The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Indian Farmers’ Hidden Enemy: Disaster Capitalism

The government’s agricultural reforms threaten food and water security as well as deepening economic inequality in India.

By Pascale Hunt for
Indian Farmers’ Hidden Enemy: Disaster Capitalism

Protesting farmers eat a meal on a stretch of national highway near Singhu border on December 3.

Credit: Bhat Burhan

In September, India’s BJP-led central government enacted three controversial agricultural laws that critics say threaten the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers and those who rely on the agricultural sector to meet their basic needs. At a time of unprecedented, multidimensional crises in the country, both the substance of the laws and the process by which they were passed will have real ramifications for human security in India for years to come, constituting matters of existential concern for the country’s working class.

In her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine,” Naomi Klein proposed the concept of “disaster capitalism” in reference to the tendency of governments to ram through free market policies in the wake of major crisis, whether natural disasters or acts of terrorism. In this case, the crisis is a compound one – food and water security and deepening economic inequality in India are issues that have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The farmers are not the only ones protesting. On November 26, 250 million workers from around the country participated in a strike against the Modi government’s labor reforms in what is thought to be the largest strike in history to date.

While farmers unions and allied organizations have been protesting the agricultural bills in the states of Punjab and Haryana for over two months, demonstrations swelled at the borders of Delhi two weeks ago, as participants from other states and coalitions have added their support.

After a fifth round of talks between the central government and farmers organizations fell through on Saturday, farmers called for a nationwide Bharat bandh or general strike to occur on Tuesday, December 8. Initially proposed by farmers unions, a diverse and vast coalition of allies including trade and bank unions and heads of 14 opposition political parties from around the country voiced their support. The strike prompted Home Minister Amit Shah to agree to meet protest leaders on Tuesday evening at his personal residence.

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P. Sainath, journalist and founder of the People’s Archive of Rural India, says the decision to pass these laws at the height of the pandemic was a deliberate choice by the Modi government, who have underestimated the resolve of the farmers in the face of multifaceted struggles.

“[The government] is trying to look like the reasonable host. At the same time, it has dug 10-feet by 10-feet trenches in the national highways to prevent these farmers from reaching Delhi, and have used water cannons and tear gas – water cannons in the coldest winter that Delhi has had,” Sainath told Democracy Now!.

Understanding the Farmer’s Concerns

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the recent enactment of the three farm bills as a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture, they faced rigid opposition in Parliament, where they were passed hurriedly by voice vote despite repeated efforts by the opposition to extend deliberations into the following day or to convene a special committee. The chief spokesperson of the opposition Congress Party, Randeep Surjewala, called the three bills a “death knell” for agriculture in India.

The three acts – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, and The Essential Commodities (Amendement) Act 2020 – were issued by the Modi-led government in June of this year. They were passed after receiving assent from President Ram Nath Kovind in September.

Opposition to the laws is multifaceted and a full breakdown exceeds the scope of this summary, but several major contentions can be contextualized. One major contention relates to provisions in the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce Act (FPTC), which involve the deregulation of crop pricing. Most farmers sell their produce at APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) state-run wholesale markets or mandis, where the state has previously guaranteed farmers a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for produce. Under this arrangement, farmers are guaranteed a floor price for their produce, while traders, commission agents, and other middlemen function within a network of personal and business relationships facilitating the sale, transport, and storage of goods. A small tax is levied, which is put toward improving infrastructure and providing collective benefits to the farmers.

In many states, farmers already have the option of selling to private entities while retaining a functioning mandi system to fall back on. With these sweeping laws, farmers are concerned that the lack of fees levied in newly established private trading areas will entice farmers away from the mandi system while private buyers initially match or increase typical floor prices to attract their business. Though the FPTC doesn’t explicitly call for the removal of MSPs, the concern is that the mandi system will be hollowed out over time while the private sector gains the power to determine their own floor prices, leaving farmers to compete to be the lowest bidder.

Farming leader Baldev Singh Sirsa says they are demanding that MSPs be ensured in writing by a new law, rather than an amendment to the newly passed FPTC Act. While talks so far have made little progress, Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar said the government is considering implementing an equal tax on private mandis to ensure the APMC-supported mandi system remains strong and in use.

Opposition to the FPTC Act also relates to a clause in the legislation that confines dispute resolution mechanisms for private contracts to the subdivisional magistrate, effectively protecting the central government from any and all accountability, despite the unprecedented control the central government is exerting over the national agricultural sector with these sweeping reforms. The Bar Council of Delhi has opposed the law on similar grounds, writing a letter to the president outlining their assessment that assigning the settlement of agricultural disputes to the subdivisional magistrate rather than the central government denies citizens fundamental rights to legal recourse.

Provisions under the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act will remove limits, except under “extraordinary conditions,” on the amount of and length of time for which corporations can stockpile goods. Critics say this provision will allow the private sector to control price fluctuations via supply control mechanisms. Furthermore, cereals, pulses, edible oil, onions, and potatoes have also been removed from the essential commodities list, allowing corporations the freedom to monopolize and control these previously protected commodities.

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The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement provides a regulatory framework for contract farming. In these contracts the producer commits to producing a good of a certain type, quantity, and price within an agreed period of time. Typically, the contractor will supply the farmer with the inputs needed for cultivation of the product, such as chemicals and pesticides, technologies, and seeds, while the farmer provides the land and labor.

In Punjab, the state government has previously argued that contract farming would bring about crop diversification, an important issue in a state where ecological concerns include soil salinity, clean water, biodiversity, and air quality. However the interests of the private sector do not necessarily align with the health interests of the state when it comes to crop diversification. Prior to the Green Revolution, Punjab had a diverse agricultural system producing wheat, maize, pulses, and vegetables. While agronomists have advised a reduction in water-intensive farming required by rice and wheat, the corporate interests in the Punjab region have led to an expansion of basmati rice farming and specialization in wheat and rice paddies.

The negative environmental externalities of contract farming and associated resource-intensive farming practices are also well documented. In the northwestern states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, falling water table levels are a pressing issue. A draft report by the Central Ground Water Board estimated that at the current rate of extraction, all available groundwater in the state of Punjab will be completely dry in 20 to 25 years.

Food, Water, Livelihoods: Compounding Crises

COVID-19 has propelled unemployment to unprecedented levels in India with 27 percent of the population of 1.3 billion currently unemployed, while the World Food Program has predicted that an additional 130 million people will face acute hunger due to the pandemic and associated economic crisis. The latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report indicates that India remains home to the largest population of food insecure people in the world. Between 2014 and 2019, food insecurity in India increased from 27.8 percent to 31.6 percent of the population, or by about 6.2 million more people.

Small and marginal farmers make up 80 percent of the Indian agricultural sector, which employs 47 percent of the population and supports the livelihoods of 60 percent of the country. The proposition that increased agricultural liberalization will increase food security and freedom for farmers rests in the assumption that income will be evenly distributed among producers and that a reliable source of food will otherwise be available in the absence of private contracts. It also rests on the assumption that the market is truly competitive, and not dominated by large monopolies and oligopolies. In practice, suppliers for farming inputs like agrichemicals, pesticides, and seeds have created entrenched partnerships with other industries, leaving farmers with little choice in terms of buyers, while buyers have the entire domestic and international market to choose from and so will not be compelled to buy from those who request higher prices for their produce.

While India has achieved food sufficiency, food production in general is resource intensive, dependent on cereals, and regionally unequal. To promote food security, the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security has recommended policy reforms that build on the principle of food sovereignty, such as the promotion of agroecology, diversification, and shorter agricultural supply chains to build more resilience in food systems and provide greater access to vulnerable communities.

There has been a harrowing trend of farmer’s suicides in India throughout the last decade, attributed to a culmination of debt, insufficient harvests, drought, and neglect by the state. Last year, an average of 28 people who depended on farming for their livelihoods died by suicide in India every day, amounting to at least 10,281 people in the farm sector in just the year 2019.

Back in 2012, author and activist Arundhati Roy penned an article exposing the tragic trend of Indian farmer suicides – 250,000 of them at that point. “In India, the 300 million of us who belong to the post-IMF ‘reforms’ middle class – the market – live side by side with spirits of the nether world, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests,” Roy wrote.

While the pandemic and associated economic crisis will undoubtedly be felt for years to come, anti-worker liberalization policies such as these three farm laws will only exacerbate present inequalities. If power is tilted further toward large agri-food corporations and away from smallholder farmers, the repercussions of the current crises in India will be markedly more dire for the working class.

Amid this struggle though, there is a glimmer of hope in the globalization of resistance to neoliberal development economics. As new technologies have brought with them an unprecedented globalization of information and communication, diverse groups who share concerns or alternative ideas for development trajectories are increasingly able to contribute to local and global discourses and garner coalitions of support across states, industries, and cultures.

The farmers’ movement, occurring at a real turning point for India’s economic, social and environmental trajectories, could spark real and lasting change, fueled by resilience in the midst of compounding crises.

Pascale Hunt is a writer specializing in environmental justice and sustainable development.