The India Farmers’ Revolution Lives On!

Photos: Kanishka Sonthalia/TIME, Altaf Qadri/AP Photo, Yawar Nazir/Getty Images / Graphic: AGC

This article was written by Indra Shekhar Singh. Indra is an independent agri-policy analyst and an agri-talk show host and writer. He was the former Director of Policy and Outreach at the National Seed Association of India (NSAI). Indra Tweets at @indrassingh.

After a year, and the largest protest in history, the Modi government repealed three farm laws that brought 20 million farmers out into the streets. The laws aimed to deregulate and further corporatise Indian agriculture, which until then had been protected by the government.

From November 2020 to December 2021, Indian farmers faced Kalashnikov-carrying paramilitary police, surveillance drones, COVID, violence, and sweltering heat. They have agreed to leave the streets and return to their farms, with the promise that the Modi government will ensure farmers’ legal right to a Minimum Support Price (MSP). India may very soon have parity in the form of a price floors for crops.

To understand why the legal guarantee to MSP is so important, it’s necessary to grasp the history of MSP — a history that starts with the Green Revolution.

Ever-Green Revolution?

The Green Revolution began as a Rockefeller-funded mission in the 1960s to “eradicate hunger and feed the world” by increasing agricultural productivity. Green Revolution scientists cultivated “high yielding” seed varieties. But the new seeds required agrochemicals — fertilisers and pesticides — which ended up destroying soils and agricultural biodiversity, and trapping farmers in debt. Agri-business corporations made billions, while farmers were forced off their land and into low-wage industrial labour jobs. The Green Revolution commodified food, pushing farmers across the world to grow monoculture cash crops for the market, sacrificing indigenous methods, seeds and agrarian wisdom.

So what did the Green Revolution look like in India? In the 1960s, India’s war with China and constant droughts devastated the Indian food public distribution system. India was forced to import wheat from the US to feed its own people. But as a condition of receiving food aid, India had to agree to structural adjustment and subscribe to an industrial agricultural model. The Green Revolution experiment began in Punjab. Prior to interventions, Punjab was a fertile area, growing cotton, and indigenous varieties of legumes, oilseeds and millet. “High-yielding” rice varieties introduced during the Green Revolution were non-native and didn’t suit Punjabi farmers’ palate or markets, seeing as rice was not part of their diet. The Indian government pushed farmers to grow these hybrid seeds, but found that there were no buyers for their rice paddy. In addition, within a decade, the chemicals required to grow these Green Revolution seeds started to show their devastating environmental effects — crop failures, pest infestations, and groundwater depletion. (Punjab currently risks running out of groundwater by 2039.) The failure of the new industrial agricultural system contributed to economic discontent and stoked the growing insurgency at that time. It took the gas genocide in Bhopal, when a pesticide-production plant leaked and maimed millions, for people to clearly see the ills of the system promised to save them.

In the wake of these various crises in Punjab, the Indian government introduced the MSP. Inspired by the US price support system, the MSP system assured a minimum price floor for Green Revolution crops — mainly rice paddy and wheat. This price floor was originally calculated based on the costs of chemical inputs, seeds, and fuel, and was revised each year to assure farmers that they would earn a profit.

But many local traders, who had no use for the rice as it had no part in the local food economy, refused to guarantee MSP. In response, the government’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) introduced regulated market yards for buying rice and wheat, mainly in the regions where the Green Revolution was first introduced — Punjab and Haryana. The APMC served as a safeguard for farmers, protecting them from exploitation at the hands of traders and corporations, and ensuring that farmers had a market where they would receive government-regulated prices for their produce. The farmers started to visit these APMC market yards to sell their paddy and the markets started to flourish.

To democratise the market yards, the APMC set up local governance for each market, each of which included elected farmers, traders and government officials. To ensure big traders and corporations wouldn’t cheat farmers, traders were asked to become arhityas, or middlemen between the farmers and the corporations. Their role was to ensure fair auctions take place at the market yard, and they also acted as guarantors for both the buyers and the farmers regarding financial or quality issues.

For a while, the APMC system stabilised prices for farmers. Market yard taxes were used to improve village roads and other infrastructure. However, while the MSP was established to guarantee farmers a minimum price, over time it became the maximum price a farmer could hope for. In order to keep food inflation in check, the government didn’t increase MSP to account for inflation. The cost of the chemical inputs needed for the Green Revolution seeds become more costly and degraded soils, creating the need for more chemicals just to get the same yield. If at first, a field required one kg bag of urea, after two decades of chemical farming that same field needs two or three bags of urea to get the same yield. The cost of water, farmers’ labour, and soil degradation were not considered in the MSP costs. MSP became an artificial estimate for the cost of production.

Meanwhile, the Green Revolution also started spreading to other areas in India but the APMC market yards did not. Farmers in these newer areas got higher yields but no market to sell. This led to an over-supply of cereals like rice and wheat, while indigenous crops like oilseeds and legumes declined rapidly. Most of the paddy and wheat varieties are grown strictly for the market, not for farmers themselves. Traders took advantage of this over-supply, and started to manipulate farmers and decrease prices. Most Indian farmers are small-scale farmers, owning less than two acres, and lacking grain storage facilities. They are forced to sell their crops to local traders as soon as they harvest or risk losing their harvest altogether — another vulnerability that traders tend to take advantage of.

In Bihar, the state government removed agricultural protections in 2006, dismantling the APMC market yards and allowing for corporate contract farming, hoping to attract private sector investment in agri-infrastructure. But no private investment came, and farmers were forced to seek out markets in other states, again at the mercy of traders and corporate buyers. Farmers from Bihar reported getting between Rs 1000–1200 (US$13–16) per 100 kgs (quintal) of corn while the MSP price for corn was Rs 1870/quintal (US$25). As per the government’s own data, until a few years ago only 6% of farmers got MSP, most of them in Punjab and Haryana. For the rest, MSP is a fading dream.

Why? Take a look at the numbers: 60% of India’s 1.4 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, yet farmers’ incomes fell by 12% between 2012–2019. Since 2011, 8.6 million farmers have been forced into jobs as seasonal agricultural workers or industrial workers — 2,000 Indian farmers per day. Meanwhile, farmers have seen the average size of their farmland reduced by more than half between 1970 and 2016. Rising input costs — fuel, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, etc. — are already eating into farmers’ meagre incomes. Around 400,000 farmers have committed suicide, 84% of them in the cotton belts. Farm debt and foreclosure are often the silent killers.

And even 40 years after India’s Green Revolution, intended to feed the country, India is ranked 101st out of 116 on the Global Hunger Index. Indian farmers finally rose up and staged the biggest non-violent protest in history, occupying Delhi’s borders (Ghazipur, Tikri, Singhu) and protesting against three unjust farm laws.

Millions of protesting farmers lived in camps for over a year. Some of the makeshift campsites extended up to 30 kms. Farmers had created well-oiled supply lines with fresh vegetables, milk, and water being delivered to them each day. Many of the local villages nearby also aided the farmers’ camps. Most villages from Punjab, Haryana and UP had representation at the camps. Usually farmers would take turns, dividing time between their fields and the protest sites. The movement also saw thousands of women stepping up and taking key roles. Many women farmers stayed in tents and resisted.

Apart from using Gandhian tactics of resistance, the movement leaders used tractorcades to catch the attention of the government. They ran free food camps, known as Langars, to feed one and all — even the police forces that were guarding the farmers’ sites. The farmer leaders campaigned throughout the country, gathering thousands at each venue. Over 500 organizations — farmers unions, peasants and other minority groups came together to form the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) — the coalition that would serve as the banner for the farmers’ movement. This was a new style of agro-political organizing. But the master stroke was when Indian farmers ran a parallel parliament in the heart of New Delhi, simultaneously with the Indian parliament’s Monsoon session.

Over the course of the year, farmers used innovative political methods to make the government, and India, listen to their demands. The principal demand of course was repealing the three farm laws. The second demand from Punjab to Tamil Nadu was to make MSP a legal right. There were other demands too, like withdrawing legal cases against farmers, lowering electricity rates, and justice for Lakhimpur Kheri victims. But many believe that universal MSP may give birth to a new problem. A roadblock entwined with the Green Revolution and industrial agriculture.

The Green Revolution has transformed Indian agriculture. While it made India cereal sovereign, Indians got more than they bargained for — monocultures, shortage of oilseeds, disappearance of trace minerals from diets, the emergence of diseases like cancer. And all these came hand in hand with MSP — all part of the industrial system of agriculture. Even now, after the laws are repealed, the farmers hope that with a law on MSP, they will be lifted out of the agrarian crisis.

But the MSP system itself has trapped farmers in the wheat/rice paddy growing cycle. As irrigation use is increasing, even dryland farmers are abandoning indigenous, locally-adapted crops for wheat and rice. MSP is plugging more farmers into the industrial agriculture system and the consequent oversupply of agricultural commodities is crashing prices. Heavy government subsidies that support the fertiliser and oil industry are also draining the Indian economy.

So in many ways the current situation is a catch-22. Without MSP, farmers can’t survive economically. But by growing MSP crops like wheat and rice, they destroy land, water, and soil and get exploited by the industrial market system. The latter delivers them imminent economic devastation and ecological collapse too.

Last glimpse of Ghazipur

By the time the laws were repealed, it was winter again. But the chilly breezes didn’t bother me. I traveled to be with the farmers on their last day at the Ghazipur border. Tears, joy and last goodbyes, the farmers’ victory parade was finally going back home.

A convoy of over 150 tractors and cars stood before the last tractor leaving Ghazipur. On this last, dull, green John Deere tractor sat two elderly farmers from Bulandshahr, Satpal and Ram Mallik, puffing their last hookah. I moved to the back of the tractor and noticed a tin of cottonseed oil with the Adani-Wilmar logo (a major agri-business).

I began to notice the other food items — flour, sugar, tea, oil — and to my surprise, all bore the mark of agri-business corporations. I was puzzled and asked Satpal, “How can you oppose Adani, when you buy their cooking oil and other products?” “We buy it because it’s cheap,” Satpal replied. “Our incomes are so low, we can’t afford anything else.” “But what about self-reliance, growing what you eat?” I asked. Satpal touched his long, white beard and became pensive. “Gone are the days when we grew our own food. Now it’s only sugarcane in our area, and that, too, is processed by the mills. There are no markets for anything else, so we don’t grow anything else,” he said.

The Indian farmers may have resisted another attempt to corporatise farming directly, but how long can they expect to survive if corporations own everything from fertilisers to supermarkets? Market dependence is growing, and the only way to earn meagre profits is to adopt monocultures and chemical farming.

The question now remains, can the Indian farmers convert this victory into a step for economic justice through parity prices for all crops? Can an MSP inclusive of environmental costs be adopted as a legal right?

After repealing the three laws, the Indian government promised to withdraw legal cases against protesting farmers, and also form a committee on MSP. This body would include representation from farmers alongside economists, agri-scientists, and government officials, and will aim to deliberate on the viability of MSP, and possibly conclude with key recommendations to ensure that all farmers get parity. But despite written assurances from the Modi government, legal cases against farmers have not been withdrawn. So will the MSP go the same way?

I sat with farmer leader Rakesh Tikait. He had held the Ghazipur border for over a year and was last to leave Delhi. I caught up with him on a hot April evening. The first question was obvious: “Where is the farmers’ movement now?” Tikait remained calm and smiled, before answering, “The farmers’ movement is spreading very quickly throughout the country. This movement is an ideology, which cannot be stopped. Many more regions are now answering our call.” “But with farmers returning home,” I said, “the movement to many has seemed to weaken.” Tikait answered in his local dialect, “Now are farmers supposed to sit on the street all day and night? Do we have no other job? We are now prepared to act anytime. Keep in mind, whenever there is a need for the SKM, we assist and guide people. It is due to our efforts that various governments have adopted farmer-friendly policies. Our job is now only to ensure that every government and every chief minister keeps the farmers close and makes policies in their favor.”

“So what about the future now?” I asked. “The farm laws have been repealed, but farmers don’t yet have MSP.” Tikait reiterated the government’s promise to instate an MSP committee. He assured me that farmers will have representation. “The committee members are being finalized. You will hear the news very soon,” Tikait said. “But what if the government backtracks?” I asked. Tikait replied, “The farmers now know how to organize, and we know our enemies. This time the whole nation will rise with the farmers. I assure you.” Tikait was sure that the farmers are more organized than before and can meet any challenge before them.

The collective will of the Indian people has birthed a new agro-political force. They have rekindled hope through their resistance and paved the way for farmers from Africa to the US to demand parity price as their right. No doubt the coming months will be critical for the question of the legal guarantee to MSP, but one can be assured that Indian farmers won’t go down without a fight. Their revolution for economic justice and dignity will continue, hoping to change not just India, but perhaps become a model of agro-political resistance for the world.

(This article has been edited by A Growing Culture Team)

References

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A Growing Culture

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