Feature. More than 100,000 peasants and laborers marched on New Delhi this month to protest the miserable conditions spawned by the neoliberal policies of the 1990s. The difficult struggle for small farmers contributed to over 8,000 suicides in 2015 and has driven many to political action.
Sept. 5, 2018, is a date that will go down in the history of social movements in India. More than 100,000 people, both peasants and laborers, took over Parliament Street in New Delhi. This event was unique, on account of both the high turnout and the alliance between these two sectors of society, whose interests were previously separate. The origins of this newfound alliance date back to early March, when Indian Twitter mobilized around the hashtag #KisanLongMarch.
For several days, while tens of thousands of peasants walked to Bombay to demand that the state of Maharashtra fulfil its past promises to them, all the attention was focused on the long procession of red hats like Gandhi’s and the peasants’ bloody feet. It drew so much attention that, after six days of continuous protest, the government had to give in and offer its mea culpa to the rural world: for the first time, the state agreed to all the demands made by the farmers, undertaking to implement them within six months.
“If they do not honor the agreement, we will organize and strike back with an even bigger protest,” says Vijoo Krishnan, leader of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the peasant organization of the Marxist faction of the Indian Communist Party. We interviewed him to understand the nature and causes of this phenomenon.
“This movement truly has something new about it,” says Krishnan. “Its intensity, its modes of action, its level of participation, its impact, the media attention—they all seem to indicate that a turning point has been reached in peasant mobilization.” While the neoliberal policies implemented in India in the early ’90s have always been vigorously denounced by farm laborers and small landholders who have suffered their negative effects, the complaints and demands from the Indian countryside had hardly gotten any attention in regional newspapers. At least until the summer of 2017, when the peasants’ cause began to take on a national resonance. As Krishnan points out: “The Indian people have always had affection for the figure of the annadata, literally ‘the one who makes the food’—but the consensus and the support that we have been seeing for the past year, coming from all the social strata, is something unprecedented.”
On June 6, 2017, six peasants died after the violent police intervention during a demonstration in a rural district of the state of Madhya Pradesh. This event marked the beginning of a long series of demonstrations using more unorthodox methods. In October of the same year, protesters in Rajasthan were inspired to dig deep holes in which they sat and covered themselves in mud, in protest against the forced acquisition of their lands. A month later, farmers from Tamil Nadu organized a sit-in in front of the government buildings in New Delhi, demanding the release of emergency funds after an interminable drought.
For almost 40 days, the protesters used highly imaginative ways to attract the state’s attention: they held live mice and dead snakes in their teeth, they shaved one half of their heads, they cut their hands and put together mock funerals. On the occasion of the first home game of the season for the Chennai Super Kings, demonstrators protested inside the stadium, burned their tickets and threatened to throw snakes onto the field, which forced the club to move their home games 1,200 km away.
But what is driving farmers to such extremes? In India, around 800 million people (about two-thirds of the total population) still depend directly or indirectly on agriculture, a sector for which profits are in free fall and whose contribution to GDP growth has gone down to a paltry 17 percent.
While poverty in India is decreasing overall, according to the Reserve Bank of India, 80 percent of extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas. Among the main causes of the agrarian crisis that is weighing on the rural population are demographic pressure and the consequent division of agricultural land, the increase in production costs related to technological development, the use of fertilizers that are becoming more expensive and less effective, as well as the skyrocketing price of oil and the effects of global warming.
“Those who join the movement are mainly landless people from the Adivasi tribe from the forests, and the small farmers who depend on a few hectares of land inherited or rented, who have become heavily indebted just to get by. Many do not even have access to the food safety program that distributes basic necessities, due to various factors, including corruption,” says Krishnan.
According to the National Sample Survey Office, only 5 percent of India’s rural households own more than three hectares of arable land, and the rest are mostly small subsistence farmers, as well as households without any land at all, who have to work as farm laborers, generally paid less than $4 per day.
The state’s stockpiles of rice and wheat, intended to compensate for the deficiencies of the market, are no longer sufficient to meet the needs of an ever-expanding population. And the recurring losses due to natural disasters make the situation even more difficult, particularly as simple mechanical irrigation remains unavailable for the majority of farmers.
On several occasions, Krishnan and other leaders of the peasant movement have pushed for the establishment of a public insurance system that would protect farmers from such damages.
In truth, farmers’ incomes are blatantly insufficient to repay their increasingly heavy debts, to rent increasingly rare arable land and to provide for their own sustenance. In short, farmers can’t survive anymore. For some, suicide is the only way out.
The National Crime Records Bureau counted 8,007 cases of farmers who committed suicide in 2015. A few years ago, Krishnan, on the initiative of AIKS, took part in organizing a survey on the phenomenon of suicide. “What we have learned is that the state only pays a miserable compensation of 20,000 rupees (about €250) to farming families affected by suicide.” Many economists believe the situation in rural areas has worsened under the Modi government.
Among the election promises made to them, the farmers have not forgotten that their income was supposed to double before 2022, and, most importantly, that the Minimum Support Price (the minimum sale price of agricultural products) was to be fixed at 150 percent of the total production costs. Narendra Modi did announce the implementation of this last measure in July, but omitted to specify that the calculation of the base costs had been revised downward.
This doesn’t surprise Krishnan, who complains of the government’s constant vacillation between inaction and populism.
However, he remains skeptical about the upcoming elections in 2019: “Modi has betrayed a large part of his voters … but only if the election would be truly transparent and fair, without money and outside forces intervening, only then could we actually be assured that a change was coming.”
We have already seen a change in Delhi, where—for the first time in recent decades—the banners of CITU (Center of Indian Trade Unions), one of the biggest national trade unions, were seen alongside those of the farmers’ organizations and trade unions. Krishnan sees the demonetization that took place in November 2016 as a major cause for the unification of the struggles of the peasants and the workers: “While the most advantaged managed to stay on their feet during the crisis, farmers, laborers, migrant workers, day laborers in the informal labor sector and the more vulnerable found themselves lost.”
The main sectors employing rural labor—together with construction, where 90 percent of the workforce is not formally employed—have been in crisis ever since, after years of meteoric growth. This is why the invisible threads that link the rural to the urban might end up woven together into a powerful force, a true threat to the longevity in power of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party. “One thing is certain,” says Vijoo Krishnan, with determination in his voice. “This is just the beginning.”