It is a time for rejoicing and celebration. It is a time for thanksgiving. For the victory of the farmers is not just theirs. Theirs was not just a struggle to protect their own livelihoods but also a valiant battle fought for all of us, so that we continue to get our food at affordable prices. It is a time for thanksgiving also because the movement has broken the hubris of an arrogant government that has absolutely no accountability whatsoever. It has given us some breathing space.
Even as this piece is being written, the victorious farmers camping at the Delhi borders for the last one year are preparing to leave for their homes. It has been a long haul for them in the course of which over 700 have died. It has been especially trying for the Punjab farmers who had started the stir months before they decided on their march to Delhi on 26 November 2020. Nobody had expected that the shifting of the venue to Delhi would end up being one long ordeal, continuing months on end, through the freezing winter, scorching Delhi heat and torrential rains. Not to mention an intransigent government that had already started the ground work for corporatization of agriculture and handing over parts of it to Adani and Ambani, even before the laws were formally promulgated.
A Unique Struggle
The Punjab farmers had been in protests, with tractor marches and protest-cum-mobilization meetings in villages for three months prior to the shift to Delhi’s borders. They understood the nefarious designs for agriculture envisaged in the three ordinances/ laws; they understood therefore, that this would not be a mere protest but ‘do or die’ struggle.
It was a struggle that should be studied, alongside the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) movement that had just preceded it, for the form and strategy they adopted, and the way they both became genuine mass movements, involving an ever increasing number of allies. They should be studied because both these movements, for the first time in recent history, brought in women in large numbers not just as passive participants but as mobilizers and leaders. They need to be studied because of the way in which they chose and deployed their symbols, their relation to the past heritage of struggles and their relationship to the Constitution. They should be studied both for their similarities and their differences. While all that will have to wait for a more detailed study, I cannot help remarking on something that leaps to the eye immediately. The form of a non-violent mass movement was what allowed it to involve so many different kinds of people, pool so many different energies, with so much creativity – and not remain a dry, rigid, vanguard- controlled passive following. This is true of both the movements.
In the case of the farmers’ struggle, what stood out above all, was the fact of the movement leadership’s ability to work together, despite their political differences. There was no politburo or a central committee consisting of a single ideological tendency, yet there was a unified leadership. Unified as far as the movement is concerned. Every one knew and abided by the common code of conduct and occasionally, when someone violated it s/he was publicly censured or suspended for a month, regardless of how big the leader was. There was, despite hugely differing political perspectives, a collective leadership in command. There was no ‘great leader’ and what is more, the movement was clear that political parties qua parties had to be kept at an arms length.
If this is one instance where the attempts to buy off sections of the leadership and create rifts failed repeatedly, it was because the command was in the hands of those whose life and death depended upon the success of the struggle. It has been the historical experience of mass movements of the last seven decades that every mass movement has been taken over by political parties who have treacherously sold off the struggle and destroyed it. That is why both in the anti-CAA movement and the farmers’ movement, this insistence on keeping political leaders at bay was so great. That is what allowed the movement to win.
Crony Capitalism is not Free-Market
Let us not forget that the ordinances were brought in stealthily, under cover of the pandemic which the regime had used earlier to disperse and suppress the massive anti-CAA protests. This was a cowardly act on the part of the government which had thought it would once again easily suppress the struggle. All this while, the government and its minions had been claiming that all it wanted to do was ‘to double the incomes of the farmers’ but it later slipped out in an official briefing that the only way that could be done was by reducing farming population to half its current size!
In this piece I do not intend to go into an elaboration of the farmers’ case, which I have done earlier in this column and many agriculture experts have done over the last one year in various media forums. Nor is it my intention refute the calumny and the propaganda unleashed in the media that the farmers’ victory (and the government’s backtracking) is the death-knell of ‘free-market reforms’. After all, it is quite evident for anyone without neoliberal blinkers that subsidized land for corporations, acquired by the government from farmers for them, is hardly a free market operation. Just as it should be clear to anyone that laws promulgated under the shadow of the pandemic and behind the back of the parliament is by no stretch of imagination a free market operation. Rather, it is the neoliberal stupor that still possesses many in the ruling circles, that makes us see ‘free-market’ where the name of the game is actually crony capitalism! For a market to be free, the government should not only step back but also level out the playing field.
It needs to be underlined, however, and repeated a hundred times, that getting food on your plate at affordable prices for an average to poor Indian is not and cannot be something that can be left to the ‘free-market’. It requires intervention especially because the peasant/ farmer suffers both when crops fail as well as when there are bumper harvests, and prices crash.
It also needs to be underlined and repeated a hundred times over that the food on our plates is not just a function of the price but even more importantly, the cropping pattern: if what crops are going to be sown are to be determined by what Adani and Ambani can sell at the highest profit (may be for bio-fuels to run US cars), then we can rest assured that the food from the plates of even those who can afford today will vanish.
In other words, the farmers’ struggle and victory should force us to come out of the neoliberal stupor and re-examine some of our most fundamental assumptions about the economy afresh.
That said, it must also be emphasized that while the immediate threat posed by the three laws has been warded off, this does not even begin to address the endemic issues of the agrarian crisis and its links with the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis, it has to be kept in mind, is not is just about some remote future. It is destroying Punjab now, as it is destroying lives elsewhere, slowly poisoning them. It was reported for instance that between 2012 and 2019, Guru Gobind Singh Medical College and Hospital in Faridkot alone recorded 22, 000 cases of cancer. This high incidence has been linked to the highly polluted waters of the Sarsa and Sutlej rivers that are ‘carried through canals into the Malwa belt (South Western Punjab) where these are used extensively for irrigation and drinking’. And of course, this is not just a matter of the river waters, for by now even the ground water is badly polluted. It was reported a few years ago that almost 80 percent of groundwater in Malwa region in Punjab is not fit for drinking. More recent data shared by the Jal Shakti ministry suggests that not just Malwa but, in fact, more than half of Punjab’s districts have reported the presence of dangerous levels of uranium, arsenic, cadmium and lead in their ground water and that the situation may actually be out of hand. While a lot of the water pollution is linked to the release of industrial effluents into rivers and seepage to groundwater, the green revolution model of agriculture with its dependence on high degrees of chemicals too has had its role to play in the destruction of water and soil quality.
This means that Punjab seriously needs to address its agrarian crisis by simultaneously getting out of the current model of development that has pushed the state to the brink. While a lot of the change that has to happen has to take place at the political level, there is quite a bit that can be undertaken by the farmers’ organizations. This is where the experience of collectively conducting this unprecedented mass movement can help – in working together, for instance, to build cooperatives both for production as well as for marketing.
The experience of the movement can actually help in another way, especially since it has already led to a certain kind of mass awareness regarding the problems of corporate domination of agriculture. This can be done by forcing political parties contending for power in the state, to take up the question of industry and industrial development (and the development model itself) as a priority. This too is not a matter that can be left to the vagaries of the ‘free-market’ but calls for immediate and massive intervention.