On Saturday, at a gathering of a few thousand farmers in the central part of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, one speaker after another on the dais said that November 26 was a historic date.
“On this day in 1949, the Indian Constitution was signed and on this date in 2020 the landmark farmers’ demonstration started in Delhi. This November 26 marks the beginning of the next phase of the great farmers’ movement,” said Avik Saha, a member of the national coordination committee of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), under whose banner the event was held.
Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal state, was one of the 25 state capitals in India where the SKM, an umbrella group of over three dozen farmers’ organizations, organized rallies on Saturday to submit a deputation to the governor, the titular head of the state government who serves as a representative of the Union government. The governors were urged to forward the deputation, which alleged breach of promises on the Union government’s part, to the president of India.
At the gathering in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state Uttar Pradesh, Rakesh Tikait, a prominent face of the SKM who belongs to the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), said that farmers need to excel in using both tractors and Twitter to succeed in the coming round of their battle.
This was the first large-scale protest program the SKM took up in the year since their historic victory in November 2021, when India’s Narendra Modi government decided to repeal three controversial farm laws that were enacted in 2020.
The Modi government’s decision, often considered the biggest retreat it made since it stormed to power in 2014, came following a yearlong sit-in demonstration of tens of thousands of farmers in New Delhi, India’s national capital, to press for these demands. It was often described as the “biggest protest in world history.” In December 2021, the protesters left for their homes only after the laws were formally repealed in the Parliament and the government gave assurance, in writing, to consider the farmers’ other demands.
However, on November 14 this year, the SKM in its meeting held in New Delhi decided to revive the movement, alleging that the government has done nothing with regard to the other demands.
Saturday’s protest is scheduled to be followed by marches to the residences of members of Parliament and state assemblies belonging to different parties between December 1 and 11, demanding that they raise the issue of unkept promises inside the houses.
“The government has breached its promises on legally guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for all crops, a comprehensive and effective loan waiver and crop insurance scheme, withdrawal of the Electricity Amendment Bill 2020, formalizing farmers’ pension, withdrawal of all police cases slapped on agitators during the sit-in demonstration, and compensation to families of about 700 farmers who died during the yearlong protest. We have to revive the movement,” Hannan Mollah, one of the leading faces of the SKM, told The Diplomat.
He is the general secretary of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the farmers’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that describes itself as India’s largest farmers’ organization. The AIKS is one important component of the SKM.
“According to our estimate, 5 million people hit the streets on Saturday. We will decide the future course of action after reviewing Saturday’s protest and other programs during our next meeting on December 8,” he said.
The farmers’ leaders expect the revival of their movement to have political ramifications, as the parliamentary election is due in little more than a year. Another leader of the SKM said, requesting anonymity, that the possibility of its leadership touring the country urging Indians to vote out the BJP government would be discussed during the SKM’s future meetings.
The leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, refused to comment on the SKM’s protest and allegations. Anil Baluni, the party’s national media in-charge and a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, did not respond to questions sent over email and WhatsApp. The party’s farmers’ wing president, Rajkumar Chahar, a member of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, did not respond either.
One spokesperson said, requesting anonymity, that the issue was “being monitored by people at the top level of the government.”
The ever-deepening crisis in Indian agriculture and its root causes have been the subject of much debate in the political sphere and academia. The crisis has reflected mostly in the deceasing income level, crop loss, and farmers’ indebtedness, leading to a long list of incidents of farmers’ suicides attributed to economic duress.
The impacts of climate change – reflected in a rise in India’s mean temperature, increased frequency of extreme rainfall, prolonged dry season, and untimely rains – have added to the woes by decreasing production of major crops like rice, wheat, and maize. Wheat production is estimated to decrease further in more than one-fourth of India’s rural districts due to increasing temperatures.
Besides, a report titled “10 New Insights into Climate Science 2022,” publishing during COP27 in Egypt, pointed out that glacier retreat in the Himalayas threatens water supply, particularly under drought conditions, and that the lack of water resources increases agricultural vulnerability.
While the prospect of the crisis deepening looms large, whether an MSP on all crops can solve such a problem related to multiple factors has been a debatable matter.
Responding to the SKM’s demands on the MSP, the Modi government formed a 29-member panel in July “to promote zero budget based farming, to change crop pattern keeping in mind the changing needs of the country, and to make MSP more effective and transparent.” The panel had provision for three members from the SKM, but the group boycotted the panel, alleging that the government had filled it up with pro-government agriculture economists and farmers’ organizations. The panel has since then held three meetings but is yet to come up with any report.
Meanwhile, in August, Rajya Sabha member Raghav Chadha, a leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), one of India’s opposition parties, introduced a bill in the Upper House seeking a legally guaranteed MSP. It has not been placed for debate and passage yet.
The SKM hopes to leverage the political atmosphere of the national elections inching closer. Political observers, however, think that the SKM’s bargaining power has reduced since last year’s victory, and this is allowing the Modi government to take its time. One issue, analysts say, is that the movement represents mostly the interests of farmers in Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh – India’s original green revolution states. Another is the lack of visible electoral impact.
According to Ajay Gudavarthy, a columnist and associate professor of political science at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the SKM’s recent moves appear more like a pressure tactic to earn concessions from the Union government for the farming community than any movement aimed at removing Modi’s government. He has doubts if the movement can pose an electoral threat to the BJP ahead of the 2024 parliamentary election.
“It was surprising but true that the farmers’ movement, despite witnessing the death of 700 protesters during the course of it, had very little impact on the Uttar Pradesh assembly election. The farmers went back to vote for the BJP,” Gudavarthy told The Diplomat.
“It’s a very significant and interesting phenomenon that while on economic issues they are fighting the BJP government’s policies, on social issues the predominantly Hindu farmers in northern India are mostly aligning with the BJP.”
He attributed the trend to a continuing ‘anti-Muslim prejudice’ among the Jat community living in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. “They are voting on social grounds, not economic, and this prompts one to ask if there is an endemic disassociation between economic policy and electoral behavior,” he said.
In the Uttar Pradesh state election earlier this year, the BJP returned to power with a massive mandate, including from western part of the state that was part of the movement’s heartland. Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, accounts for nearly 15 percent of India’s Lok Sabha seats. The electoral impact in Punjab and Haryana could not be assessed, as in Punjab the BJP has been a marginal force and the Haryana assembly elections are scheduled in 2024.
Agriculture scientist G.V. Ramanjaneyulu of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, too, has doubts if the SKM’s movement – with an MSP on all crops topping their list of demands – can touch the economic sentiments of the majority of Indian farmers.
According to him, the MSP is effective only when there is proper governmental procurement. Since most of the rice and wheat procurement happens from Punjab and Haryana, farmers elsewhere are not benefitting from the existing MSP of rice and wheat. Therefore, the issue may not strike a chord with them.
“Despite managing to force the government to repeal three laws, the movement has not been able to establish a connection with the larger population of farmers in the country because they are not seeing the appropriate solution for the larger farming community,” Ramanjaneyulu said.
Pressing for greater access to institutional loans for marginal farmers would be a better solution over demands for loan waivers, he said, arguing that the majority of marginal farmers depend on loans from private lenders at high interest rates and government loan waivers do not help them.
“If farmers’ income security is the question, direct income support in the form of annual or biannual cash transfers is a better option across regions. Many more farmers will benefit if the government declares prices for all crops and intervenes only when prices drop, for any crop, and compensate the farmers for the price gap. These issues would relate to a larger community of farmers,” he said.
SKM leaders, however, said that they are aware of their movement’s shortcomings and are reviewing it to formulate appropriate strategies. An SKM leader who did not want to be named said that they are also planning to increase interaction with India’s various opposition parties, urging that they take steps toward protecting farmers’ interests in the states where they are in government, and use the issue to corner the Union government in Parliament.