Vinod Mubayi

As this issue of Insaf Bulletin is being published, millions of India’s farmers will have spent more than four months protesting continuously against the pro-free market and pro-corporate farm laws passed by the Modi government last year. It is widely acknowledged that this has become the largest and longest non-violent protest movement in world history. The sacrifices made by the farmers and their persistence in the face of violence by the police – tear gas, water cannon and lathi charges – is also unprecedented. Upwards of 300 people have died during the protests either from the rigors of the north Indian winter or from other causes but the farmers have remained steadfast and the scale of the protests and their magnitude have only grown over the last couple of months.

What is the driver of the farmers’ adamant rejection of the government’s three farm laws? The farmers on the borders of Delhi repeatedly state that there is one main objective of their struggle: saving their land from being snatched away by mega capitalists like Ambani and Adani or by smaller sharks.

How real are the farmers’ fears? After November last year the protests began in earnest starting first in Punjab and then spreading rapidly to Haryana and western UP as well as other states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The protests also attracted widespread support from farmers in Maharashtra and other parts of the country including the southern states of Telengana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Modi and his spokespersons responded to the protests by claiming that the farm laws posed no threat to the land owned by the farmers. On December 25, 2020, Modi’s chief sidekick, Home Minister Amit Shah, was reported to have said “No corporate can snatch away any farmer’s land as long as Narendra Modi is Prime Minister of the country.’

How credible are these assertions of Modi and his spokesmen? Going by the history of promises and assurances made by Modi the short answer is “not very.” In 2014, Modi had promised the country that he would bring back to India all the black money that corrupt Indians had stashed in Swiss banks and make sure to use it to deposit 15 lakh (1.5 million) rupees in every Indian’s bank account. Some months later, Amit Shah said this promise was just a jumla (trick) to win elections. In December 2016, Modi overnight demonetized over 86% of high value currency notes in circulation dealing a body blow to the Indian economy from which it has yet to recover. This was particularly devastating to the large majority of the poor whose dealings were mostly in cash. Modi said his action was to confiscate black money and forged currency used to fund terrorist activity and he managed to convince enough credulous people to deliver a win to BJP in the UP elections a few months later. However, demonetization turned out to be another jumla when the Reserve Bank of India later stated that black money in India was not held in cash but mainly in gold and real estate.

In the particular case of the farm laws, what is significant is not what Modi and his cohorts started saying after the farmers’ protests escalated but what they said before the laws were passed and, more importantly, who they were saying it to. After almost seven years of its rule one feature of the Modi regime is abundantly clear. Its pro-corporate orientation and fanatical determination to withdraw government from playing any role in the economic welfare of India’s people is matched only by its drive to hand over public sector assets at fire sale prices to its favored crony capitalists. The corona pandemic offered the Modi regime a handy means for accomplishing its goal of privatization and it is no accident that the farm laws were adopted and passed at the height of the pandemic when most of the country was under various stages of lockdown.

Early in the pandemic, several BJP ruled states, notably UP, MP, and Gujarat, in concert with the Centre, began to implement “reform” of labor laws that meant in practice taking away rights won by workers, such as the 8-hour work day, in militant struggles over many years. Modi then emerged in May last year to tout the virtues of “atmanirbharta” or self-reliance. In a speech to corporate investors where he announced a corona package saying “In order to prove the resolve of a self-reliant India, Land, Labor, Liquidity and Laws all have been emphasized in this package.” Since what became the farm laws in September 2020, had already been put forward as ordinances, it is hardly any mystery what “land” he was referring to. To ease the acquisition of farmland for industry, commerce, mining, or housing development, etc. the BJP regime soon after it came to power in 2014 tried to amend the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Re-settlement Act, 2013 passed by the predecessor UPA government by scrapping many of its restrictive provisions. This attempt was strongly opposed by farmers organizations and the political opposition and had to be sidelined for a while as the BJP regime did not then have a legislative majority in the Rajya Sabha. But it was clearly not forgotten. In the meantime, another BJP ruled state, Karnataka, abandoned its laws regulating sale of farmland that had been enacted to protect peasants from losing their land, often their only significant asset, by force or fraud. In December 2020, this law was amended to allow direct sale of farmland to private business. The Modi regime’s chief economic advisor expressed his hope that other states would follow the Karnataka model.

For two decades, attempts have continuously been made to force poor farmers, whose holdings are considered economically “unviable” by corporate economists, to sell their land to corporations; in addition, multinational companies in league with their domestic partners in India have been attempting to get into agriculture directly. Driven by the need to capture the entire value of the food chain from farm crops to consumer food products, major multinational agriculture corporations as well as richer food importing countries have begun securing control of large areas of farmland in underdeveloped countries in Africa and Latin America. The high profit margins associated with certain multi-use agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soybeans, and sugarcane, that can be used as food, feedstock, or fuel has spurred investment by financial companies and major institutional investment funds in the agricultural sector. Interest in developing country agriculture is also being manifested by giant Western retail supermarket chains such as the French Carrefours or the US Walmart who wish to capture upper income markets in the same countries or use their control over agricultural land to provide exotic foods to their home customers.

In this context it is also useful to recall that there has been pressure on the Indian state from international financial institutions such as the World Bank to jettison long-standing restrictions on selling, leasing or transferring small land holdings of peasants that are often their only asset. In addition, the World Trade Organization and the OECD have stated that the Indian government should reduce or eliminate its support to foodgrain production in India, notwithstanding the fact that this support has been critical to India’s quest for food self-sufficiency. The major western countries have substantial surpluses of grain they would like to sell to developing countries like India. Abolishing government support to agriculture such as the minimum support price (MSP) and getting rid of the APMC mandis is part and parcel of this broader strategy of privatization and corporatization that also involves opening the door to the entry of multinational companies into India’s agricultural sector. This is the background necessary for understanding what these farm laws really imply for the future of over half of India’s population, seven hundred million people, who depend on farming for their existence.

A detailed and incisive analysis of the Modi regime’s agricultural laws has been recently carried out by the Research Unit for Political Economy (R.U.P.E), Mumbai, India and published on their website [https://www.rupe-india.org] under the title “The Kisans Are Right. Their Land Is At Stake” in three installments on January 6, February 3, and February 6, 2021, respectively. According to the R.U.P.E analysis, the farm laws adopted by the Modi regime will lead to a sequence of events that may be summarized as follows: (a) As the APMC mandis shutdown, the government procurement of foodgrains will reduce and states like Punjab and Haryana and western UP that have a surplus of foodgrains will be unable to obtain the MSP for their produce so they will have to stop producing foodgrains. (b) In line with the OECD’s wishes, India will likely begin to import foodgrains from the western countries via the giant multinational grain trading companies like Archer-Daniels-Midland or Cargill; this is probably the reason the Essential Commodities Act has been amended to remove restrictions on hoarding. (c) A section of the richer peasants will likely turn to other higher value crops as previously recommended by the World Bank; this is probably the aim of the new law on contract farming.

The summary of the overall conclusions of the R.U.P.E analysis are worth quoting at length to understand the vehemence underlying the protests of the farmers:

(1) Over the last two decades, international agencies and the Indian government have explicitly been preparing the ground for transfer of the lands of poor peasants. They term this the creation of “vibrant land sales markets” for farmers who “find their lands too small to be a viable source of livelihood.”

(2) In pursuit of this aim, the Indian government is trying to establish a system of ‘conclusive titling’ of all land in the country, whereby the State would permanently guarantee the title of the title-holder against any other claimants. The Niti Aayog is accordingly pushing state governments to adopt a draft ‘conclusive titling’ bill.

(3) In our country, land continues to be the single largest source of livelihood and sustenance, and there are often multiple, historically established, claims on it. These claims need to be determined and satisfied through a social process, not a mere administrative one. The present rapid forced-march of conclusive titling and digitizing land records threatens to oust large numbers of poor peasants from the most important rural means of production.

(4) This process is actually driven, not by the needs of the poor peasants, but the needs of international and domestic corporate investors, who want, from remote locations, to be able to take investment decisions related to Indian land.

(5) Ongoing changes and growing uncertainties in the world economy, as well as those anticipated in the world climate and environment, have fueled a drive on the part of international agribusinesses and financial investors to get control of land, including agricultural land, in the Third World. At the same time, in the neoliberal era, Third World economies have opened themselves to foreign investment further and further, and (in line with this) scrapped step by step their existent legal restrictions on corporate and foreign ownership of agricultural land.

One such global trend is the growth of organised retail, generally linked to foreign investment. This is leading to “the corporate takeover of the domestic food systems of the developing countries as a whole.”[1] This process reorients Third World countries’ agriculture away from staple crops for domestic consumption, toward fresh fruits, vegetables, and other produce demanded in the developed world and by the Third World countries’ domestic elites. Domestic food security systems are dismantled, and Third World countries become dependent on imports of foodgrains from developed countries (which have large surpluses of these grains). Foreign and domestic corporate investors’ penetration of the agricultural sector of a Third World country spurs the “concentration and foreignization”[2] of land.

(6) Three decades of neoliberal restructuring of India’s agriculture have led to an acute crisis, manifested most starkly by the suicides of over 3,00,000 peasants since the late 1990s. Official data reveal that the poor peasantry is squeezed, with their farm income not covering even their consumption needs.[3] At the same time, they are unwilling to part with their land. Their stubborn resistance is due to their knowledge that other secure livelihoods are not emerging (indeed, are disappearing), and that land and access to common property resources can still yield some subsistence for the peasant family.

However, the corporate takeover of India’s food system will press upon the various sections of the Indian peasantry in multiple ways. The winding up of official procurement will reduce farmgate prices for foodgrains, and force growers in procurement regions to shift to growing crops demanded by corporates, in a desperate attempt to meet their consumption expenditures. But the specifications and investments demanded by organised retail and by exporters are unaffordable for these small producers. Meanwhile, the winding down of the Public Distribution System will raise the consumption costs of peasants in other regions, including in tribal areas. All these trends will intensify the debt crisis of different sections of the peasantry, and lead to parting them from their land.

The kisans are not misled. Their resistance to this process is in their long-term interest. It is also in the national interest, by defending the food security and land of the country. It is thus a direct heir to the legacy of the struggles of India’s peasantry under British rule.

As R.U.P.E has emphasized: The three Acts [i.e., the Modi regime’s farm laws] are an integral part of a larger policy, the result of which will be to part peasants from their land.

No wonder India’s farmers have wowed to protest for years until the black laws are repealed.


[1] John Wilkinson, “The Globalization of Agribusiness and Developing World Food Systems”, Monthly Review, September 2009.

[2] See The Land Market in Latin America and the Caribbean: Concentration and Foreignization, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2014.

[3] See RUPE, India’s Peasantry under Neoliberal Rule, May 2017, Chapter III, https://rupe-india.org/66/partthree.html

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