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Why are Indian Farmers Marching against the Government of Narendra Modi

Floriane Bolazzi 18 October 2018

The last few years have seen farmers from several Indian states take to city streets to voice their unhappiness with the national government. With elections approaching next year, the budding opposition movement has grown in intensity – to the point of provoking a military crackdown that has resulted in multiple deaths and injuries.

In recent months, hundreds of thousands of farmers have marched for miles and taken increasingly desperate steps to attract national media attention. Some of the more dramatic tactics include self-scarring, holding dead rats in their clenched teeth, throwing living snakes from the upper decks at the home opener of the Chennai Super Kings, crawling on the street fully naked while screaming “Shiva, Shiva, Shiva” in front of Parliament, holding mock burials for themselves, and dumping huge quantities of milk and vegetables on the streets of big cities.

At the origins of this anger is a complex combination of deep agrarian crisis coupled with a lack of opportunity outside of farming sectors. The feelings of injustice are compounded by a sense of exclusion from Narendra Modi’s India Shining campaign since 2014. Now, in the run-up to national elections in 2019, peasants’ demands generally enjoy public sympathy and widespread support — instilling some fears of a possible upset within the ruling party.


Rural areas without rural power

Once Indian farmers are sufficiently angered to mobilize large-scale protests, it is nearly impossible for any government to contain. Although India’s economic power is not derived from the rural side of global India, more than two-thirds of the total population – around 70% — live in rural areas.

The current Prime Minister stands accused of having abandoned his campaign promise to improve the lives of the 800 million inhabitants who still depend directly or indirectly on agriculture. But it will not be easy to to solve the structural crisis of Indian farming. Paradoxically, the agrarian distress has risen simultaneously with the expansion of productive capacities.

Since the Green Revolution of the late 1960s, India has multiplied its production and has become the world’s largest producer of cotton and the second largest producer of wheat, rice and sugar. However, the contribution of agriculture to the total GDP has decreased from more than half during the early decades after Independence (1947) to around 15% in recent years.

Among the main causes for this decline, the government’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, identifies a distorted subsidy regime which favored cereals like rice and wheat rather than pulses and oilseeds. In the last 30 years, with the emergence of urban habits of consumption, the cereal demand per capita has continuously declined – thereby undermining the domestic market. He suggests the government should move away from subsidies to target crops in favor of direct support to farmers.

The farmers, for their part, portray themselves as victims of market forces, and bemoan the lack of adequate support from the State – which takes the form of Minimum Support Price, procurement and risk covers. In addition, the constant improvement of technological, the need for bigger quantities and more expensive pesticides and the rising prices of diesel and electricity, all weigh heavily on the sector and especially on small farmers who cannot compete in the global market. Nonetheless, small farmers make up the majority of all landholders in India.


A “jobless growth”

According to estimations from the 59th National Sample Survey for 2003-04 only 5% of rural households owned more than 3 hectares and were able to generate more income than their expenditures out of their production. One third of all rural households own less than 0.4 hectare and another third owns no land at all.

Compared with the early 1990s, landlessness and polarization around the issue of land ownership have increased. Farmland is still the primary source of livelihood for more than half of the total population, and it is getting scarcer with demographic pressure.

The country is slowly shifting from the middle to late stage of a demographic transition, but in rural areas the fertility rate remains slightly higher, averaging around 3 children per woman. Moreover, the model of joint household has been declining in rural societies – which has implications for the subdivision of land from one generation to the next. As a result, the diversification of sources of livelihood has become a normal trend in rural economy.

The structural transformation occurring in the last half century in India is also characterized by a drastic shift from the primary to the tertiary sector, leaving no room for manufacturing to absorb all of the excess rural labor force. Indeed, industry has been stagnant for the last two decades, contributing only 20% of the broader economy.

This model of development has been defined by some economists as “jobless growth” where an entire span of the population is trapped in the uncertainty of casual and informal jobs (approximately 85% of all non-farm jobs fall into the “informal sector” according to the International Labor Organization), mostly in construction and related sectors.

Investing in education to face the skills mismatch in the labor market and paying huge bribes to access government jobs is something that many parents in remote villages hope they can do for their children. A vicious circle of indebtedness is thereby aggravated, especially where access to credit is mostly confined to informal institutions that impose usurious interest rates (10 to 15% per month). Extreme debt burdens have even pushed some farmers to take their own life in anticipation of the State compensation of about 250 euros to their family.

The National Crime Records Bureau counted 8,007 cases of farmer suicide in 2015, and has reportedly continued to grow in subsequent years. Loan waivers became one of the core demands of the peasants’ movement after it was first introduced by Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Rural distress has worsened in the last years

Other demands that were inspired by the Swaminathan Commission Report, were submitted to the government in 2004 but never applied. The report had suggestions for “faster and more inclusive growth” for farmers and agriculture sector. Some of the key points were: land reform aimed at redistributing ceiling-surplus and waste lands, and the prevention of diversion of prime agricultural land and forest to the corporate sector for non-agricultural use with the implementation of the Forest Right Act.

Also included in the report were recommendations for the development of better infrastructure for irrigation and an expanded outreach formal credit system to reduce crop loan interest rates and to provide a system of public insurance against losses due to natural calamities for the small farmers.

The current government, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, set itself the ambitious target of doubling farmer incomes by 2022 from the current average of 120 euros per month. Agricultural economists are optimistic about this – but that’s it.

Recent indicators suggest that rural distress has worsened under the four years of the present government because of dismal agriculture growth rates, stagnant real incomes for farmers and declining wages, along with slowdown in the non-farm sector4. The upcoming elections will likely inspire some palliative measures but there will be no panacea for the rural population forthcoming for the time being. The future of this huge mass of unhappy peasants will remain a high stakes challenge for the next government.

Photo: Vasudevan Narayanan


Les paysans indiens pourront-ils faire fléchir le gouvernement Modi ?

3 février 2019, 22:28 CET

Bulandshahr, une ville moyenne de l’Uttar Pradesh, un État situé au centre de l’Inde, a été témoin d’une scène inédite ce 10 janvier : plusieurs dizaines de paysans de la région ont immobilisé les véhicules gouvernementaux en circulation pour peindre leurs numéros d’immatriculation sur le capot.

Résidant au sein de la Région Capitale Nationale de Delhi, de nombreux fermiers sont touchés par la récente interdiction des véhicules diesel datant de plus de 10 ans, rendant la plupart de leurs tracteurs obsolètes. Leur action a ainsi visé à dénoncer l’hypocrisie d’un gouvernement dont les véhicules ne sont pas eux-mêmes aux normes, illustrant une défiance grandissante vis-à-vis de la classe politique indienne.

Cet événement insolite participe d’un ensemble de mobilisations et d’actions collectives imaginées par des fermiers indiens, organisées avec l’appui des organisations syndicales et politiques, à travers toute l’Inde, depuis au moins deux ans. Cette vague de protestations paysannes, qui n’a cessé de s’intensifier, vise à dénoncer la dégradation des conditions socio-économiques des ruraux et l’invisibilisation du monde paysan.

Des souris, des serpents et des crânes…

Pour faire entendre leurs voix, les paysans ont eu recours à des modes de protestations inédits.

Ainsi, en octobre 2017, des paysans originaires du Rajasthan (nord-ouest indien) s’ensevelissent sous la boue pour protester contre l’acquisition indue de leurs terres.

Un mois plus tard, ce sont des agriculteurs du Tamil Nadu, au sud du pays, qui s’installent à proximité des bâtiments gouvernementaux de Delhi pour réclamer des fonds d’urgence face à une interminable période de sécheresse.

Pendant près de 40 jours, ces derniers font preuve d’une imagination incroyable pour capter l’attention de l’État : ils serrent des souris vivantes et des serpents morts entre leurs dents, se rasent la moitié de la tête, se vêtissent de saris traditionnels, se tailladent les mains, organisent des simulacres de funérailles, menacent de boire leur urine et d’ingérer leurs excréments

Paysans du sud de l’Inde ralliant Delhi et… brandissant des crânes, 2018.

Face à l’indifférence gouvernementale, trois leaders du mouvement finiront par se rouler nus sur le macadam bouillant à proximité du palais présidentiel en criant le nom du puissant dieu de la trinité hindoue Shiva, Shiva, Shiva.

Et encore, début 2018, pour le premier match à domicile de la saison de l’équipe de cricket Chennai Super Kings, des manifestants protestent à l’intérieur du stade en brûlant leurs billets, menacent de jeter des serpents sur la pelouse, obligeant le club à délocaliser ses matchs à 1200 kilomètres.

Une intensification des mobilisations

S’il est difficile de dire quand le mouvement social a réellement commencé, la date du 6 juin 2017, quand cinq manifestants sont tués par la police dans un district rural du Madhya Pradesh, marque certainement le début de l’ intensification des protestations.

Mais ce n’est qu’en mars 2018, au bout d’une longue année de crescendo, que tous les regards se tournent enfin sur la colère des paysans. La twittosphère indienne, à coups d’hashtag #KisanLongMarch (comme ci-dessous un tweet du leader communiste Sitaram Yechuri), démontre alors une affection répandue à l’égard de ces milliers de paysans coiffés de chapeaux Gandhi rouges et aux pieds en sang marchant vers Mumbai pendant 6 jours et 5 nuits

Le gouvernement du Maharastra n’a alors pas d’autre choix que de faire son mea culpa et fini par accueillir toutes les requêtes des manifestants. Il se donnait alors six mois pour engager des actions concrètes. Mais fin novembre 2018, des dizaines de milliers de paysans venus des quatre coins de l’Inde se sont rejoints à Delhi pendant près d’un mois pour protester contre les promesses non tenues du premier ministre Narendra Modi.

Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally à New Delhi le 6 septembre 2018. Vasudevan DeshabhimaniAuthor provided

Une crise agraire profondément enracinée

Au-delà des demandes précises motivant ces multiples actions, elles sont la manifestation de problèmes structurels profondément enracinés dans le monde rural, que les gouvernements successifs ne sont pas parvenus à résoudre.

En trois décennies de libéralisation et d’ouverture économique, si la pauvreté a globalement diminué dans son ensemble en Inde, 80 % de l’extrême pauvreté reste concentrée dans les zones rurales, selon la Reserve Bank of India.

En fait, contrairement aux services et à certaines industries manufacturières, la contribution de l’agriculture au PIB est en chute libre. Bien qu’employant 600 millions de personnes, le secteur agricole ne représente aujourd’hui plus que 16 % du PIB Indien.

La crise agraire a plusieurs origines : la pression démographique encourageant le morcellement des terres, l’augmentation des coûts de production, l’intensification des risques climatiques. Selon les données du National Sample Survey Office, moins de 10 % seulement des ménages ruraux indiens possèdent plus de 2 hectares de terres arables. Le reste survit grâce à une agriculture de subsistance où l’on travaille à la tâche, généralement pour moins de 3 euros par jour.

Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally à New Delhi le 6 septembre 2018. Vasudevan DeshabhimaniAuthor provided

Suicides paysans

Face à des rendements décroissants et à la stagnation des prix des produits agricoles d’une part, et d’autre part à la hausse du prix du pétrole, à l’utilisation d’engrais et de semences de plus en plus coûteuses et de moins en moins efficaces, le monde rural est surendetté, et les paysans sont poussés à bout.

Pourquoi nos fermiers sont-ils en colère ? Le journaliste P. Sainath s’exprime sur la dernière crise rurale.

En 2015, le National Crime Records Bureau recensait pas moins de 8 007 cas de suicides chez les paysans.

La réponse de l’État, qui selon le leader syndical communiste paysan (All India Kisan Sabha), Vijoo Krishnan, se limiterait à « une misérable indemnité de 20 000 roupies [250 euros] versée aux familles des victimes » suscite l’indignation générale.

Parallèlement, les pertes causées par les catastrophes naturelles, notamment les inondations comme celles qui ont frappé le sud du pays en automne dernier, à la suite d’une longue sécheresse, pèsent lourdement sur la petite paysannerie.

Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally à New Delhi le 6 septembre 2018. Vasudevan DeshabhimaniAuthor provided

Seuls les grands exploitants peuvent s’équiper d’espaces de stockage sécurisés comme les chambres froides, quand l’arrosage mécanique et l’irrigation, encore trop peu développés en Inde, couvrent uniquement 35 % des terres agricoles

Promesses non tenues

Pendant ce temps, les partis politiques indiens se renvoient les responsabilités. Depuis plusieurs décennies, les politiques publiques de tous les gouvernements confondus, ont principalement bénéficié aux grandes villes, aux classes moyennes, et aux industries émergentes. Un rapport du National Skill Development Council de 2017 montre bien cet abandon du monde rural, fixant comme objectif la diminution de la population agricole de 57 % à 38 % d’ici 2022.

Pourtant, les hommes et femmes politiques sont bien conscients du réservoir de votes que constitue le monde rural. En effet, malgré une très forte urbanisation, 70 % de la population vit encore dans les villages.

Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally à New Delhi le 6 septembre 2018. Vasudevan DeshabhimaniAuthor provided

Le premier ministre Narendra Modi avait promis aux paysans le doublement de leurs revenus d’ici 2022 à travers le prix minimal d’achat de certaines denrées agricoles. Mais l’augmentation promise est revue à la baisse en juillet dernier.

En fait, de nombreuses études économiques montrent que la situation du monde rural s’est aggravée depuis l’arrivée du gouvernement Modi.

Le gouvernement est accusé d’avoir alloué les fonds des plans sociaux de manière déstructurée et désorganisée, notamment en réduisant des subventions de manière hasardeuse

Une convergence des luttes paysannes ?

La mobilisation paysanne devrait donc s’intensifier dans les mois à venir, à l’approche des élections générales en Inde qui se tiendront entre avril et mai 2019. Cette fois-ci, les paysans apparaissent présenter un front uni autour de revendications communes, parfois au-delà des divisions idéologiques, religieuses, et de caste qui ont pendant longtemps empêché la constitution d’une « classe agraire ».

La manifestation du 5 septembre 2018, qui a attiré 100 000 paysans à Parliament Street à Delhi, a été particulièrement significative de ce tournant.

Coordonnée par le AIKS, la journée a pour la première fois vu manifester ensemble des adivasis (aborigènes), des travailleurs journaliers et des petits propriétaires.

Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally à New Delhi le 6 septembre 2018. Vasudevan DeshabhimaniAuthor provided

Pour la première depuis des décennies, des drapeaux de la CITU (Centre des syndicats indiens), l’un des plus grands syndicats nationaux, ont été brandis aux côtés de ceux des organisations et des unions paysannes. Vijoo Krishnan voit d’ailleurs dans la démonétisation de novembre 2016 – mesure gouvernementale appliquée brutalement visant à éliminer les liquidités supposées encourager le blanchissement d’argent – un facteur de la convergence des luttes entre paysans et travailleurs journaliers :

« Si les plus favorisés ont réussi à gérer la crise et retomber sur leurs pattes, les agriculteurs, les ouvriers, les travailleurs migrants, les journaliers du secteur informel et les plus vulnérables en souffrent encore ».

De la révolte paysanne à la révolution politique

La cause paysanne semble rencontrer une résonance à l’échelle nationale depuis 2017. Comme le souligne Vijoo Krishnan,

« Le peuple indien s’est toujours soucié de la figure de l’annadata, littéralement “celui qui fournit la nourriture”, mais le consensus et le soutien que nous voyons émerger de toutes les couches de la population depuis un an sont sans précédent ».

Le renforcement des liens entre le monde rural et le monde urbain y est sans doute pour quelque chose.

Nombreux sont les jeunes qui quittent leurs villages et se rendent dans les villes en quête d’un emploi alternatif à l’agriculture, une activité souvent insuffisante pour soutenir leur famille. Cette flotte de « travailleurs sans attache » pourrait compter selon certains chercheurs plusieurs dizaines de millions de personnes, dont la grande majorité finit par travailler pour une misère et dans la plus grande précarité.

Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Rally à New Delhi le 6 septembre 2018. Vasudevan DeshabhimaniAuthor provided

Ainsi, la détresse additionnée de ces deux sphères, celle rurale des paysans et celle urbaine des travailleurs migrants, dont les causes se rejoignent, pourraient constituer une réelle menace pour le Bharatiya Janata Party, le parti au pouvoir. Vijoo Krishnan reste toutefois prudent sur l’issue des prochaines élections générales :

« Modi a trahi une grande partie de ses électeurs […]. Mais seulement si nous avions des élections nettes et équitables, sans argent ni rapports de domination, alors seulement, nous pourrions être sûrs d’un véritable changement. »

In India, peasants and workers are united against the Modi government

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.”