India’s women farmers are resisting new agricultural laws. That is the current occasion. However, if you want to understand the background, you have to delve deeper into the crisis of Indian agriculture. The mass protests also manifest the growing resistance to the authoritarian and neoliberal policies of the government. Their counter-strategies are working less and less. There is much to suggest that the protesters could succeed this time.
Those who are approaching the city limits of Delhi these days can expect a picture of the siege: tens of thousands of people camp on every access road. Many have come with their animals, have built makeshift tent villages. Flags and banners hang from colourfully painted tractors, protest chants rang out from all directions. With a little luck you might see a decorated elephant, from whose back the Red Flag blows with a hammer and sickle. It is now estimated that up to two million women farmers are protesting against the central government’s agricultural reforms at the gates of the Indian capital.
In late November, more than 300,000 women farmers from the states of Haryana and Punjab, northwest of Delhi, marched on foot toward the capital. The central government responded to the protest with trenches, barbed wire, concrete blockades and water cannons, so that only a small proportion of the protesters could enter the city. The rest of the protesters remained at the city limits and are determined to stay there until the government gives in. Even the prime minister of the Union Territory of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal of the opposition AAP party, had already attended the protests and was subsequently placed under house arrest by the police. However, the police in Delhi, which is subordinate to the central government, deny this. The supply of basic food to the capital has now fallen by 30-50% as a result of the blockades and prices are rising, although traders still expect the capital’s basic services to be maintained.
Although Delhi is the epicentre of the Bharat Bandh, the national strike, hundreds of thousands of people are protesting throughout the country, from Assam in the northeast, via Karnataka and Kerala in the south, to Uttar Pradesh in northern India. More than 500 farmers' organisations, 15 opposition parties and several trade unions support the protest, which is directed against three new agricultural laws. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP) had brought the laws through both houses of parliament in September.
At first glance, the three agricultural laws seemed relatively harmless. They are intended to liberalise the market for agricultural products to the extent that producers can now enter into contracts directly with final sellers. The laws therefore give women farmers more opportunities to sell their products. But the protesters fear the abolition of the state’s acceptance systems, which guarantee them fixed prices and thus guarantees. However, the government has rejected this. At the heart of the system are state minimum price guarantees (MSPs) and the so-called mandis. These are state-regulated and self-managed markets to which only authorised traders have access. By weakening the Mandi system, the farmers are at the mercy of the dominance of the large agricultural and food companies. For example, the reforms also introduce that such agricultural companies can now also store basic foodstuffs in order to sell them at a different time, which was previously only permitted by state-authorized intermediaries. This allows to manipulate prices through artificial scarcity or swell. In extreme cases, for example, prices can be depressed during harvest periods when farmers have to sell and increased during the purchase of seeds when the farmers are shopping.
However, the anger of the protesters is directed not only against the content of the laws, but also at the fact that the government has passed them in the midst of a pandemic without any consultation of affected organisations. Previously, it had adopted far-reaching labour law reforms in the same way, rolling back a large number of already-won rights. These, too, play a major role in the mass protests.
Free trade and the crisis of Indian agriculture
Agriculture is of enormous importance in the Indian economy. In 2016, the sector accounted for 23 percent of gross domestic product, while 59 percent of all people in work were employed in agriculture. The abolition of the state protection system with guaranteed prices would have catastrophic consequences, especially for small farmers, whose share is 82 percent of Indian agriculture. In the northern Indian state of Bihar, where the state protection system has already been largely dismantled, average prices are already well below MSPs and can hardly cover production costs.
It is no coincidence that the protests are so concentrated in the two states of Haryana and Punjab. The two countries are among the most productive agricultural regions in India. Even small farmers actually sell surpluses here and do not only operate for their own subsistence, as is the case in most other regions of India. This state of affairs can also be attributed to the fact that the two states are at the heart of the so-called Green Revolution, a gigantic agricultural modernization campaign from the 1960s. Although the campaign increased yields, it also led to a high dependence on industrially produced fertilizers, reduced the genetic variede of the plants grown and damaged soil quality. The resulting risks can only be compensated by a protective action of the state, which is why agriculture in the region today is particularly dependent on state guaranteed prices and sales opportunities.
However, the fears of the farmers are only the tip of the iceberg, the real problems lie deeper. That is why the government’s promises have no effect on the protests. The demonstrators do not believe that the new agricultural laws have no impact on the state’s minimum price guarantees and continue to call for their withdrawal and the re-extension of the existing MSP system to respond to the long-running crisis in Indian agriculture. Indeed, the economic situation of Indian women farmers is bad: high debt, scarce profit margins and falling demand due to the ongoing economic crisis force more than ten thousand women farmers to commit suicide every year. These frightening figures, which are now regularly reflected in Indian daily newspapers with oppressive indifference, are likely to be accompanied by a high level of obscurity. There have even been recent accusations that the central government is preventing the publication of the relevant statistics in order to distract from the poor situation of women farmers.
Despite this, a complete elimination of guaranteed prices has always been a political taboo in India - although the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the United States have been criticizing the system for years as allegedly illegal subsidies to agriculture. The us and European farmers receive by far the largest agricultural subsidies in the world. The previous Indian opposition to a reduction in own subsidies, which brought down not least the global WTO free trade agreement, is probably also based on the knowledge that this would have catastrophic consequences for the population.
With the current adherence to the reforms, the central government is under considerable domestic political pressure and is eroding its support base. The fact that it is still willing to do so may be because of the new ambitions for a free trade agreement between the US and India. The sharp lyrical tensions between India and China, which recently established the world’s largest free trade area (RCEP) without India, are increasing interest on the Indian side in cooperating more with the United States. At the same time, the US is urgently looking for outlets for its agricultural surpluses. Agricultural reforms could be a step towards removing one of the most central obstacles to an agreement. In the end, this would probably be at the expense of the Indian people.
Hindu nationalists under pressure
Since Modi’s BJP won the election in 2014, critics have accused the government of pushing ahead with the transformation of pluralist and multi-religious India into a Hindu-dominated and increasingly totalitarian society. Accordingly, the central government reacted to the protests with a strategy that has now been tried and tested: at first, it ignored them for as long as possible. When this was no longer sustainable, it tried to portray the mass demonstrations as an “anti-national movement,” led and manipulated by “terrorists” and “Sikh separatists.” The aim was, on the one hand, to bring the rest of the population up against the protesters and at the same time to justify the harsh police measures. Both the mainstream media, which is now largely controlled by Hindu national control, and manipulated video material on social media helped with this settlement. However, this was flagged as such by Twitter. Although the government is now meeting representatives of the protesters, it still refuses to give in to its core demands and delays where it can. In doing so, she hopes that the protests will dissipate in Delhi as the winter dawns.
The fact that the Hindu nationalists are acting so strongly against the peasant women is astonishing, the BJP has so far achieved its electoral successes on the shoulders of the rural population. Before his first election victory, Modi promised to double Incomes in Indian agriculture by 2022, with guaranteed prices 50 percent higher than production costs. This promise has not been kept, today the guaranteed prices are still lower than those of that time. Otherwise, the agricultural policy of the Hindu nationalists is characterized above all by big announcements, which were not observed in the end. This is probably one of the reason why the women farmers are no longer satisfied with assurances from the government, but want to see tangible changes.
The protests should not be understood as an isolated event, but as a renewed flare-up of the ever-widening resistance against the Hindu nationalists through a diverse and increasingly solidarity-based alliance of movements. The students and professors who protested against the totalitarian intervention of the Hindu nationalists in the universities in 2016-2018 were still largely alone.
However, this has changed at the latest with the months-long mobilization in 2019 against the new citizenship law. In December 2019, the central government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which opens a path to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants. For the first time, this is the first time that the membership of India is established on the basis of religion. At the same time, many observers feared that by introducing the National Citizens Register (NRC), the government was planning to make Indian Muslims stateless. In response to this attack on pluralist India, there have been months of protests across the country. Similar to the current demonstrations, the focus at that time was on the mainly affected groups, especially Muslims and Adivasi (Indian Indigenous). However, at the time, as now, they were supported by a nationwide revival of civil society, which spanned various actors from women’s and Dalit organizations to students and left-wing intellectuals, trade unions and left-wing parties.
This alliance put a lot of pressure on the government, but the protests were resolved by a strict COVID-19 lockdown and violent riots against Muslims in Delhi. The movement against the laws of citizenship, however, remains the linchpin of resistance to Hindu nationalists. The pluralist resistance broke out not long after the hard lockdown, first against the reforms of labour law, then against the state ignorance of sexual violence against the relatives of low castes.
The current protests against the agricultural laws can also be seen as a new wave of this ever-widening alliance of resistance. Every wave of protests allies new actors against the government. While the previous protests were mainly urban-focused, it is now the rural population, formerly the backbone of the Hindu nationalists, that leads the protests. With each wave, the government’s divisive policies take hold less. While the protesters have so far achieved little political success at the national level, it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable in New Delhi. And there is much to suggest that this time it will be different.