Against the Grain: India’s Farmers Confront Corporate Monopolies

Issue 261

Manvi Jalan Feb 12, 2021

“No farmers, no food.” The chant pulses across the globe from New York to Berlin in support of the hundreds of thousands of farmers who have been protesting across India since November against the new agricultural laws prposed by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It’s the largest, most organized protest India has ever seen. Along the highway from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in the north to New Delhi, runs kilometers of encampments and tractors, the farmers refusing to leave till their demands are met.

The protest encampment at the Singhu border. Photo: Harvinder Chandigarh/Wikimedia.

On January 26, tensions escalated, with protestors storming the barricades of the historic Red Fort in Dehli, at the annual Republic Day parade. The protesters were met with tear gas, batons and water hoses. Disputed reports of violence blistered across news platforms, surrounding the death of one farmer and many injured.

A Regulated Market

The Mandi system consists of regulated trade markets where farmers sell to licensed distributors who in turn sell to private distributors and facilitate the movement of food from farm to table. This longstanding system also provides a security net for farmers producing certain major produce like wheat and rice, who can sell their unsold produce to government officials at a Minimum Selling Price (MSP) so they aren’t left with losses. This system has essentially only worked in favor of farmers in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh who own larger farms, more sophisticated equipment and produce major crops like wheat. They seem to have personal relationships with distributors who’ve formulated an unofficial credit system.

The Mandi system hasn’t been perfect. With most small farmers owning less than five acres of land, and outdated or absent storage facilities, the small farming community is barely scraping by. Small farmers have all the odds stacked against them and about 10,000 per year commit suicide. The call for reform, some economists say, has been long overdue. They argue the enactment of these new laws will give the farmers more freedom — the freedom to sell out of state, to sell directly to private buyers and benefit from a free-market economy in the midst of a flawed system where the middlemen take advantage of small farmers.

The protesters clearly disagree. They fear that greater privatization will lead to an eventual dissolution of the ‘mandis’, leaving thousands of distributors out of jobs as private corporations undercut their prices, and then over time, lead the farmers with no one else to sell to. Their fears are not unfounded. P. Sainath, a prominent advocate for farmers, points out that in the event of a legal dispute between a farmer and a private corporation, the farmers, NGO’s, unions or anyone else for that matter won’t have the legal right to go to court. The farmer gets the shorter end of the stick. In the absence of state regulation, chances grow that vast private monopolies will take root and the small farmer will be subject to much larger forces than the middlemen he presently contends with.

Everyone passing through the encampments has been fed full-course meals, given free medicine and welcomed to the community

This law has already been enacted in the state of Bihar. Reports show that while it helped some farmers, it also led to more disorganzation and a crumbling of regulated markets. While farmers were able to travel shorter distances to sell, new problems arose with small farmers having to sell at half their profit margin. The logistical problems faced by the farmers to- day, some argue, could’ve potentially been solved by adapting the current system, instead of reforming it.

In the shadows loom the Ambani-Adani group, two of India’s richest and most powerful corporations who stand to double their wealth in the next five years, by breaking into the prized agricultural market. The farmers’ fear this corporate behemoth will use vast resources and stealthy strategy to smother all competition as they did with the telecom industry. The group inadvertently became the symbol for the resistance against privatization, with protesters boycotting their products and services by the thousands.  In response, the Ambani-Adani group was compelled to state that they have no plans to break into corporate farming. The resistance still stands strong against the fundamental principle of corporatizing the farming sector.

The Sikh Culture of Service

At the root of the protest lies the Sikh culture of service. Every passerby, protester and farmer passing through the encampments has been fed full-course meals or langad (meals blessed after prayer), given free medicine, and welcomed into the community. Sustaining a three-month protest, providing for everything from gyms to foot massages for aching feet, music to keep the spirit of resistance alive, all in the midst of a pandemic and plummeting winter temperatures makes this protest, the first of its kind in the history of India.The Sikhs are a religious community mostly residing in Punjab. Right-wing propaganda paints the Sikhs as separatists and serves up reports of violence and lurid conspiracy theories.

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi doubled down on its response after January 26th. Delhi is a fortress, with spikes, barbed wire and trenches blocking access to border protest sites. Internet access has been cut off around Haryana and the Delhi border. So far, 147 farmers have died, and several police officials have been injured. Independent journalists and publication houses like the Caravan, were censored on twitter, and face legal charges for their front-line reportage. In it’s latest deflection, the government implies that protesters have been bought and live to fuel chaos. The government plays the role of an abusive dad, who will stop at nothing to do what’s “best for his children,” even if it is at the cost of their fundamental freedoms.

As it stands today, it seems unlikely that the government will permanently repeal these laws while the protesters are prepared to continue until their demands are met. One thing is clear — the distrust between the government and its people runs deep.

India’s government thought it could sneak the new agricultural laws through amid chaos and disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and could not foresee the farmers’ unrelenting protests. The protesters are fighting to keep democracy alive not just for farmers, but for us all, for at the heart of these laws, is a clause taking away the right of farmers and anyone else to sue the government or corporations so long as they have acted in “good faith.”

Our government seems to be consistently choosing profit over its people, and even if the profit eventually cycles back into our economy, it’ll be at the cost of our democracy.

Manvi Jalan is an India-based independent journalist.

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