Today is the last day of the dreadful year that 2020 was – not only because of the pandemic but it has been a year full of the most vicious attacks on dissent and protests. It has also seen wanton arrests of those who raised their voices against the myriad injustices of this regime. The year that began with the epic struggle against the CAA-NRC ends while another epic struggle – that of the farmers – is going on. This post is dedicated to them and to the future of the farmers in struggle.
In the video above, Narayana Reddy, a farmer talks about farming. Having run away from home at a young age and worked as a cleaner earning Rs 40 a month, Reddy gradually got better jobs and saved some money with which he bought land for farming. Listen to his brief account here and you will realize that this charismatic and much celebrated farmer started off farming exactly the way it was understood in those days – that is to say, with standard ‘Green Revolution’ techniques. In five to six years, Narayana Reddy tells us, he became a spectacularly successful model farmer but something was amiss. Despite high yields, I was continuously losing money, he says. The story, with minor variations, was the same as that of Green Revolution farmers in Punjab: a few years of prosperity, accompanied by huge losses due to rising input costs (tractors, fuel, fertilizers, high-yielding variety seeds, pesticides, electricity run pumps), and rapidly deteriorating soil quality, depleting water table, disappearing of locally suitable crops.
There was no historical destiny or necessity in all this. Major US foundations like Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were involved in pushing this new way of doing ‘industrial’ agriculture developed by Norman Borlaug. I am not suggesting that this was a conspiracy but it was certainly something that took away control from the hands of the peasants and in the name of modernizing agriculture, made them dependent on big corporations (backed by the state) who were lurking behind this innocent-sounding rhetoric of increased productivity and prosperity. With the new farm laws, we are currently facing a fresh round of attacks on the autonomy and livelihooods of the farmers – and this time the government can’t pretend to any innocence in this regard.
So let us ask an elementary question: Why do people work and produce? The answer obviously is because they want to live well and live better in this world, here and now.
A Modern Secular Theology
How did it come to pass then that all of a sudden we found the world standing on its head? How come we are all now subject to the workings of mysterious forces that always, without fail, fatten themselves at our expense, while we are apparently working to feed and clothe our own selves?
The answer does not lie in historical destiny or necessity. It lies rather, in the rise of a modern secular priestly class known as the Economists, who started preaching that you/we could only do well by appeasing and propitiating their new God – the Economy [just another name of their Brahma, i.e. Capital]. They told us that we could not reach our gods (our own notions of well-being) directly for all that was pagan humbug. The new God Almighty was not visible to to ordinary people but only to this priestly class, which alone knew and could interpret what he wants. Only by increasing things like GDP (Gross Domestic Product), producing more and more wealth, and increasing the ‘size of the cake’ would we all be able to reach the state when goodies would start trickling down to us. In the meantime, some small 1 percent of the wealthy population would become more and more wealthy but that was only ordained by History! These grotesque men of wealth were God’s emissaries who had been sent to this earth to liberate us from our backwardness and our isolated existence. So never mind the fact that they fattened themselves at our expense. In the end, it was all for our common good.
To be sure, this idea did not begin with the economists – it began with moral philosophers and political theorists in a faraway land called ‘Europe’. It was only by the twentieth century that the idea of ‘Economy’ as a reified entity got entrenched. Believe it or not, the concept of GDP as we know it was first enunciated by the American economist Simon Kuznets in 1937. As the article by Elizabeth Dickinson linked here puts it: ‘His idea [was] to capture all economic production by individuals, companies, and the government in a single measure, which should rise in good times and fall in bad.’ It was only in 1944 that the concept was adopted as a universal measure at the Bretton Woods Conference – the conference where the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were born. So first ‘national economies’ were produced as a single entity through concepts like GDP and then in 1944, they were all tied into a single global scale by extending it as a common measure for all economies across the globe.
At each stage, the small and the local were supplanted by ever larger entities. What this meant, among other things, was that millions of people lost control over their own lives and livelihoods. The new theology had already decreed the small and the local to be a relic of the past that had to be eliminated. In the name of the new God, hundreds and thousands of people could be dispossessed and turned into beggars, put in poor houses or turned into criminals and transported to other continents. That was the story of Britain – that was how it accidentally happened in Britain and was quickly generalized into a European story and subsequently held up as Destiny for all of humanity!
What was even more interesting was that already by the nineteenth century in Europe, this idea of Destiny had become so entrenched that even those who challenged this entitlement of the rich swallowed the tale hook, line and sinker. They all ‘agreed’ that there was ‘no going back’; that the ‘wheel of History could not be turned back’. Capitalism – this new way of being – could only be transcended by carrying its own logic to its conclusion.
Neliberalism’s rise and consolidation in the 1990s represented only a later and more virulent form of the new theology. Where earlier theologians had had to retreat a bit in strategic terms, faced with different kinds of pressures, neoliberalism came right back to assert the orthodoxy in the 1980s and 1990s.
The rise of neoliberalism worldwide was accompanied by triumphant and celebratory declarations that by 2050, more than two thirds of the world’s population would be living in cities and that close to 90 percent of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa. However, not all projections on urban futures paint a rosy picture. With the all round disastrous impacts of the Covid 19 pandemic, it is likely that much of the ‘free-market’ triumphalism of neoliberal theologians will be reassessed in coming years – starting now.
Rise of the International Peasants Movement
But strange though it may sound, despite the unchallenged sway of economic theologians backed by the state and powerful international institutions, the peasant has refused to die or vacate the ‘stage of history’, as it were. Precisely at the time when ‘agricultural policies and agribusinesses were becoming globalized’, it was felt that ‘small farmers needed to develop a common vision and struggle to defend it’. That was when an international organization of peasants was formed. La Via Campesina as it is called, now comprises ‘182 organizations in 81 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas’, representing some 200 million farmers. As the report (linked above) on its website says,
‘La Via Campesina is an international movement bringing together millions of peasants, small and medium size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. Built on a strong sense of unity, solidarity between these groups, it defends peasant agriculture for food sovereignty as a way to promote social justice and dignity and strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture that destroys social relations and nature.
Women produce 70% of the food on earth but are marginalised and oppressed by neo-liberalism and patriarchy. They play a crucial role in La Via Campesina. The movement defends women’s rights and gender equality and struggles against all forms of violence against women.’
As underlined above, the movement links the defense of peasant agriculture with the food sovereignty of people and thus pits itself decisively against corporate driven agriculture. It is also important that its vision includes landless people, indigenous people and migrants and agricultural workers in its broad definition of peasant agriculture.
Another indication of the fact that the peasants are here to stay and not in any mood to oblige economic theologians, social scientists and philospphers is that after over two decades of hard work, they managed for the first time to get the United Nations to adopt its Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. It is telling that this document was only finally adopted by the UN in December 2018! But long before the Declaration was adopted by the UN, it was a “Peasants’ Declaration” for “it was the peasnts of La Via Campesina who decided that the states should recognize their rights” and not the states that started the process. It was actually in the 1990s that the Federation of Indonesian Peasants’ Unions initiated a discussion on peasants’ rights. This timing is important for it is also the time of the formation of La Via Campesina and as the document linked above states,
‘More than anything else, those present [at the formation of LVC] were deeply aware that they had a common enemy: The World Trade Organization (WTO), the establishment of which was then being negotiated. One of the main objectives of the States negotiating the WTO charter was to bring agriculture under its purview, which would have been a first for a multilateral trade agreement…The creation of the LVC made it possible to coordinate and reinforce peasants’ efforts to combat the establishment of the WTO.’
The difference this time round, compared to earlier rounds of peasants’ dispossession by capital and industry was that the myth that it was the peasants’ Destiny to vacate the stage was no longer convincing to an increasing number of people. The peasants were now organizing internationally to fight – without the mediation of political parties or states who were still caught up in the old imagination. This battle begins with the recognition that even today millions and millions of people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and that 37 of the 54 African countries are almost entirely agricultural.
Climate Crisis, Slow Food and Food Sovereignty
The new vision about agriculture as the future or as integral to our common future is based on the recognition then, of a simple fact, put thus in the European Coordination Via Campesina document Food Sovereignty Now! citing the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO):
The majority of the 570 million farms in the world are small. Small holders supply 80 percent of the overall food produced in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America through farmers, artisans, fisher folk, pastoralists, landless and indigenous people. In addition, 70 percent of the 1.4 billion extremely poor people live in rural areas and 75 percent of these rural poor are also small holders.
Experience shows that there is now way capitalist or corporatized agriculture can address the problems of hunger and poverty of this large mass of humanity – for it is simply not its concern. The idea of food sovereignty therefore emerges from this recognition. But it would be wrong to think that the peasant movement is simply about preserving the old, decrepit systems of agricultural production that have often been brought to this pass by capitalism. Or, as Narayana Reddy put it, drawing on his experience in India, (in his interview in the video above), the destruction of agriculture is based on a collusion between certain prejudice-laden sciences like agricultural science, medical science, pharmaceutical industry and health insurance companies.
The idea of food sovereignty emerged in opposition to the neoliberal push toward corporatization of agriculture, with the slogan ‘Profit For Few Or Food For All’. The model thus proposed could not but break away from the WTO model that proposed centralization and imposition of one policy for agriculture everywhere. The idea of food sovereignty sees food and agriculture, ecosystems and cultures as all being linked together in a complex web of relationships. This is a viision that at once connects agriculture and food production issues to larger questions of climate change and pushes towards ecologically sensitive and locally based ways of food cultivation. Initiatives like those of Narayana Reddy tie up with such a vision as they depend minimally on external corporations for their requirements. They also produce not for faraway markets abroad but mainly for local consumption.
It may be appropriate to conclude this post by referring to an initiative to which a friend drew my attention recently. This is not a political movement but it does give us a pointer to what could be an interesting dimension in the future. I am referring here to an initiative – a start-up actually – called Farmizen. This is in fact, an app-based start-up company that links up with many organically producing farms in and around Bengaluru. The fascinating thing is that while many of the partner farms are run by former IT or corporate sector people who were dissatisfied with that life, precisely for that reason, they are concerned about the question of commercial viablity of their farms. Farmizen links up customers in the local market – in and around Bangalore – who want organic and chemical free food, with farms that produce the food for them. The customers can pay an advance of a sum every month or even trade it with physically contributing labour to their hired bit of land and in return they get a weekly supply of fresh vgetables or fruit. What this initiative shows clearly is that this is a profession that many are now being attracted to and these are people who also have the vision to develop newer techniques and networks that are in consonance with their requirements.