February 21, 2021

Kisan Movement: Exploring the Class Underpinnings

Nilotpal Basu

PRIME Minister Modi is evidently upset with the growing resonance in the country with the never-say-die movement of the kisans. The movement which has now assumed the form of vigorous united and peaceful resistance is the rallying point of various sections of the class-differentiated peasantry in India. It is this remarkable unity which defines both the spread and depth of the resistance. It is faced with this granite stonewall that the prime minister betrayed his sense of frustration! In his intervention on the debate on the President’s address he attributed the movement to a new nomenclature, FDI, Foreign Destructive Ideology. The PM also in his penchant for new coinages blasted ‘andolanjeevis’ who are polluting the purity of the farmers’ struggle. His attempt to outrightly demonise the peasants struggle is understandable; the umbrella platform of the farmers Samyuktha Kisan Morcha (SKM) embracing over 500 kisan organisations across the country coined the slogan in response to the government’s proposal, following the first round of negotiations -‘Sarkar ki Asli Majboori, Ambani, Adani aur Jamakhori’ !

This slogan captures the quintessence of the current struggle. Obviously, this has rattled the PM not to speak of his corporate cronies. Hence the unrelenting nature of the struggle has forced him to observe ‘there should not be any criticism of the private sector’!

The current phase of the peasant struggle broke out immediately after the proclamation of the three ordinances on June 9. Thereafter traversing through a series of local campaigns and mobilisations of the peasantry, entered a qualitatively new level with the enactment of these three farm laws. Intended to refashion primarily agro-marketing, which will obviously affect the entire gamut of Indian agriculture.

The ordinances have unleashed a vicious war against the peasantry. Agriculture though contributing 14 per cent to GDP, but has 60 per cent of the population depending on it. That the laws enraged massive numbers also underline the degree of subversion of the legislative exercise. The enactment was preceded by a virtual absence of any public discussions where the draft legislation needed to be put out on the ministry’s website followed by wide-ranging consultations with state governments and particularly the stakeholders. The Rajya Sabha proceedings were obnoxious, where opposition members were even disallowed their right to register their disagreement.

In response to RTI queries, the government has also revealed an outrageous absence of engagement. These also underline constitutional questions when agriculture figures under the state list. The response of the Supreme Court to such brazen constitutional impropriety is another low in the judicial history of the country. The basic constitutional question about the legislative competence of the national parliament to enact laws of this nature has been held in abeyance.

Therefore, the absence of any avenues for redressing their grievances either by the legislature or the judiciary has resulted in public action on the streets. Though the present struggle which has its focus on protest sites located at the gateways to Delhi, the resistance is building to engulf the entire country. The initial uneven development of the struggle prompted the ruling dispensation to claim that the opposition was only confined to Punjab; but what is happening now all across, repudiates that claim.

The manner in which struggle has erupted only goes to show that the peasantry is engaged in agriculture in very different conditions; their responses have evolved with time and clarity about the consequence of the laws. This is natural with India having six agro-climatic zones. Recognising this diversity, the Constitution makers had placed agriculture under the state list.

The second line of attack from the government repeated its pet narrative that the movement was being organised by khalistanis, maoists and agents of Pakistan and China, making them outrightly ‘anti-national’.

There were specific efforts to break the unity; with the agriculture minister meeting fictitious organisations to drum up support. Disrupting class unity and driving a wedge between peasants of the different religious denomination was yet another ploy to undermine the struggle.

Biggest ever tractor rally on the Republic Day was sought to be used by official agencies to defame the movement and draw up a narrative by using agent provocateurs and the spectacle at the Red Fort. This was accompanied by the Delhi Police to launch an attack on independent media and senior journalists replicating the recurrent pattern. The resolute movement has managed to uncover the class aggressive of the Modi dispensation and its limits in undermining justice and democracy.

Meanwhile, little did the government realise that this was essentially a class movement encompassing the entire peasantry including substantial sections of the rich peasantry.


Public investment-led post independent agriculture policy to expand production and achieve food self-sufficiency resulting in the green revolution was riddled with failure to undertake a meaningful programme of land reforms. This resulted in vast sections of the poor and landless peasants remaining insulated from this course. Despite this constricted growth which witnessed an expansion in production without the benefits reaching the multitudes, the onset of international finance driven neo-liberal policies from the 90s aggravated the real crisis for most sections of the peasantry. The cost of farming grew disproportionately with the liberalisation of trade in inputs; irrigation, fertilisers, seeds, pesticides all grew astronomically. On the other hand, the government’s growing reluctance in procurement saw major corporate entry. This was combined with the WTO led Agreement on Agriculture (AOA). Initially, the then Indian government pointed out that, unlike the developed economies, agriculture was not organised under big corporatised agri-business, but was a matter of livelihood for most. However, protest notwithstanding, the definition of subsidies in agriculture was designed in a manner which while providing relief to the agri-business, penalised the Indian farming community with the major withdrawal of subsidies resulting in the huge inequities across the world, graphically demonstrating thus:

Government subsidy to agriculture sector, 2019
Economies                        Subsidy in US dollars
China                            185.9 billion
EU                               101.3 billion
USA                         48.9 billion
Japan                       37.6 billion
Indonesia                    29.4 billion
Korea                         20.8 billion
India                        11.0 billion
Source: Tradevistas

This is apart from the post-WTO pattern where the prices of primary commodities including in agriculture plunging in developing economies like India. The overall result was a structural crisis for the peasantry with the cost of production increasing without a commensurate price increase making peasant agriculture inherently crisis-ridden. This situation from the 90’s has aggravated with the continuing phenomenon of farmers’ suicides, highlighting the existential threat that farmers faced including even a section of the big farmers. It is against this background that the demand for a minimum support price assumed urgency.  This was accompanied by the demand for an assured procurement of the produce. This led to also a growing demand for expansion of the PDS and right to food which would also require an expansion in storage and supply chain infrastructure. This backdrop led to the Swaminathan Commission recommending C2+50 per cent to ensure viability for peasant agriculture. However, this has not happened and the public sector food procurement has faced abysmal conditions.

The overall stranglehold of the private sector has also led to non-expansion of and absence of modernisation of APMC mandis making it that much difficult for the peasantry to sell their produce with secure price discovery mechanism across commodities. This backdrop has aggravated the crisis with the further neo-liberal offensive under the Modi government with the additional dimension of certain crony capitalist interests in procurement, storage and distribution with enhancement of big corporate retails in agriculture, particularly in food commodities.  

The obsession with an investment-led strategy for overall economic recovery has shown an abject failure under the present dispensation. This is because of the constant fall in aggregate demand which in turn resulted in investment slowdown. The primary reason for this has been an unsustainable growth in inequality and accompanying lack of growth of employment. This phenomenon is graphically illustrated in the latest Oxfam report with the apt caption ‘virus of inequality’ while describing the conditions of the economy which went into a severe lockdown with an outbreak of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the post-pandemic picture of the Indian economy is particularly grim even compared to other developed economies.

It is clear that private corporate investment which grew dramatically in the boom that took place before the 2008 global crisis, rising from 6.2 per cent of GDP to 16.8 per cent in the space of just five years has come to a grinding halt. That boom driven investment in manufacturing, infrastructure, and real estate collapsed after the crisis. With the slowing down of private corporate investment since 2015-16 from 11.6 to 10.3 in 2018-19 as percentage of GDP at current prices even before Covid meant opportunities for any revival are shrinking further. It appears that Modi government’s ‘magic wand’ of private corporate investment has simply disappeared. The refusal of the government to formulate an appropriate Covid relief package to save jobs and energising economic activity to shore up demand is consigning the economy to further depths of crisis.

The huge tax break last year to the corporates has bombed in infusing life in the economy and an abject failure in expanding revenue collection. Therefore, in order to be on the right side of the corporates, Modi regime has decided to hand over public assets through big-time privatisation of all major national assets encompassing major sectors of the economy and further burdening the working people and vulnerable sections of the society.

This brazen-pro corporate drive of the government has led to the government opting for using the pandemic condition; not to tackle the health and the economic fallout of the lockdown, but to use it in launching severe attacks on the labour and human rights of the people.

A part of this effort is to hand over the entire sphere of peasant economy to the profit-driven initiatives of the corporate sector in agriculture. This is facilitating the otherwise choked avenues for private investment in an area of the food economy where the demand may be more inevitable as compared to other sectors of the economy.

The three farm laws and the refusal to concede a legal guarantee for MSP and expanded official procurement underlines the government’s class bias. Prognosis of the laws shows clearly that they will gradually phase out APMCs out of operation denying the farming community semblance of wherewithal for price discovery for their produce leaving them without any bargaining power to deal with corporate monopsony. Similarly, contract farming will have unfettered freedom to corporates to determine quantity and quality of crops and the proprietary rights of land will become notional. The dilution of the Essential Commodity Act will also ensure removal of any obstacle to stockholding, speculation and even black-marketing with the complete withdrawal of the government from procurement will lead to food being prey to profiteering. Therefore, the farmers’ struggle by proclaiming that this movement is not merely prompted by the impulses of saving peasant agriculture but also to safeguard the right to food security of the people.  

This also brings out the class basis of the ongoing farmers’ struggle encompassing all sections of the peasantry including substantial sections of rich farmers. In order to deny this broad-based class alliance among the peasantry, the government and its votaries among the ‘official’ experts and media commentators by portraying the struggle as one led by big farmers. This was sought to be reinforced by the initial explosion coming from the farmers of Punjab. But closer scrutiny reveals that the struggle is the desperate call for survival from the fall out of the farm laws. A Punjab State Farmers Commission finding in 2008, which identified 89 per cent of Punjab’s agriculture-dependent households as indebted call this bluff.

The genesis of the current unprecedented unity across the class differentiated peasantry and agricultural workers have evolved over two decades affected by aggravation of the agrarian crisis of falling incomes, indebtedness and dispossession. Especially, after the Modi government initiated major initiatives for land acquisition the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan was established in 2016 and the drastic fall in prices following the abrupt demonetisation in November 2016 when the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) was born in 2017. Since then, the AIKSCC by taking up series of partial struggles have expanded by drawing in more than 200 organisations. Simultaneously, in Punjab, series of   struggles have taken place individually and unitedly involving kisan organisations ranging from the WTO induced hammering down of prices of farm produce to the corporate raid of retail trade and shrinking scope of the MGNREGA. This has led to the coming together of all these 500 plus organisations. The democratic and consultative practises within the SKM have resulted in a broad confederation of organised entities, big and small reflecting the regional, political and ideological diversities that define the current conjuncture. This appropriate organisational structure sustains the resilient struggle and forces the exposure of the class bias of the government’s agricultural reforms.    

It is absolutely clear that the struggle ahead cannot merely remain confined to the scrapping of the farm laws and ensuring legal guarantees for MSP. While the government is surrendering to the international finance led strategies for the agricultural sector as adequately manifested by imitating proposals from the World Bank and the IMF of integrating agriculture as part of the global agri-business, the Indian reality represents a completely different scenario. The fact that the average farm size in the United States is as large as 450 acres as against that the average farm size of 1.5 acres here, the highly differentiated levels of governmental subsidy make the Indian situation unique. A ‘one size fit all approach’ in reforming Indian agriculture will not only sound the death knell for the Indian farming community which covers 60 per cent of our population but will lead to complete destruction of food self-sufficiency and food security of an overwhelming majority of our population. Predictably, IMF has endorsed these Indian laws.

Therefore, scrapping of the farm laws is the common minimum programme. But, a composite of correct estimation of cost and production and its linkage to an assured MSP, allocation of funds and implementation of NREGA, setting up of farmer producer organisations with collective marketing, storage, processing and infrastructure, farm loan waiver, expanded priority sector lending and review of trade agreements is necessary. This is for not only sustaining the class unity which is ridden by differential interests and priorities but also to ensure the sustainability of the peasant economy which forms the backbone of the overall Indian economy. This would lead to energising other sectors which is a crucial element in this overall endeavour. The current struggle has indeed inspired that alternative vision.