Dr Nishant A.Irudayadason
Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune.
“No one understands the problems of the peasants.” It is with this cry of the heart that union leader Hannan Mullah explained why a call for a general strike was launched in India for Tuesday, December 8. The Secretary-General of the All-India Kisan Sabha, recalls that the agricultural sector has been expressing its despair for six months now. As thousands of Indian farmers, determined to repeal agricultural reforms, continued the blockade of the Indian capital New Delhi entering its seventh week despite the merciless cold weather.
The importance of India’s agricultural sector is considerable, providing the livelihood of nearly 70% of its 1.3 billion inhabitants, and contributing about 15% of its GDP, or $2.7 trillion. The green revolution of the 1970s allowed India, which regularly faced food shortages, to become a surplus country, now a major exporter. However, the sector, whose revenues have stagnated in recent decades, is in great need of investment and modernization. According to a Survey by the Ministry of Agriculture for the period 2015-2016, more than 85% of farmers owned less than two hectares of land, less than one in 100 farmers owned more than 10 hectares. India provides an average of $32 billion in subsidies to farmers each year, according to the Ministry of Finance.
Indian agriculture is experiencing increasingly erratic weather conditions like drought and floods due to climate change. According to a report by the government of northern Punjab published in 2017, the state will have exhausted all its groundwater resources by 2039. Farmers are falling under the weight of debt and more than 300,000 of them have committed suicide since the 1990s. According to recent official data, some 10,300 farmers have ended their lives in 2019. Farmers and agricultural workers are abandoning the sector in huge number: nearly 2,000 agricultural workers give up farming every day, according to the latest census in 2011.
Successive Indian governments have always made great promises to farmers—who are a crucial election target—and Modi was no exception, promising to double their incomes by 2022. In September, parliament passed laws that allow farmers to sell their produce to buyers of their choice, rather than turning exclusively to state-controlled markets. These markets were created in the 1950s to protect farmers from abuse and provided them with a minimum support price (MSP) for certain commodities. Many smallholder farmers are attached to the MSP, which is an essential safety net for them, and now feel threatened by the market liberalization generated by the reforms. They fear competition from large farms that may force them to sell them at low prices to large companies in order to sell their goods.
When Narendra Modi’s government passed a reform of the deregulation of India’s internal agricultural market in September, farmers were not asked for their opinion; 86% of them who produce on less than one hectare of land. Given this scenario, it is impossible to invest to mechanize and increase yields. How can these defenceless people survive the attacks of the agri-food and retail giants if they are the ones who have to negotiate prices directly, as the law now stipulates?
Modi has already encountered some pitfalls since his first term, but they have not prevented his re-election in 2019 with an overwhelming majority of votes. And while the Prime Minister has tried to downplay the impact of the current agricultural movement, deeming farmers deceived by “misinformation” from an opportunistic opposition, the farmers’ rumble should not be treated lightly. They enjoy broad public support and ignoring their appeals could tarnish Modi’s image as a champion of the poor. In rural areas, where 70% of Indians live, the perception of Modi being close to the business community and billionaire industrialists is becoming more widespread.