Looking For a Future Beyond Farmers Suicides and Agrarian Crisis

  • December 2, 2020

The militancy being shown by Indian farmers has successfully made the agrarian crisis into a central political agenda, but the question of big corporate capital, which is siphoning bulk of surplus from the agrarian sector, through policy decisions made by successive state and central governments are carefully avoided. An article by Subhashini.

This article was published in GroundXero on December 2, 2018.  Today, when lakhs of farmers are battling a do-or-die war against the pro-corporate Farm Laws on the borders of the national capital, we republish this article for our readers. 



The stock image of a distressed farmer is finally giving way to the image of peasants moving in a sea of red flags raised in protest. The Kisan Mukti March held in the capital on the 29th and 30th of November 2018 has come in the wake of dispersed but increasingly frequent and intensifying protests by different farming communities across the country over the past few years, converging under one umbrella organisation of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee constituted by over 200 local and nation-wide farmers’ organisations. The militancy being shown by Indian farmers has successfully made the agrarian crisis into a central political agenda. Yet, this ferment itself remains ridden with differences and contradictions much like the internally differentiated constituency of the farmer and the ideological tendencies that have been present in the peasants’ movement in its historical development in the country.


5 years back, the mandate given to Modi by the ruling class at home and abroad clearly spelled out a more aggressive round of neo-liberal restructuring of the Indian economy in the context of the global crisis in capitalism and the global ruling classes’ attempt to manage it. This was sought to be done by heightening extraction from third world countries by providing first world goods free entry into these markets, impoverishment of their populations to turn them into a bottomless reservoir of cheap labour, and the appropriation of natural resources through dispossession. This has been executed through cuts in state expenditure, smashing the rights of labour and facilitation of the extension of access and dominance of finance capital in these economies. The Modi government has been hard at work on all these fronts and its impact can also be seen on agriculture.  The 2.3% annual decline in real investment in agriculture and the slow-down in the rate of growth of agricultural credit to 12% in these four years compared to 21% in the decade just before reflects the longer trend of abandoning the agricultural sector shown by successive governments after the first phase of the Green Revolution had come to an end given the limited avenues of generating profit through this sector. India’s export of agricultural products dipped while import increased 5 times in less than 10 years.


Yet, in the shift from the widespread distress and anger of farmers on the streets, to an effective mobilization strategy at the national plane, one cannot miss the emphasis by the present campaign on placing the agrarian crisis primarily as a symptom of the disenfranchisement of the farming populations uncared for by their Parliamentarians. The question of big corporate capital which is siphoning bulk of surplus from the agrarian sector through policy decisions made by successive state and central governments was carefully avoided. The campaign also gave a miss to the question of radical land-reform, land and forest rights, along with the question of ecological sustainability which is not only threatening our collective futures but is having the most devastating impact on those dependent most directly on nature for their livelihood. Within the farmers and peasant’s movement on which the present mobilisation was built, such concerns are in no way marginal. Yet their side-lining on the platform in the capital has among all these concerns, privileged the end of strengthening the bargaining capacity of associated parliamentary forces vis-à-vis the Congress in the lead up to the anti-BJP alliance being anticipated in the Lok Sabha elections. Unfortunate as it was, it is no surprise that the news next morning mentioned the presence of thousands of farmers primarily as a backdrop to the presence of a handful of Parliamentary party leaders like Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal.


This is also reflecting in the framing of demands, first in the form of two parliamentary Bills, and second, in even those two focusing on Remunerative Minimum Prices and Indebtedness. While both these issues are of great significance for the entire agrarian sector and all sections of farmers, their benefits will accrue to different sections differently. Moreover, framing demands more inclusive of other pressing dimensions of the crisis could have paved the way for an overall reform of the agrarian situation in a way that benefits accrued to all sections tilting the balance towards the most exploited with them. These would include contestation over India’ consistent acquiescence in international treaties committing it to facilitating imperialist profit making in the domain of agriculture, higher investment in building agricultural infrastructure and promotion of chemical-free inputs and farming with indigenous seeds, to address the mounting ecological crisis induced by capitalist development which is hitting the farming population as extensive soil degradation, falling water tables, changing and uncertain climatic patterns, questions of nutrition and food security. It would include the demand to stop appropriation of land and resources through state acquisition for corporate interests and the continuing lack of land reforms which despite becoming marginal to the overall agrarian sector, remains important for a significant section of landless populations, also from the dalit and tribal communities among others.


The centrality of the demand for a special 21-day joint session of the Parliament to discuss the agrarian question including depositions by farmers’ representatives channels much of the movement’s energy into the direction of parliamentary contest and legal reform. What seems to be missing in such translation of reality into election strategy is a recognition that the agrarian crisis is indeed a civilizational crisis deeply tied up with the global trajectory of capitalist development and its implementation in the Indian context and cannot be addressed by quick reform measures which do not take long term considerations in mind. In fact, even the very recent history of the Green Revolution clearly shows us how stop gap measures privileging corporate profits over environmental and social concerns can reap seeming benefits in the short run but counterbalance it with monstrous losses in the longer run. Though Swaminathan Report has played an important role in giving an institutional framework for amalgamating and articulating farmers’ demands, it has in the same sweep, limited and framed demands of the farmers’ movement in a way much in favour of corporate capital. While it calls for a revised calculation of MSP at comprehensive cost price + 50%, extensive credit outreach with 4% simple interest rate, Kisan Credit Cards, better water and soil management, increased investment in infrastructure etc., it does not contest the input and chemical and now bio-chemical dependent model of agriculture and fundamentally proposes to extend the domain of such agricultural practices. This is the same Swaminathan who invited Norman Borlaug of green revolution fame to establish his model in our country in the early 60’s and has since the established exhaustion of the Green Revolution, been propounding a second edition of the same, coined an ‘evergreen revolution. The contradiction in these terms prompt us to investigate deeper into the making of our present moment and the role that state policy has played in the matter and might still be expected to play.


Agrarian Crisis: A Policy Induced Calamity


The post-independence Indian state did initially invest in agriculture towards ensuring food security, through development of irrigation, infrastructure and land reforms, it remained constrained in these efforts by its dependence on American capital with respect to investing in independent research and development on one hand, and its alliance with the feudal elite in the domain of effective and extensive land reforms on the other. By the early 60’s, the Green Revolution, an agrarian regime developed under US initiative and tailor made to facilitate US investment in agriculture across the world was transplanted also onto Indian soil under the pretext of gaining self-sufficiency in food production. This entailed the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and high yielding varieties of seeds accompanied by intense irrigation, supply of agricultural loans, rural electrification, developing rural infrastructure for transport and sale of agricultural products and mechanisation of agriculture. To effect this transformation, the Indian state in the second half of the 1960s accentuated its investment in agriculture by 600%, only to use all this money for paying the US for purchase of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and farm implements. The Green revolution did significantly raise production levels in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP where it was selectively implemented, relying heavily on the developed irrigation system in these areas, not available elsewhere. It has since been well established that various indigenous varieties of seeds could have yielded comparable results if similarly supplemented by external factors.


Yet, by the 1980s, its ‘success’ had started waning. Rate of agricultural development dropped below 2%. In the meantime we had already suffered significant loss to soil fertility with increased chemical use, mono-culture, loss of biomass, falling ground water levels, diminishing effectiveness of pesticides etc. Yet, far from  re-evaluating this growth trajectory the government further intensified the same by opening up the seed market to MNCs in the 80s and introduction of ‘terminator’ seeds which could not be reused. Further, US research and development started promoting the adoption of genetically modified crops into India’s labs by the 90s and the GATT agreement signed by India in 1994 consolidated the opening of Indian markets to agricultural imports and the restriction on provision of subsidies in agriculture directly exposing Indian farmers to fluctuations in the world market. At the same time, encouragement for the cultivation of cash crops and an export-oriented growth, left farmers with no buffers to counterbalance the influence of global markets. Practices such as contract farming and futures trading on agricultural produce, rapid rise in input costs, farmers complete dependence on the market for agricultural inputs etc linked them more surely to this market which they had no leverage over, and before which their vulnerabilities only got exacerbated. Hard strung for cash many small and marginal farmers started finding it difficult to cultivate at all. This period marked the emergence of both farmer suicides and widespread ‘new farmers movements’ as social phenomena across India, strongest in areas like Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra which had moved into cultivation of cash crops since the Green Revolution regime. In everyday terms these changes translated into displacement of food crops including legumes and millets by cash crops leading to farmers themselves starving or losing out on precious nourishment, increased indebtedness, loss of social status, increase in health hazards for farmers and agrarian labour directly exposed to chemicals and massive distress migration; all of which have only continued to get worse over the years.


Transferring the Crisis on the Most Vulnerable


The farming community consists of many different class positions, also holding contradictory interest on many counts. One end of this spectrum is represented by the large land-owners who manage to profit from substantial land holdings while gaining a larger part of their income through money lending and dealing in inputs and technology and other economic activities, sharing in the profit made by input producing corporations. This section has continually bargained with the state for greater support and protection. Limited land reforms, sale of land and division of family plots have together led to increasing fragmentation of land holdings and an exponential rise in the proportion of small and marginal farmers in the country accounting for 85% of the farming population in 2011 while owning just 47.3% of the total cropped area. While the ‘big landlords’ of y have since disintegrated, more through the course of capitalist development from above rather than any revolutionary program, inequality within the agricultural sector has remained almost proportional given that the average size of land holdings have also decreased across the board. Therefore, as far away as ever, on the other end of the spectrum stand small and marginal farmers, landless cultivators and agrarian labour. This is the section that faces the worst brunt of the agrarian crisis, earns less than it spends, showing very high incidence of debt (63.6 marginal and  18.4 small households in 2014), is in most cases also engaged as agricultural labour on other land or in seasonal employment in other sectors and looking to opt out of agriculture. Among them are the 20% of rural households primarily dependent on agriculture that have been defined to be facing acute poverty, the ones who are “dropping out” of agriculture to the aggregate numbers of 15 million over 20 years, going for employment in the unorganized sector. In short creating a crisis both in rural and urban economies. These are the people who in the main constitute the flesh and blood of the most devastating statistics that illustrate the agrarian crisis.


As illustrated best by the proven association between farmer suicides and cultivation of BT Cotton in rainfed areas, the liberalised agrarian regime transferred the uncertainty and socio-economic-ecological and health costs of such liberalised unsustainable agriculture into small and marginal farmers while insulating foreign multinational groups through becoming parties to international trade treaties biased in the latter’s favour. The infrastructural requirements for implementing green revolution policies were impossible to meet across the country outside of massive capital investment. Such investment not seeming lucrative enough translated into large scale withdrawal from any significant capital investment in  agriculture. Instead, profit for industrial and commercial capital was sought to be accumulated through a policy of indiscriminate use of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides which siphoned off agricultural surplus into the pockets of American multinationals such as Monsanto. The provision of albeit limited input subsidies without  challenging this drain through high input costs continued to channel public money into the coffers of these corporations instead of creating much needed agricultural infrastructure across the country to also address the huge discrepancy in agricultural productivity in different parts such as Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala on one hand and Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Telangana on the other, including the high risk factor in non-irrigated areas.


The transfer of crisis does not stop from being shifted from advanced to developing countries, or from the financial to the manufacturing sector, or even just the urban to the rural, but goes down right to the bottom of the pyramid, landing heaviest on the heads of the most vulnerable. The crisis in agriculture also has varied social and cultural ramifications, most importantly in terms of reorienting caste and gender dynamics in rural areas. As the rural landscape gets increasingly impoverished, those most equipped to leave are migrating out in search of better avenues, leaving villages with just women, children and the elderly. Women have traditionally played animportant role in the agrarian economy doing much of the cattle rearing, processing of agricultural products and varied allied activities. Yet with increasing distress-migration, they have now increasingly also been pushed into direct cultivation, even as the return for labour remains extremely marginal and even basic nutritional requirements are hard to fulfil. At the same time, while they make up 80% of total rural labour, they own only 13% of the rural landholdings. On a different axis, while the 70s, by giving land, economic and social power in the hands of middle caste peasants created a new rural class influencing national politics through the rise of regional parties and also brought them into increasing conflict with the dalit populations mainly constituting the landless and the labouring classes in villages. Recent agitations such as that of the Patidars and the Jats for reservation also find a basis in the fact that sustenance through agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult for youth from primarily peasant communities.


Looking Towards A Sustainable and Equitable Agrarian Development


Leave alone addressing and reversing the scars of colonial rule on the country’s population and economic growth, 70 years of Independence has only furthered a program of plunder of our people and resources, agriculture being a primary domain of such plunder. At every stage, the direction of agrarian development in India has been dictated by the needs of domestic and imperialist capital and has been constrained by feudal elements. The low bargaining power of the Indian peasantry ensures a supply of cheap primary goods to the first world, as well as for industrial production in the country. Low prices of food grain and primary goods are central to keeping a check on inflation as well as assuaging urban working populations. On the whole, this decimation of agriculture has played a significant role in impoverishing the masses of our country, bringing down their living conditions and bargaining capacity, forcing them into a pool of cheap disposable labour with little worth to their lives which can then be held ransom to do the most labour intensive value addition in the global production process and in exchange make do with the most miniscule portion of the value they create. The industrial policies of successive governments have gone hand in hand with their agricultural policies described above are only evidence of an integral whole constituted by the distorted and anti-people development of both agriculture and industry.


A wise farmer knows of untimely rains even as the clouds begin to gather overhead. Taking a cue from her, we should stay vigilant when a Swaminathan comes to us with recommendations of ‘reform’ which seem progressive and not ignore his (and the imperialist design’s) other hints at introduction of genetic modifications, use of bio-chemical and bio-engineering towards ‘productivity improvement in perpetuity’ through ‘integration of ecological principles in technology development and dissemination’. As a movement gaining ground across the country at a pitch unprecedented in three decades, as a people’s movement looking for real change and relief, it is of utmost importance that the dominant articulation of demands and objectives of the farmers’ movement today are reflective of the concerns of the largest sections of the peasantry, and of the working class, both rural and urban, which carry the bulk of the crisis on their back. A future that liberates all is the only future that can liberate us each. Let each of our steps, small as they maybe, move in such a direction.


The writer is a political activist.


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