Op-ed: Indian Farmers Won Their Revolution, but the Fight's Not Over | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Indian Farmers Won Their Revolution, but the Fight’s Not Over

After a year of protest and hundreds of deaths, farmers won the longest nonviolent protest in India. But the history of resistance to agribusiness—both there and in the U.S.—suggests there is still a great deal of work ahead.

Indian farmers shout anti-government slogans during a protest against new farm laws in December 2020. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Last month, after traveling to Delhi’s northern border, I found myself on a withered tarmac walking with a group of farmers. It was their last night in the 12 mile-long encampment they’d been living in since last year and there was celebration in the air. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had capitulated and repealed three laws it put in place that would have radically changed India’s agriculture market.

The smoggy sky was nearly orange, as the yellow moon rose from the east. To avoid a police blockade, we stepped onto a dusty trail running along a sewage drain. We passed hundreds of temporary shelters made of plastic, canvas, and wood. As we reached the Singhu border, we noticed a group of 500 people had gathered around a stage to hear the farmer leader, Balbir Singh Rajewal, deliver his final address.

Although the farmers had succeeded at staving off the new laws for now, Rajewal told the crowd the fight was far from over. “We need to transform our movement to remove corporate control of agriculture. Without removing Modi, this is not possible. It’s time to become a united force to save India,” he said.

Soon, the speeches were over and the music began. The entire protest site was lit up, farmers paraded their tractors until midnight, and people danced. Amid the music, the temporary city was dismantled. Hundreds of cars and tractors jammed the road, and friends said their final goodbyes before beginning their long journeys home.

And while their victory—and the larger systemic changes it has inspired farm groups to work toward—may seem far away to onlookers in the U.S., it’s part of the same global landscape. For this reason, some farmers and agriculture experts will be watching the next phase carefully, as it has become clear that those working to resist the power of large agribusiness in the world’s two largest democracies may still have a great deal to learn from one another.

A Grueling Year

The farmers’ victory wasn’t easily won. Even though they received support and solidarity from celebrities, climate activists, intellectuals, and lawmakers around the globe during the last year, more than 750 farmers died resisting and hundreds more were imprisoned. Even now, the Modi government has filed thousands of cases against activist farmers. Charges include violence, vandalism, and even accusations of “terrorism.” The Delhi state government called these cases “a mockery,” whereas the central government hasn’t budged and unabashedly refuses to acknowledge the farmers’ deaths during the protests.

Meanwhile, a number of government officials, policemen, and high-ranking ministers who have actively been involved in violence toward farmers are still roaming free. The nation’s junior minister for home affairs, Ajay Teni Mishra, threatened violence when he said, “Face me, it will take just two minutes to discipline you fellows,” and soon after, his son, Ashish Mishra, was caught on video running down peaceful farmers with his convoy of SUVs, shocking the nation. A special investigation team also recently concluded that mowing down the farmers was a “planned conspiracy,” and their 5,000-page charge sheet confirmed Mishra’s involvement.

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard next to their barricades to stop farmers during a protest against new farm laws in December 2020. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard next to their barricades to stop farmers during a protest against new farm laws in December 2020. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Through all of this, the farmers remained committed to nonviolence. In fact, the movement has been called “the longest nonviolent protest in India” by Delhi’s chief minister. And the ensuing revolution has become the world’s largest Gandhian farmers’ strike, involving about 20 million people. And these were not just sunburnt farmers; hundreds of thousands of students, rural women, young professionals, film actors, and singers have all joined the farmers’ camps. Many of the women protesters were stepping out of their villages for the first time, and yet quickly became the face of the movement.

This was possible because farmers across India worked as part of a coalition called Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM). It consisted of 40 farm unions at the core with 500 affiliated organizations and ran all major negotiations with the government, as well as campaign planning, fundraising, and more. SKM decided on the direction of the movement and was the common banner uniting divergent farmers’ unions.

Throughout the year, farmer leaders under the SKM campaigned hard across the country, traveling nonstop for months to build solidarity with farmers and farmers’ organizations, and educating farmers about the threat of corporatization in Indian agriculture. They have also proposed a solution—that a minimum support price (MSP) be seen as a legal right for farmers. If this happens, government or private buyers would have to adhere to these price floors and farmers will receive the government-regulated price for every grain sold.

Farm leaders of the SKM have repeatedly stressed what they see as a transnational effort to “profit from Indian hunger” by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank.

The farmers’ nationwide campaign drew in thousands of people—farmers and non-farmers alike. Most of them were still connected to farming or had come from farming families. With regional support swelling, farmer leaders Rakesh Tikait and Yudhvir Singh also exposed the power that companies such as Walmart and Cargill have here. Singh never missed a chance to explain how large Walmart’s shipping resources and grain storage facilities are. He explained how corporate-led food regimes are controlling food and agriculture around the globe. And the duo didn’t mince words about what they believe lies ahead.

“India will soon be a nation where corporations like Walmart will lock every morsel behind a high-security prison; even the street dog will die of hunger,” Tikait has often said.

Farm leaders of the SKM have repeatedly stressed what they see as a transnational effort to “profit from Indian hunger” by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank adjustments programs, which aim to end price support for farmers and dismantle the public food distribution systems (PDS).

In response to the farmers’ messages, political parties lent support and passed state legislation opposing the Modi government’s dictate on agriculture. But the Modi government wasn’t listening. So, farmers reoriented their strategy and began putting political pressure on regional state elections. Modi’s Bharitya Janta Party (BJP) government was shaken up, as farmers openly asked supporters to “not vote for the BJP.”

The farmers’ efforts helped tilt the highly contested election in West Bengal, an eastern state of India with a population of 100 million, against the BJP. Emboldened by their victory, farmers’ leaders drew up plans for their “anti-BJP vote” campaign in other states and began exposing agrarian and corruption issues.

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After more than a year of protest and political pressure, Modi finally took note: As state elections in three agrarian Indian states pivotal to the 2024 general national election drew near, his cabinet announced the rollback.

What’s Next: Setting a Price Floor and Building Political Power

As part of the resolution, cases against the farmers were withdrawn and martyred farm families were given compensation by multiple state governments. And Modi instituted a committee consisting of agri-scientists, economists, and a few farmer leaders to deliberate on a minimum support price. The farmers’ leaders have accepted the government proposal and called off the movement for now.

It’s not clear whether the government will yield to the idea of a minimum price as a legal right. Nevertheless, farmer leaders like Tikait and others from the SKM have warned that protests will resume without it.

“Until the farmers are in politics, they will never be treated fairly.”

Since the farmers’ departure, political pundits and corporate media are already celebrating Modi’s victory, but the farmers seem to have another plan. This month two SKM leaders have announced the formation of new political parties, which will most likely contest elections together—despite the fact that, over the past year, SKM leadership has often said it will steer clear of active electoral politics.

So, what does the mixed messaging mean? I travelled to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, to meet with Devinder Sharma, a veteran agriculture policy expert. “The farmers’ victory in Delhi has given impetus to a new agro-political force. Punjab is finally seeing the birth of farmer political parties to battle corporatization, corruption, and oligopolies in agriculture,” he explained over tea.

“Until the farmers are in politics, they will never be treated fairly,” Sharma added. “Sooner or later, their rights will be attacked again. Look what happened in the U.S. after World War II; farmers were sacrificed for corporate profits.”

An overhead view of farmer protests at the Delhi-Haryana state border in December 2020. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

An overhead view of farmer protests at the Delhi-Haryana state border in December 2020. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

“In the 1970s, American farmers organized tractor-cades and presented a model of resistance for the world to follow [as they fought] against big corporations,” Sharma said. Although the American agriculture movement of that era may have ultimately failed, it has definitely inspired farmers’ resistance around the world. The Indian farmers’ revolution also borrowed messages from the U.S. Occupy movement, as it focused on taking power back from “the 1 percent.”

Sharma is one of the first voices to insist that “MSP is a legal right for farmers.” He adds that it is “the only way we can end farmers’ suicides, rural debt, and ensure our GDP jumps up. Indian farmers deserve a fair price for their products. They have suffered too long to keep the free-market afloat.” he said.

What U.S. and Indian Farmers Can Learn From One Another

In the U.S., the inequities in agriculture are already so vast due to corporate-driven policies that even President Joe Biden recently pointed to the growing gap between the prices farmers are paid for their crops now and what they earned 50 years ago: “Fifty years ago, ranchers got over 60 cents of every dollar a consumer spent on beef, compared to about 39 cents today.” And yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that beef prices here have shot up by 14 percent, prices of pork by 12.1 percent, and chicken prices by 6.6 percent over the last year. The rising prices have only led to more concentration in the meat processing industry. As a result, a small handful of players control 55-85 percent of the pork, beef, and poultry industries.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also recently tweeted: “This summer, I met a farmer in Iowa who told me he lost $150 per head selling cattle to a processor who would end up making $1,800 per head.”

American University professor Garrett Graddy-Lovelace researches agricultural policy and co-founded the Disparity to Parity Project with the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). The project argues that setting price floors and bringing back supply management—an approach that would keep farmers from overproducing what they grow—would create a path toward increased equity among farmers in the U.S.

“Farming families [in the U.S.] can’t survive on agriculture alone.”

Apart from organizing global solidarity for Indian farmers, Graddy-Lovelace has also closely studied the Indian farmers’ revolution. And she believes that the Indian farmers’ victory against global agribusiness interests “heralds a new dawn of peaceful agrarian resistance.” She sees the act of creating an MSP as key to transforming the resistance into pillar of economic justice for farmers. It has the potential to emerge as model for other farmers and countries to follow.

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Growing up in Kentucky, Graddy-Lovelace worked on her family’s tobacco farm and fondly remembers the years when farmers were given a subsidized “parity price” designed to ensure their income was equal to non-farmers in their community. “It was enough for folks to grow 25 acres of tobacco under the parity price and collective quota system and make a modest living. Now, none of my nine cousins farm. Farming families can’t survive on agriculture alone.”

As farms in the U.S. have consolidated and grown in size, independent farmers have lost political power and large agribusinesses interests—by way of lobbying groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation—have often stepped in to influence the political process. For decades, they’ve set policies that are best for their bottom lines, and in the process they have made small and mid-scale farming increasingly difficult to do. More than half of all U.S. farm families require at least one member to work a second job to keep the farm afloat, and 20 percent of all U.S. farms reported making $0 in annual sales in 2017.

That’s the eventuality farmers in India could face if they don’t continue to resist, warned Graddy-Lovelace.

George Naylor, a veteran organic farmer and the former president of the NFFC, shared a similar warning. Naylor takes the long view of recent history and warns that the Indian farmers’ fight is not over yet. “Every politician coming to Iowa has spoken in favor of farmers, but hardly any have come through. So [they should] identify their enemies and pick people to work with who cannot be co-opted,” he told me.

Indeed, as the safeguarding of a minimum support price is still in question and many Indian policymakers appear to be hellbent on recreating U.S. agricultural models there, this much is clear: The Indian farmer activists may be back at home for the moment, but their revolution still has a very long road ahead of it.

Indra Shekhar Singh writes on agriculture and environment and is also the former Director of the Policy and Outreach for the National Seed Association of India. Read more >

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