Sangathan, Lok Sangram Manch, Jai Kisan Andolan, KRRS Chandrashekar, KRRS Chamrasa Patil and Nagendra, and the constituents of the Rashtriye Kisan Mazdoor Sangh, among others, responsible for the current Delhi protest.
The three acts enacted into law are: 1) Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; 2) Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and, 3) Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.
The acts expand the scope of trade areas of farmers’ produce to “any place of production, collection, and aggregation”, allow electronic trading and e-commerce of scheduled farmers’ produce, prohibit state governments from collecting market fees in the private yards, provide a legal framework for farmers to enter into pre-arranged contracts with buyers including mention of pricing, give a dispute resolution mechanism, disallow regulating of food stocking through essential commodities and by removing this stock limit on agricultural produce, allowing for a steep annual price rise of more than 50% on food grains and 100% on vegetables and fruits, allow for freedom to do black-marketing in food.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the bills as a watershed moment, the government maintaining that the laws will make it easy for farmers to sell their produce directly to big buyers.
However, the farmers called the bills corporate-friendly and anti-farmer. Controversy revolves around losing the right to decide what to grow in order to subsist, lose all government assurance of minimum support prices (MSPs), completely losing bargaining power.
The protest is in force and is gaining momentum, remaining peaceful despite incursions of the police and the perceived disinformation propagated by the government in an attempt to quell the “uprising”. The fact that the farmers’ protest has remained firm in its conviction is making it a historic phenomenon.
Pressenza reporters have been interviewing the key actors in this unprecedented protest to launch a series in order to convey a deeper understanding and a wider context as to why Indian farmers feel so strongly against the three laws so that their actions keep going in the hope to transform the situation positively for the benefit of all Indian farmers. This write-up features a dialogue with Dr. Ashish Mittal, General Secretary of the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha, AIKMS.
Wider Context of the Protest: India is a huge agricultural economy.
Farming in India occupies the largest agricultural landmass, about 141 million hectares, larger than China, Japan, and America. And this involves a whopping 700 million people directly engaging in and dependent on agriculture. And, not just as a question of food security for India and its people but also a question of livelihood. So, we have a dual problem. If we hand over all our agricultural processes to the corporate entities, what happens to these people and what happens to agriculture? What happens to food? So that’s how this movement began.
The laws are a consolidated, comprehensive attack on all aspects of agriculture and food: input supplies, services, agricultural processes, grading, purchase of crops, agricultural markets, food storage, sorting, packing, processing, and food marketing. All processes get involved with these three laws.
It is natural that there would have been a big revolt. The revolt is bigger than what the government may have anticipated, thinking that they will have an easy time with the Coronavirus threats. The farmers challenged the Corona threats by first mobilizing to break the lockdown as undemocratic, and along with these protests they took up the question of the three laws.
The whole question is: it is Agriculture, it is farmers versus corporate, that is the debate and the corporate are interested in controlling all the processes. The farmers are already subject to corporate maneuverings, but the controls are still not entirely with the corporate. That is the real challenge. This whole legal structure is inherent and integrated into these laws and is the drive of the central government to push their laws on the states.
Agriculture in India is a state subject and it is the state governments who are allowed to deal with agricultural laws and rules. The mother of these three laws, the Contract Act states that it will be implemented strictly, and the central government will issue directives to the state government for their proper implementation, which the state governments will have to follow. You can imagine what a huge problem the central government actually has created. It’s a very big change the central government is trying to bring in.
In terms of Indian history, the only comparable time period which we can think of is the first war of independence in 1857. The British colonialists were trying to change the entire agricultural pattern by getting commercial crops useful for them to be grown over here, imposing farming of indigo and many other crops. The farmers then had to comply while not being able to grow food for themselves.
The Three Laws: What they mean to the farmers
The Contract law means that everything the farmers produce has to be sold to the corporate and, it means much more.
It means that the corporations will engage the farmers into contracts, which will enforce and force them to produce what the corporations want and there will be geographical areas marked out that will be captive areas for production of particular crops for the corporations. India has an innumerable number of very diverse agro-climatic areas. Almost all kinds of agro-climatic conditions that the world has are available in India, and they suit several crop varieties required by the corporations. In these areas, captive farming of that crop will be forced, by the state, for the corporation, as per the mandate of these laws, under the garb of developing India’s farming sector. For example, an announcement was made: one-district-one-crop-one-company. This announcement was made in the state of Uttar Pradesh. That means that the entire district will be, say, growing bananas. If you have such a forced banana plantation in the entire district, you can understand what is going to happen to the farmers, and what is going to happen to their crop rates.
These corporations are not coming here for wheat and paddy, they are coming here for growing commercially valuable crops which they can process and sell. And for that, they are going to have captive farming done. The farming is going to be done by the farmer on his own land. The risk is assigned to the farmer, whereas the profit is for the company.
This process is integrated in a manner, for example, where two persons share a cow “equally”. The front part is with the farmer and the back part is with the company. The farmer will feed the cow and the company will take all the milk and the cow-dung.
With these laws, if a district is told to produce a certain crop, whether they like it or not, they have to comply.
Section 16 of the Contract Act says that the central government will issue instructions/orders from time to time to the state governments to ensure strict implementation of this act. So entering into a contract will be obligatory. It is not a choice. The Corporate is going to push you, push it down your gullet, is going to get the police to tell you that you will have to do this farming, because if you don’t do it, then it is not in the “national interest”. This policy is being pushed in the name of national growth. It is being called a national program. It is a program for reviving the economy of the country. Well, it is written out in the law. And the name of this contract act is, if you please, Price Assurance Act.
The Three Main States that Stood Up First and Why
When I talk of 700 million people dependent on agriculture, the pattern of agricultural cropping in India is actually a subsistence farming pattern. People grow what they need to eat. And depending on their means, they grow a little extra which they can sell. That goes away and that goes away for 700 million people. So, you can understand the enormity of the problem. Punjab has stood up first, then Haryana followed and then West Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other states are following. Punjab is a state where agricultural surplus is relatively higher than other areas. Which means that on an acre of land, if in the rest of the country, people are growing 20 quintals of wheat, in Punjab they may be growing 40 quintals. If everyone keeps 10 quintals for themselves, the rest sell 10 quintals while in Punjab, the farmer is selling 30 quintals, which is actually selling three times. It is also important to note that Punjab is one area where the farmer is able to get the government-determined price (MSP). The price determined by the government for wheat this year was 1975 rupees per quintal, while in the rest of India, it was selling at 1400 rupees per quintal. A farmer in Punjab is able to sell 30 quintals of wheat at the rate of almost 2000 rupees a quintal. Whereas the farmer in the rest of the country may be able to sell just 10 quintal, at the rate of 1400 rupees per quintal.
Agriculture as a life process and a livelihood means, a source of income and a source of occupation, has much more value to a farmer in Punjab than it is to the rest of the country.
It is also important to understand that India is very much a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country. The Indian economy is still in the hands of the foreign corporations and feudal extraction of labor is still quite high in Indian agriculture’s forced labor, depressed labor value, all because of the feudal having control over the village life. This economic and political life of the village continues to prevail to varying extents in the entire country. The result is that there is a lot of labor migration from villages to cities.
Agricultural labor living in the villages of Punjab, Haryana and West UP has been able to find some other occupations in the cities and also does some agricultural operational work during the seasonal periods of harvesting or sowing. Punjab, Haryana and West UP have migratory agricultural labor, which is unable to find work elsewhere in the rest of the country. They are able to find agricultural work also in these areas and nowhere else in the country.
That is why these areas have stood up against these laws. So deep is the anger that the farmers are sitting still. They are very committed to continue to sit still until the government relents. It may have become a bit of a headache for the government, but the farmers are patiently peaceful. We understand politically, though, the government does not concede this, and we expect the movement to continue to grow like this.It is growing. Today I had a very good meeting at Allahabad. Things are just picking up in the rest of the country. I hope I have been clear and brief.
To date, food and other supplies to deal with the needs of protest sites keep coming in from many villages as a show of strong support to the protesters, encamped in the main areas of the protest around Delhi. Rooted in the Indian tradition of festival sharing, this comes from the spirit of goodwill. All these come voluntarily and from the heart of many Indians from farming communities.
Other pockets of protest areas are arising.
As all can see, the struggle is expanding and will go on.
Part 2 in this series will continue to delve deeper into other aspects of the Indian Farmer’s protest such as an in-depth discussion of the farmers’ demands and proposals, the Modi government’s response as well as political and international support.
About the Interviewee:
Dr. Ashish Mittal did MBBS from AIIMS in 1982. Studied Community Medicine and thereafter joined the farmers’ movement. Is amongst the founding members of All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS) and became its General Secretary in the year 2016. AIKMS works mainly amongst landless and poor peasants, tribals and fishermen in the states of Punjab, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal. It takes up livelihood, forced displacement and farmer’s economic issues.