Indian farmers challenge return of ‘Company Raj’

ambani adani effigy

The ongoing siege of the national capital New Delhi by hundreds of thousands of farmers represents, perhaps, the biggest revolt against ‘Company Raj’ since India’s First War of Independence way back in 1857.

While a century and half ago it was the rapacious British East India Company that was the target of the Indian masses this time their ire today is explicitly directed at the similarly predatory empires of the Ambanis and Adanis.

If the movement is successful it could help unmask the true nature of power wielded by unelected business elites in the country today  beyond the colorful façade of parliaments, political parties and media propaganda.

The immediate spark that has inflamed the peasantry, mostly from Punjab and Haryana but also from other states bordering Delhi, is the enactment of three farming related laws, that ease and formalize the corporate takeover of Indian agriculture. The laws, pushed through using the Narendra Modi regime’s brute majority in parliament, do away with guaranteed minimum prices for farm products, allow hoarding of agricultural commodities and facilitate entry of agribusinesses in the farming sector. Revealing their dubious intentions, the laws also block aggrieved farmers from approaching the courts for redressal.

The Ambani and Adani groups in particular are expected to be the main beneficiaries of these new laws. Both groups have grown immensely wealthy in recent decades by manipulating policies through their influence over the Indian political class to establish monopoly control over different sectors, ranging from telecom and retail trading to petroleum and infrastructure.

In the backdrop of the farmers agitation, that is demanding the scrapping of these farm laws, is discontent fueled by nearly three decades of liberalization of the Indian economy, that has wrought tectonic changes in how wealth is created and distributed nationally. Agriculture has been the biggest casualty of the aggressive rolling back of state investments and deregulation of markets by successive governments since the early nineties, under pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Though over 60 % of India’s population still lives in the countryside the agricultural sector’s share in the country’s GDP has dropped to just 16.5 % in 2019[1] . Farm incomes have remained static or have been on the decline with the average income of a farming family being only 20,000 rupees a year in 17 states of India[2], much lower than that of many professions in the urban services sector.

For example, over the last four decades, while the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for wheat has seen an increase of just 19 times the basic pay of government employees has gone up by 120 to 150 times; of university/college professors by 150 to 170 times, of school teachers by 280 to 320 times[3]. Steeped in debt and denied avenues for upward mobility more than 330,000 farmers have committed suicide in India just in the past two decades alone, which works out to roughly over 12,000 farmers a year or 33 every day. Millions of small farmers and agricultural labour have also had to migrate to urban areas to work in dirty and dangerous industries for very low wages in order to survive.

The last few decades have further seen the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny Indian corporate elite. The top 10% of the Indian population today holds 77% of the total national wealth with 73% of all wealth generated in 2017 going to the richest 1%[4].

What this has really meant is big corporate houses get the power to buy up not just rival businesses at will but also politicians, bureaucrats and the media- in other words the entire Indian state machinery itself. The willful distortion of national policies to suit corporate interests, as obvious in the case of the farm bills, has resulted in the loot of national resources and the public exchequer on an unprecedented scale, not witnessed since the times of the rule by the East India Company.

For example, over the past eight years, 12 nationalised banks have written off a massive of Rs 6.32 lakh crore of bad loans, a significant portion of this to big corporate defaulters with borrowings of Rs100 crore and above[5]. In the past four years alone, these 12 public sector banks wrote off bad loans amounting to Rs 4.95 lakh crore, money that should have been used for public welfare, particularly in rural India vast parts of which still have little access to healthcare, education or basic amenities.

While such open theft of public funds indicates how India has become a kleptocracy today, even worse is the long-term damage to the Indian economy and polity done by distortion of policies under corporate influence.   For decades now, successive Indian governments and state agencies have twisted laws and regulatory mechanisms to help their favorite donors from the corporate world to establish monopoly control over everything from telecom frequencies to mineral deposits, without care for national interests or rights of ordinary citizens.

The corporate-politician nexus has been openly formalized in recent years through the introduction of the Electoral Bonds scheme by the Narendra Modi regime in 2017 which allows companies to anonymously donate any amount of money to political parties. This has meant the subversion of Indian democracy itself, as politicians serve as nothing more than glorified commission agents or ‘adhatiyas’ of the moneyed, without concern for those who elected them.

What is historically unique about the current farmers agitation is  its singular focus on such unchecked dominance of a handful of large corporations over all aspects of the Indian economy. By challenging the corporate invasion of the agricultural sector the farmers are today going beyond protecting their interests alone and defending the Constitutional guarantee of equal rights and opportunities for all Indians.

Just as in the case of the country’s First War of Independence though, success of the farmers revolt will depend crucially on whether other sections of Indian society join this valiant fight or remain indifferent. Failure could mean the country itself is hijacked to a time when only a single corporation and its agents  ruled the country,  a return to the hated ‘Company Raj’.

Satya Sagar is a journalist who can be reached at [email protected]

[1] Economic Survey 2019-20. Report summary.

[2] Economic Survey of India 2016.

[3] Devinder Sharma.





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