Since the time of Pandemic led lockdown different sectors of Indian economy were experiencing the heat and stress. Particularly significant is the case of agriculture. Agriculture constitutes a very important aspect of people’s social and economic life and not merely of the farmers and traders. Annual growth rate of agriculture in real terms has been constantly low in past several years i.e. 2014-15 at 2.88 percent, in 2019-20 it was 3 percent (Economic Survey 2019-20). Similarly, the share of agriculture in Indian economy has fallen down to 17 percent in 2019-20. The data also indicates the impact of the low growth rates on income of farmers across the country. While the input costs are continuously rising, it has not seen any parallel in the earnings of farmers.
Public anger against the three farm laws has been simmering since September 2020. For the past three months thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand etc. have been protesting at the borders of Delhi. The protest gradually joined by several students, activists and neighbouring villagers and general public has made global headlines and flutters. It has attracted a lot of academic and political attention nationally and also globally. This article will try to make sense of this protest as a new mode of politics in the contemporary neoliberal times. It will also analyse the key issues farmers have been protesting against passing of three contentious Farm Bills. These three farm laws are: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act aim to bring much needed reforms in the agricultural sector.
Several farm unions have been voicing their dissatisfaction with the passing of these three laws. Farmers argue that with these laws Minimum Support Price (MSP) system would become irrelevant and private players will monopolize the procurement of crops outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMC). Contrary to the government claim of making villages self-reliant by increasing private capital, infrastructural development, these farm unions think that this is an attempt to legalize the corporate groups to capture agricultural markets, control farming process, input supplies, food storage and marketing of crops. It would essentially mean the agricultural infrastructure, mandis, irrigation facilities, FCI warehouses etc. will be gradually sold to the big corporates.
To protest these farm laws farmers have been sitting on different pockets and places of entry to Delhi. Three major sites are Singhu Border, Tikri border and Ghazipur border. Thousands of farmers with their tractors and trollies have gathered there for past three months to resist these farm laws. Farmers unions have quite systematically organized the protest demonstration and blockade of the highways. Their organization skills and strategies have made global headlines and captured general public’s imagination profoundly. To spread information about their protest and dharna, farmers have utilized social media platforms i.e. Facebook, WhatsApp, their own newspaper (Trolley Times) etc. systematically. There are several misconceptions that are spread about the farmers, from mainstream media and online trolls. For example, political leaders from the establishment launched a fierce attack on these farmers by calling them Khalistani, ‘big/rich farmers’, ‘foreign support’, naxals, ‘tukde-tukde gang’, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘terrorists’. Both the establishment and the mainstream media have made attempts to tarnish the image of the protesting farmers. But farmers have stood confident and strong in the face of all these attacks. That is why it is all the more important to understand the nature, character and style of this new mode of politics. ‘Rich farmers’ accusation could not work for both ruling establishment and mainstream media as desired to break the unity, because data show us that small and marginal landholdings constitute around 90 percent of the country’s total agricultural land holdings (10th Agricultural census 2015-16). With growing population and division of land inherited from previous generation the actual size of operational is shrinking.
We have been experiencing a certain stagnancy and dullness in the mainstream political narratives. With the growing implementation of neoliberal economic policies in the country the tenor, language, agenda setting, campaigns related to ‘market’ have acquired a depoliticized character. This brings us to the three major social characteristics of ‘neoliberal politics’ itself. Firstly, the neoliberal project is primarily a political project to establish the supremacy of the corporate class over the labour, state and other social groups (Harvey, 2016). It aims to commodify all aspects of human life and put a price tag i.e. monetize’ everything. In the sphere of politics, neoliberal project silences any critical discussion of economic alternatives and primarily reduces everything to ideological and political manipulations. That’s why we see political parties might differ in term of their social and cultural agenda but stand united in their economic policies. Another important element of this neoliberal politics is to reduce all politico-economic problems as the problem of bureaucratic management. In this way no ideological critique is allowed of the mainstream economic planning either of welfarist or socialist kind. This becomes very clear with the tactical slogan of ‘there is no alternative’ popularized globally. Third important element is systematic individualization, fragmentation or generation of cracks in the resistance against neoliberal market model, while the ruling class remains united. Studies across the countries show how a tiny elite rule over the whole country in the field of economy and polity. Divide and rule is the best strategy practiced by the ruling classes whenever it faces any popular resistances. The current attacks by establishment to portray the farmers movement led by ‘terrorists’, ‘naxals’, ‘separatists’, and ‘big farmers’ etc. all must be read in the same set of ruling framework. Their aim is to create cracks and fractions within this newly formed solidarity (Sandhu, 2021).
This is where the ongoing farmers movement becomes a significant moment to pause and reflect on the regeneration of the idea of people’s collective, people’s force and a ‘multitude’ (to borrow a term from Hardt & Negri, 2000). The farmers movement has very intelligently strengthened the idea of ‘collective’ which has its social features such as social symbols, open support by different sections of society according to their strength and status, careful use of Sikhism’s religious cosmos and cultural practices of providing food i.e. langur, and sharing of resources. However, the major success of this movement has been to stick to its key demand which is the farm laws, i.e. deeply political economy issue to forge social. cultural and political solidarities. In this sense this movement has made a fresh attempt to provide alternative mode of politics. It has definitely brought many burning economic issues to the mainstream political discussions. It should be seen as a response to the aggressive pro-corporate policy decisions made by the establishment. These protests have socialized the youth into this new mode of politics and to articulate their democratic aspirations through this collective struggle. Instead of drawing upon the support of mainstream political parties, farmers rather voiced through their unions to reclaim their place as citizens at the republic of Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur.
Dr Suraj Beri, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, IP College, Delhi University
Government of India. 2020. Economic Survey 2019-20, New Delhi: Department of Economic Affairs.
Hardt, Michael & Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. London: Harvard University Press.
Harvey, David. 2016. ‘Neoliberalism is a Political Project’, Jacobin 2016.
Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, 2019. Agricultural Census 2015-16: All India report on Number and Area of Operational Holdings, Agriculture Census Division. See URL: http://agcensus.nic.in/document/agcen1516/T1_ac_2015_16.pdf
Sandhu, Amandeep. 2021. ‘Left, Khaps, Gender, Caste: The solidarities propping up the farmers’ protest’, The Caravan 2021.
 Depoliticization refers to the gradual or intended lessening of the political debate or questioning or public discussion of any issue i.e. poverty and bureaucratic corruption. Its becomes an accepted fact or way of life.