MILLIONS of agitating farmers have laid an unprecedented siege on Indian capital, New Delhi demanding unconditional repeal of the three pro-corporate farm laws – the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. They have even demanded a special session of the Indian parliament to accomplish this without delay. In spite of the government’s willingness to bring about certain amendments such as ensuring of safeguards against land alienation via contract farming, strengthening state-run mandi system, allowing grievance redress in civil courts, etc., in the absence of a legal guarantee on the part of the Modi regime for strengthening the mandis and minimum support price (MSP) system and safeguards against the entry of corporate agribusiness, the peasants are determined to carry forward their struggle without any let up. Of course, Modi government’s intention to bring out a new set of farm laws was mentioned by Nirmala Sitharaman in May 2020 while proposing the third tranche of the Rs. 20 lakh crore pro-corporate “fiscal stimulus” package of “Atmanirbhar Bharat”. It was in continuation of this that on June 5th 2020 the government issued Ordinances opening up India’s agricultural sector to global corporates and their Indian cronies like Ambani and Adani. And using COVID as a cover, without pursuing any of the established parliamentary procedures, the hurriedly convened parliament meeting in September converted the three Ordinances in to Acts.
Among these draconian laws, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, aims at establishing free trade or barrier-free inter-state and intra-state trade and commerce outside the physical premises of the agricultural markets or mandis under the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) established by state governments. That is, under the Act, freedom is given to farmers to sell outside the mandi area. The government claims that such free movement will allow the farmers to link themselves with the vast Indian and global markets and get a better price for their produce from markets outside the mandi area. However, it would be practically impossible for the marginal and small peasants with per capita land ownership of less than 2 hectares comprising more than 86.2 per cent of Indian peasantry to take their farm produce to different states and markets even at higher prices, as they are devoid of any transport facilities and already being tied up with local money lenders. In such a situation, elimination of mandis in the guise of liberating peasants from “mandi middlemen” is nothing but leaving the local agricultural markets to be pried open by corporate businesses and black marketers. After all, as everybody knows, the mandi system operates only in a few states and majority of the farmers are at the mercy of private traders. However, in spite of many drawbacks, it is the system of APMCs and mandis that have enabled the farmers of Punjab and other states to maintain a minimum standard of living as they are getting stable income through MSPs. What is required is to strengthen the regulatory mechanism rather than demolishing it.
The second, viz., the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 claims that it will “empower farmers for engaging with processors, wholesalers, aggregators, wholesalers, large retailers, exporters etc., on a level playing field without any fear of exploitation. It will transfer the risk of market unpredictability from the farmer to the sponsor and also enable the farmer to access modern technology and better inputs. It will reduce cost of marketing and improve income of farmers.” The obvious agenda behind this claim is to open up the avenues for contract farming and speed up the corporate take-over of the entire agriculture including corporatisation of land itself. The farmers, on the other hand, will not be able to bargain or compete with the big corporates and eventually turn into their slaves. According to this Act, the farmers are forbidden to seek justice through civil courts from violations of agreement by corporate agribusiness. Instead of involving the judicial system for rectifying legal violations by big companies, the Modi government has entrusted the task with joint secretaries and district magistrates, which is nothing but an ingenious move towards corporate-bureaucrat nexus. Leaving dispute settlement to bureaucracy, in effect, is a violation of the legal system and rule of law itself.
And the third Law, viz., the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, removes food grains and other essentials of life from the list of Essential Commodities altogether. Abolition of state control over Essential Commodities by this obnoxious law is eulogised by Modi regime as “the freedom to produce, hold, move, distribute and supply will lead to harnessing of economies of scale and attract private sector/foreign direct investment into agriculture sector. It will help drive up investment in cold storages and modernisation of food supply chain.” This Act throws open unfettered freedom for the big corporate houses to hoard and stock food grains leading to artificial shortage and accumulation of speculative profit. This amendment to the Essential Commodities Act will also allow speculative hoarding and future trading of food grains by Ambani and Adani-like speculators. It is not against the farming community alone. Together with government withdrawal from food procurement (FCI warehouses are already taken over by Ambanis and Adanis), even the namesake public distribution system in the country will become meaningless through the first two laws. Abolition of Essential Commodities Act will allow corporate retailers through their nation-wide network of retail outlets to wipe out the 50 million small and petty retailers and kirana shops upon which roughly 200 million people of India depend for their sustenance.
As a facilitator of the most corrupt corporate-crony capital in India, and perfectly in tune with logic of corporate capital, the far-right Modi regime has superimposed the farm laws in a fascistic manner without adhering to the usual parliamentary debates and procedures, or even subjecting them to the standing committees and consultative mechanisms of parliament. No consultation was there with political parties or farmers’ organisations and even the State governments were completely sidelined and their opinion was not sought despite agriculture being in the State list as per the Constitution. As many constitutional experts have pointed out, the farm laws are “unconstitutional” and “illegal”. Demolition of mandis and APMCs till controlled by State governments is tantamount to taking over State’s federal powers. Though in a different form, the same methodology was pursued in superimposing the GST, the biggest neoliberal tax reform that took away the States’ federal right of resource mobilization after entrustingcountry’s economy with corporate big businesses who control the unified pan-Indian market for goods and services.
Today Bihar is a typical example to grasp about the consequences of abolishing APMCs and unleashing private corporate sector on trade in agriculture. It was in 2006 that the Nitish Kumar government repealed the APMC Act in 2006. The declared objective of APMC abolition in Bihar was to ensure better prices for farmers in the state and attract larger sums of private investment in developing state-wide agricultural infrastructure such as cold storages, warehouses, etc. However, contrary to expectations, deregulation led to an increase in storage costs in warehouses owned and operated by private traders, and the prices received by farmers also went down substantially. Often, farmers on account of immediate cash needs were compelled to sell much of their paddy, wheat, maize, mustard and even banana at throwaway prices to private traders, while farmers have completely lost whatever little control they had in the marketing boards of erstwhile APMCs. Earlier, while marketing committees in APMCs could monitor trade, tax collection for government, etc. Though PACS (Primary Agriculture Credit Society) were there for procuring food grains at MSP, the government did not maintain them with adequate support. Money lenders and middlemen could easily take advantage of the situation and often bought crops at prices that was even below 25 percent of prevailing MSP. To be precise, abolition of APMCs has brought back the system of money lending and usurer financing in Bihar agriculture in more intensified manner.
In this context, Modi regime’s superimposition of privatization-corporatisation on agriculture in the guise of farmers’ freedom is in contravention of the perspective upheld by all those who are concerned with the sustenance of Indian farming community. For, the National Commission on Agriculture had in 1976 in its Report suggested that every Indian farmer should have access to a mandi controlled by the respective Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee. It found that only 29 percent of paddy and 44 percent of wheat produced in the country was sold in mandis established by State governments and hence asked the central government to take appropriate steps to increase the number of mandis from 4145 (in 1976, the year in which the Report was prepared) to at least 41000 so as to reduce the average area served by a mandi to 80 sq. km. But India had only 6630 mandis spread across 18 states in 2019 with an average area served of 463 sq. km. In fact, even government circles in 2017 were of the view that India should have at least 10130 mandis. Moreover, though government website claims the prevalence of MSP system for 27 items including 7 cereals, 5 pulses and 8 oil seeds, in practice, only a few items like paddy, wheat, sugarcane, etc. that too only in a few States come under this procurement. Moreover, experience has brought out many loopholes of the existing mandi system since in many cases, payment of MSP for notified commodities even inside designated mandis is not mandatory.
On the other hand, with its far-right economic orientation, since its ascendance in mid-2014, the Modi government has been keen to open up India’s vast agriculture sector to corporate capital. For instance, in November 2019, the Union Finance Minister without any qualm stated that the APMC system has “served its purpose” and the State governments should “reject” and “dismantle” mandis. In continuation of this, when COVID-19 came, taking it as an opportunity, the NITI Aayog had recommended to the government that the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act be kept in suspended animation in view of the Covid-19 outbreak. And as noted earlier, Finance Minister’s announcement for corporatizing agriculture as part of ‘Atmanirbhar’ was in continuation of this. The NITI Aayog had suggested its implementation across states even through the ordinance route “to ease pressure on farmers” and ensure smooth supply of farming goods.
It is in tune with this proposal that, the June ordinances came and Modistarted, including in his ‘Manki Bat’, regularly speaking about liberating farmers from the clutches of mandis and APMCs that deny them the higher prices prevailing outside regulated markets. Therefore, whatever be the Modi government’s assurances on support price and mandis, they are only for hoodwinking the farmers. And the agitating peasants are able to realise the essence of his hollow promises (Modi’s promise in 2014 was of doubling farmers income within 5 years; instead what happened was its halving, whereas the wealth of Ambanis and Adanis, Modi’s closest Gujarati friends and the biggest Indian corporates quadrupled during 2014-19), as the stage is already set for unbridled penetration of global and Indian corporate agri-businesses as well as retail giants into all aspects of agriculture including control over land and input-output markets, encompassing production, processing, storage and trade. Once mandis and MSP are demolished, Ambanis and Adanis, for whom Modi had already leased out FCI infrastructures including land and go-downs in many parts of the country, will be in complete control of everything connected with food grains market. Private trains owned by retail giants including Ambanis and Adanis hence forth will carry food grains and essential agricultural items directly procured from farms controlled by them to be hoarded in their go-downs in strategic locations to be sold at inflated prices through commodity markets and retail outlets under their firm control. It is this political understanding on the corporate undertones behind Modi’s Farm laws that prompts the agitating peasants to target the business establishments of Ambani and Adani. Coupled with corporatisation of farming and repeal of 1955 Essential Commodities Act, the unleashing of corporate forces over everything connected with agriculture envisage the death knell for farmers, retail traders, working class and all toiling masses in the country.
The three farm laws—superimposing corporate raj or corporate take-over of the entire Indian agriculture and abolishing even namesake guarantee of minimum prices to farmers, facilitating hoarding and black marketing and speculation/ futures trade in agricultural commodities, laying red carpet for uncontrolled entry of corporate agribusiness to farm sector, eventually leading to corporate land acquisition and hitherto unknown levels of displacement of the peasantry from agriculture—have now become the biggest offensives against Indian people by Modi govt. If the farm laws are not resisted and defeated, there is the likelihood of Modi once again bringing back the notorious Land Acquisition legislation that was abandoned in 2015 in view of people’s resistance. The outcome of all these will be an uninterrupted mass exodus of the displaced millions from the countryside to be deployed at the cheapest wage in informal/unorganised sectors subcontracted by corporate financiers and speculators in urban and semi-urban centres.
Of course, the international dimensions of Modi’s targeting of agriculture are also important. In continuation of the market access provisions and global integration of agricultural markets as per the provisions of the Agreement on Agriculture at WTO, which was further revised in 2015, member countries are bound to remove all barriers to free trade in agriculture. And together with the latest Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) of WTO, World Bank and IMF at the behest of agribusiness MNCs have been pressurising Modi for an aggressive rolling back of all kinds of public intervention in agricultural market including MSP schemes. The US Department of Agriculture is reported to have expressed its happiness over Modi’s Farm Laws as they envisage new opportunities for American agribusiness corporations. While the percent of population depending on agriculture in developed countries where agriculture has already been corporatized now hovers around 2 percent, in India it is still around 50 percent. According to the advice of far- right neoliberal centres, Modi regime is engaged in removing this ‘anomaly’ by forcible transformation of subsistence agriculture to corporate farming.
On the other hand, imperialist powers such as US and EU have their country-specific rules and regulations to protect their agriculture and have even succeeded to incorporate specific clauses to that effect in WTO provisions. However, instead of wholeheartedly uniting with other dependent countries to overcome the unequal set of rules at WTO that favour the big powers, Modi government is faithfully pursuing WTO diktats undermining India’s food security on the one hand, and destitution and displacement of 56. 7 percent of India’s total workforce and 86.08 percent of small and marginal peasants (based on 10th Agriculture Census, 2015-16) who own only 47 percent of the total crop area, on the other. Thus Modi’s farm laws are an ingenious move to superimpose agricultural corporatisation leading to not only pauperisation of the entire peasantry but also the displacement of millions and millions of pauperised peasants from even their small landholdings. That’s, unprecedented displacement of rural people from agriculture, their mass exodus from country-side to urban centres and swelling in the ranks of the informal working class are imminent. Over the past two decades, on account of the crisis in agriculture- due to lack of adequate output prices, crop failure, rising input costs, debt, etc.- more than 330000 peasants had to commit suicide. While the situation under Modi, on account of anti-peasant policies, has worsened further (A source from Oxford University’s South Asia Area Studies puts the number of India’s peasant suicides at 10281 in 2019 alone), the National Crime Records Bureau has stopped releasing data on peasant suicides.
To be precise, the ongoing historic struggle by Indian farmers is not for their sustenance alone; it is for the very survival of the broad masses, for their badly needed food security. By eliminating Mandis and APMCs which are characterised as middlemen by Modi regime, the agenda is to abolish food grain procurement altogether and hand over the existing FCI infrastructure (food is rotting in FCI go downs even as people are starving to death) to corporate retail giants like Ambanis and Adanis who have already started storing food grains in warehouses owned by FCI and leased out to them, as already noted. For instance, today the turnover of Ambani, India’s biggest corporate company, from agricultural trade alone(including commodity futures trade, a euphemism for hoarding and speculation) alone is estimated at Rs. 1.6 lakh crore (which is around 25 percent of Ambani’s current wealth accumulation which also is one component in the sudden shoot up in his wealth during COVID-19 pandemic). At present Ambani’s Reliance Fresh has 625 outlets that sells more than 180000 ton vegetables in a year. Ambani’s Jio Mart has already brought 12 crore farmers, 6 crore small industries and 3 crore traders in its pan-Indian network.
Coming to the case of Adani, who had only 44 projects across India in 2013, increased them to 99 by 2018. Since 2015, like Ambani, Adani also has made huge investments in agricultural processing and now owns 40 units with a processing capacity of 16000 tons per day. Adani Agro Logistics Ltd (AALL) has evolved as the key infrastructure builder for FCI leading to its probable take-over by the former. Along this, futures trade and consequent hoarding in essential agricultural items have been introduced by the regime, even otherwise. If not resisted and defeated, the full-fledged corporatisation of agriculture will form the basis of corporate-saffron fascism leading unmanageable havoc in India.
And, as elsewhere, this no holds barred agricultural corporatisation envisaged is integrally linked up with Modi’s “digital India” or digitisation prognosis that is transforming India into a dumping ground for US digital giants like Facebook and Google through the digital platform offered by Ambani. The entire marketing arrangements under the proposed agricultural regime led by corporate agribusiness will be through digital payments or cashless transactions. Many digital and fintech tools such as Aadhaar, payment apps, debit-credit cards, and digital platforms such as Jio (as junior partner of Facebook), etc. will become mandatory for peasants to enter in to virtual transactions with agribusiness giants (Modi is systematically moving ahead with his effort to wipe out public sector bank branches from the countryside.
During 2014-19 the number of public sector banks has been reduced from 27 to 12 and is to be further pruned to a maximum of 4 as envisaged by the neoliberal banking reforms and green signal for corporate-led private banks is already issued).As in the case of GST, for the smooth functioning of the proposed agricultural corporatisation, the Central government is facilitating a pan-Indian national electronic trade regime with the State governments having little say in it. And the existing mandi system and traditional procurements under State administration, even if allowed to continue, will be wiped out or become insignificant as the digitised “free trade area” facilitated by the Central regime advances further.
To sum up, therefore, the Indian farmers’ agitation is not confined to agriculture alone, it is a political struggle having far-reaching ramifications. It is against corporate fascism as well as against the logic of most corrupt speculative finance capital underlying it. The peasants of India who personally know the exploitative character of corporate-agribusiness better than others have unequivocally rejected Modi’ Farm Laws. They are capable enough to foresee the trap behind them and can comprehend the true essence of the so called virtues of technocratic governance proposed by Modi and his corporate-bureaucratic advisers.
Therefore, it is the solemn duty of the Indian working class and all oppressed to unite and march ahead with the struggling peasants who are repeatedly demanding a full revocation and not an of the anti-peasant legislations.