The current farmer protests in India have been continuously vilified and simplified to play politics with the lives, futures and livelihoods of peasant farmers. Some of you may shirk at the term ‘peasant’ farmers, but in the scale of the problem, this is exactly where the problem lays, in hardworking people fighting to protect their livelihoods.
This blog post is being written to provide a background and context for Punjabis and Sikhs, or anyone interested in these issues who lives outside India. I am by no means an expert in these issues or the new legislation that the farmers are protesting against – so I first and foremost make no claim to this being an accurate account of all facts. This is my assessment of the issues today on 2nd December 2020, I may learn more as soon as this post goes live. To give an accurate and comprehensive account would take up the writing of whole treaties and books, as it is so complicated and multi-faceted – I spent one hour on the phone explaining a lot of the issues to someone yesterday and my head hurt after I put the phone down.
So, lets start in the first term of Indira Gandhi as prime minister in the 1960’s, legislation was brought in (I think it was 1963) that started to divert naturally flowing river water away from the then Punjab. The water was diverted to other states and areas of India to supply water, in order to do this, dams had to be constructed and infrastructure to change the natural flow of the rivers. Under international riparian laws Punjab should be compensated for this loss of water but it is not, it is rather punished instead. So, when the dams overflow with rain fall and/or are mysteriously opened, the water floods its natural pathways into the Punjab (August 2019 being the most recent) ruining agriculture and infrastructure of Punjab. So, the equation is, ‘we take your natural resource and when we have too much of it, we give it to you,’ meaning we flood you with it. So, Punjab is either famished or flooded with their water. This continues today with further movements to divert more water away being lobbied for by the centre and various commissions.
So Punjabi farmers have to find water to irrigate their field through other methods, so they take water from the ground, surface water. But due to the success of Punjabi farming in both the current Punjab and adjoining Haryana (which was made a state separate from Punjab in 1966) water levels for surface water are rapidly receding due to over-use. Punjab is expected to become a dessert in 20 years time as surface water would have dropped so much, due to over-use and lack of replenishment. Householders in Punjab now have to pay thousands of Rupees to access their own water supply via a tube well – many cannot afford to do so, so take out loans.
The green revolution of Punjab made it the breadbasket of India in the 1970’s but the success also became part of its failure – over-use of the land and productivity quotas led by the centre, to feed the masses of India at the cost of Punjab. Pesticide use became common place, polluting the land and diseasing the people. Surface water in Punjab is now also polluted due to this. Punjab still produces 2% of all wheat in the world and is the second biggest supplier of wheat in India (second to Madhya Pardesh).
Rice cultivation is also very high in Punjab as it brings in the lions share of income for most farmers (referred to as paddy in Indian press). The two main crops are wheat and rice. Rice is a problematic crop to produce unless you have a lot of natural water supply and/or monsoon rail falls. Punjab has neither in abundance, yet the farmers are compelled to plant rice due to price. This creates a vicious circle, of again depleting waters, running tube wells on electricity. So, the bills of electricity, tube wells (maintenance and drilling), seeds and pesticides are some of the production costs.
Now, let us look at labour costs. India has done well in positive discrimination legislation for low caste communities, giving them governmental reservations in employment, subsidised education and so forth. These communities were initially the farming labourers of farming land owners in Punjab. The majority of the low caste Punjabis no longer work as farming labourers and if they do, they get paid appropriately (not as exploited as before). Due to this socio-economic shift in labour, there was an influx of labourers from poorer states such as those from Bihar into Punjab. But today Bihar is developing at a rapid rate and many Bihar labourers have returned or are returning to their ancestral lands. Those that do remain no longer work like slave-hands to farmers and demand appropriate pay and conditions – which is good for the labourers. But the problem for the land-owning farmers is, they need cheap labour to make their farming profitable, as their crops sales are dependent upon governmental quotas and prices. Their route to market has been to governmental stock and a minimum support price (msp) set by the government. This has all led to many farmers to be debt ridden and the ongoing epidemic of farmer suicides. As now the poor land owners who farm, have very little disposable income or cash in hand and on the basis of caste, many get no reservations like the low-castes did, they are told to sell their land to finance themselves – something most farmers see as the worst thing, worse than dying. So, there is disparity in the whole system, at all levels for everyone involved at some level. To make ends meet many farmers aim at 4 crops in a year, over-use of the land and resources.
The new laws were just the curve ball to tip the balance. Please do not think that the repelling of the 3 new laws will solve these problems. It will be a minor victory in the non-ending protests of the Kissan unions (they never stop protesting, as they are always lobbying and fighting against this whole tide).
The new laws maybe good for other Indian states that do not have a heavily developed system of distribution and purchase networks for agriculture like Punjab does. But Punjab’s current broken system still works to an extent at the point at which the farmers sell their crops. The new laws present challenges of corporatisation and monopolisation of these routes to market – the minimum support price (msp) farmers are lobbying for in Punjab is about the actual price being set, not just what the government will set – there is a difference in interpretation. The Punjabi public and farmers are way more advanced than other farming communities in India – hence they have the foresight to see that the new free market system being proposed will lead to an eventual loss of their ancestral lands to corporate buyers who will come into localities – out price the existing middle men (arthiyas) initially and once they have got rid of all the competition, they will simply burden farmers with loans/debts and buy up their lands and develop super farms (with economies of scales that small farmers cannot compete with). The existing arthiyas have been vilified and blamed for the protests too. Now, due to the complexities both points of view are true, but the ground reality of farming is so challenging that arthiyas have become vital for many, many small farmers. They provide loans and purchase crops at a risk, not knowing what they can sell them on for – so the farmers take the price their arthiya offers, as they are getting something rather than nothing. Some farmers already sell outside of their designated localities (something that is illegal) but with Indian corruption, everything takes place – so suggesting the new laws would allow this (sale to anywhere) is a bit naïve but also rich in its haloed saviour pitch. As even if the farmers are allowed into a free market they still need to transport and sell their crops as soon as they can to preserve their freshness but also in order to get cash flow after a very hard time in harvesting their crops – they know they will not magically become international traders with their small holdings. So, they opt to stick with a system they know is not the best, but it gets them the money they require when their crops go to market. They do not want an overhauling of the current system as they know it will not provide any more benefits to them than what they are already face.
The Modi government has also made moves to corporatisation of life in India. Punjab is one of the few states in the whole of India which is actually politically opposed to the BJP party which has an incredible majority in the national government. The BJP partners in Punjab, Akali Dal Badal, have broken ties with the BJP over the new legislation on farming. Demonetisation of certain currency notes by the previous Modi government created huge financial challenges for Punjab’s peasantry, as India is a cash led economy, yet there were multiple cases of corruption at the time of wealthy businessmen finding millions of Rupees of new currency overnight. New laws and land ownership reforms – which are outwardly touted at protecting the poor have done the opposite in Punjab. So crack downs on cash legitimation and/or money laundering have presented new challenges for poor farmers who may not trust banks and/or have relied on different ways of trade (rather than monetary) as they now have to legitimate the wealth they may have tied up in informal agreements or verbal contracts. This has led to an immediate devaluing of land in Punjab. Punjabis are very aware that the Modi government is working hand in glove with corporates who have supported his election to office and continue to benefit from it. I will give one small example of the scale of corruption – I was in India once and had an Indian sim for my phone. I received an sms text asking me to vote for Modi and if I did I would receive 200 Rupees in exchange for my vote. I received the text, I couldn’t test it, but I firmly believe it was real and would have worked. It is in this context that Punjabis know of the corporatisation of India via Modi and they will not allow it to occur with their farming.
Punjabis and Sikhs have continuously fought for a truly federal system in India – devolution and less interference from the central government. Punjab does not want the central government dictating to them about their farming, they want the power to do this through the Punjab assembly which understands the nuances of their own state economy and people, not a bland whole India vision – which does not attune to the local realities and challenges of Punjab.
The Indian media on a nationalistic basis is crying foul of the farmer protests. They are using ready written scripts by the central government, which have no semblance of the local state issues of each and every farming community. A one picture fits all approach will not work for farming communities but it will work wonderfully for the corporate organisations waiting for deregulation of the farming industry to play their capitalistic monopolisation of Punjab’s farming.
I hope this mess is all resolved amicably or more bloodshed will follow. Ominous signs are present. The protestors have done wonderfully in keeping peaceful. They have done wonderfully in rebutting political patronage to any political party. They have also done wonderfully in not allowing old failed leaders to hijack their struggle. Hence, why the masses have mobilised and remain mobilised – this is a movement led by the hearts and minds of a people fighting for their livelihoods and future, they will not allow this movement to become politicised but will fight to the end to achieve their rights. May God bless them all, but more importantly may God bless the Modi government to kneel and accept they got it wrong and grant concessions. The farmers want to return to farming and providing India with crops to eat, they have no interest in stopping their supply – they simply want to continue to supply them for future generations without interruption (or until Punjab becomes a desert, which is a topic for another blog/article).