Interview: Dr Ashok Dhawale, president, AIKS

Dr Ashok Dhawale: ‘Historic first victory in unprecedented struggle’

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Dr Ashok Dhawale, president, All India Kisan Sabha. Photo: By special arrangement

Interview with Dr Ashok Dhawale, president, All India Kisan Sabha.

Dr Ashok Dhawale, president, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), and one of the leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the banner under which close to 500 farmer organisations gathered to protest against the three farm laws, has been at the forefront of the farmers’ movement. He has, over the past three decades, participated in efforts to save and support Indian agriculture as well as uplift the rural economy. Ashok Dhawale spoke to Frontline about the victory of the farmers’ protest, the implications of the movement and the fundamental issues affecting Indian agriculture. Excerpts:

Did the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the withdrawal of the contentious laws come out of the blue or were there signs of a shift in the issue?

First, let me assert that the repeal of the three anti-farmer, anti-people and pro-corporate farm laws is no doubt a historic first victory of this unprecedented farmers’ struggle, and it has been hailed all over India and abroad. Although the Prime Minister’s sudden announcement of repealing the laws was surprising, it was clear in the last three months that the Central government was being thrown increasingly on the defensive by the farmers’ struggle. This was the result of five major recent factors, apart from the year-long epic saga of the united farmers’ struggle itself.

The first was the massive one-million strong SKM-organised Kisan Mazdoor Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar on September 5. Its most distinctive feature was that it succeeded in rebuilding secular unity, which had been seriously disrupted by the RSS-BJP-VHP in the Muzaffarnagar communal riots in 2013.

The second was the unprecedented success of the Bharat bandh called by the SKM on September 27. This was the third Bharat bandh call in the year-long farmers’ struggle, and the most successful of all three.

Also read: How the battle was won

The third was the increasing tempo of the struggle in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. In Punjab, the farmers’ struggle has gone to practically every home in the State. The constant repression by the BJP-JJP [Jannayak Janta Party] State government in Haryana, and the valiant and victorious fightback by the farmers, is a saga in itself.

The fourth was the stunning and dastardly Lakhimpur Kheri massacre in Uttar Pradesh of four farmers and a journalist, at the behest of Ajay Mishra, the Union Minister of State for Home. Along with this was the protection given by the Prime Minister and the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister to the culprits. This created revulsion among people across the country.

And the fifth factor was, of course, the impending State Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. There was fear in ruling circles of the deepening alienation of the people in the sensitive border State of Punjab, which had, a few decades ago, been the victim of violent separatism.

The BJP had already badly lost the panchayat elections in Uttar Pradesh and the municipal elections in Punjab earlier this year. The results of the byelections in November saw the defeat of the BJP in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, the frontline States of the farmers’ struggle. The Prime Minister and the RSS-BJP belatedly realised the grave danger they faced in the impending elections.

Before the laws were repealed, was there any backchannelling by the BJP via leaders from other parties or even their own?

There were no backchannel talks initiated by anybody with the SKM before the Prime Minister’s announcement. It appears that the Prime Minister did not even consult his own Cabinet, which approved of his declaration five days later on November 24. He never consulted us before bringing in the laws, nor when declaring their repeal. That is how this BJP government has always functioned—unilaterally!

Would you agree that this rollback could be linked to the elections scheduled to be held in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh?

Yes, that was certainly one of the key factors. But the Prime Minister’s decision to repeal the farm laws is most unlikely to help the BJP. The key point to note is that issues around the farm laws represent only a part of what constitutes the larger contemporary agrarian crisis. There are many other issues that remain relevant among farmers.

Also read: BJP turns Lakhimpur Kheri into new Hindutva battleground

I was touring Uttar Pradesh recently. Farmers there are angry with the BJP because they are being denied MSP [minimum support price] for their paddy (they are getting a paltry Rs.1,100 a quintal as against the declared MSP of Rs.1940), and they have not received thousands of crores of rupees of their sugarcane arrears. And they are raging against the astronomical price rise of diesel, petrol, cooking gas and other essentials.

Similarly, across the country, paddy procurement is in crisis and there is a major shortage of fertilizer, leading to a sharp rise in their prices and black marketing, all of which have put the farmers into great distress. The repeal of the farm laws is not going to change any of this.

It is widely held that the farmers’ protest is the longest and largest since India’s independence movement. Almost 700 farmers have been martyred and thousands, many of whom are women, have braved grave hardships to continue the protest. You have been camping in Delhi and have travelled widely, witnessing the protests. Your comments on the courage and strength of India’s farmers.

There are simply no words to describe the courage, strength and tenacity of India’s farmers. At the same time, it is extremely cynical, arrogant and insensitive of this BJP Central government that it has allowed the struggle to go on for a full year. Let me list out nine distinctive features of this historic struggle.

First, it is led by over 500 farmers’ organisations in the country, who have united under the platform of the SKM. Lakhs of peasants have come together in this struggle, at Delhi’s borders and all over India—from agricultural workers to poor peasants to middle peasants to some sections of rich peasants. They have faced bitter cold, scorching heat and torrential rain.

Second, it has been fully supported throughout by the Joint Platform of Central Trade Unions, in the spirit of worker-peasant unity. In fact, the struggle itself began as a joint struggle, with an All India Working Class Strike on November 26, 2020. Lakhs of peasants and workers from all over the country have come out on the streets in solidarity with the farmers’ struggle on numerous occasions in the last one year.

Third, it has combated tremendous repression from BJP governments in the form of teargas shells, water cannons, concrete barricades, nails dug in roads, lathi charge, indiscriminate arrests, and even farmers being mowed down by car of a BJP Union Minister, but has overcome it all. It was as if our farmers were the enemy.

Fourth, it has faced constant defamation from the BJP-RSS and has been accused of being instigated by Khalistanis and naxalites and Maoists, and even by Pakistan and China. Sections of the Godi [pro-ruling party] media have blurted out all these charges ad nauseum. But the struggle has fought against all this defamation and has stood its ground.

Fifth, it has combated the worst health disaster to strike India in recent times, the deadly COVID pandemic. The government rammed through the farm laws, thinking that there would be no resistance due to COVID. But the farmers’ struggle began in the pandemic and continued valiantly even through the disastrous second wave.

Also read: Dr Ashok Dhawale: ‘Crisis has engulfed agrarian society’

Sixth, in spite of lakhs of farmers laying siege to Delhi for one year, the struggle has been completely peaceful and democratic. It has also victoriously combated the criminal conspiracy of violence unleashed on January 26 by the Central government, its police and its agents provocateurs.

Seventh, it has been entirely secular. The farmers’ struggle all over India cuts across religion, caste, region and language. It includes men and women, and young and old. Women and youth are in very large numbers. It is this secular and all-encompassing nature that has made it impossible for the government to suppress it.

Eighth, after the political defeat of the BJP in the Assembly elections in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, it has put the BJP-RSS regime on the defensive in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The BJP has recently been trounced in the byelections in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Ninth, and most important, this struggle has directly identified and attacked the corrupt nexus of corporate communalism, between the BJP-RSS-led Central government and the Indian and foreign corporate lobby. Through its major demands, this historic class struggle of the peasantry has, in fact, squarely attacked the neoliberal policies themselves.

Why are farmers in deep distress and why are they unwilling to back down?

Farmers’ distress has markedly increased in the last three decades of neoliberal policies. In other words, the distress is man-made and policy-induced. Over four lakh debt-ridden farmers have been forced to commit suicide in the last 25 years from 1995 to 2020. Of these, around one lakh have committed suicide in the last seven years of the BJP regime. Lakhs more have been forced to sell off their lands. Agricultural incomes have fallen in absolute terms between 2013 and 2019 as per the latest NSSO [National Sample Survey Office] survey, though the Modi government had claimed that it would double the farmer’s incomes between 2015 and 2022.

The withdrawal of the state from agriculture and increasingly handing it over to the corporates, massive cuts in public investment, rise in the cost of production, lack of remunerative prices, crunch in rural credit, a bogus crop insurance scheme, myriad problems of irrigation and power, and, at the base of it all, failure to carry out radical land reforms and land redistribution, and substituting that with the drive to give away land to the corporates—–these are some of the root causes of agrarian distress. They also explain the farmers’ unwillingness to back down.

Demand for MSP

Even though the laws will be repealed, the protest continues. The demand for a legal mandate for MSP remains. Please explain the MSP issue?

Along with the repeal of the farm laws, a Central law to guarantee minimum support price (MSP) and procurement at one and a half times the comprehensive cost of production (C2 + 50 per cent ) is the second key demand of this farmers’ struggle from day one. This was a seminal recommendation of the National Commission on Farmers, headed by Dr M.S. Swaminathan, made in 2006, but never implemented since then.

The third key demand of this struggle is the withdrawal of the Electricity Amendment Bill, which pushes for further privatisation of the power sector and massive power tariff hikes not only for farmers but for all people.

So far as the MSP issue is concerned, the Modi regime is telling a white lie when it claims that it has already implemented MSP at the above rate. To calculate the cost of production, it has applied the formula A2 + FL, which is much lower than C2 + 50 per cent, and has thus tried to deceive farmers.

Also read: Central govt's MSP: A hoax on farmers

In most parts of our country, the MSP declared by the Central government for 23 different kharif and rabi crops has no meaning, simply because there is no government procurement in most of the States. Hence traders routinely buy agricultural produce from farmers at much less than the MSP. Even in Punjab and Haryana, government procurement is restricted to paddy and wheat. Hence this is a key demand of farmers from all over the country on the output side.

On the input side, successive Central governments implementing neoliberal policies increased the cost of production in agriculture manifold over the last three decades. One, by slashing subsidies on agricultural inputs like fertilizer. Two, by encouraging rapacious corporates in the manufacture of seeds, fertilizer and insecticides. Three, by greatly increasing the price of diesel, petrol, power and irrigation. As a result, the price that the farmer gets for his crop has never increased in the same proportion as the rise in input prices. This is one of the roots of the agrarian crisis and peasant indebtedness, leading to farmer suicides on the one hand and distress sales of farm land on the other.

This is further aggravated by natural calamities like severe droughts, floods, hailstorms and unseasonal rain, with no proper crop insurance cover. The PM Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) has proved to be a farce, enriching corporate insurance companies at the expense of farmers. With huge amounts of credit being channelled to the corporates, there is a credit crunch in the farm sector, especially for small and middle farmers. The agricultural import-export policies adopted under WTO dictates and Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) have also hit farmers very hard.

It is for all these reasons that the farmers’ struggle has demanded a law to guarantee MSP and procurement at one-and-a-half times the cost of production. Another related demand of the peasant movement has been a one-time complete loan waiver to the peasantry by the Central government, which has no compunctions in granting loan waivers and tax waivers of lakhs of crores of rupees every year to its handful of favourite crony corporates.

After their defeat on the issue of the farm laws, do you think there could be changes in the future policy direction of this government with regard to agriculture?

Even as the Prime Minister announced the repeal of the farm laws, he did not accept that the policy was wrong. He said he could not convince a few farmers. That is the mindset. His apology was not to the people of India, as he claimed, but actually to his crony corporates, to whom he could not deliver the farm laws that they wanted! Others in his party have said that the farm laws may be brought back to Parliament later. So, how can we say that their future policy direction might change? I think this government is committed to a neoliberal ideology in agriculture. It will not learn a lesson until these very policies become its political coffin in 2024.

Beginning with the economic reforms three decades ago, several factors have contributed to the growing agrarian distress. Would a legal MSP resolve or even partly resolve farming issues?

Yes, a legal MSP at remunerative rates, coupled with a guarantee of procurement, would surely go a long way to resolve the problems that farmers are battling. Of course, this will have to be supplemented with several other measures, some of which are mentioned above. But this step to ensure a legal MSP will require a great deal of political will and a paradigm shift in policies.

Could you speak about the free market versus a protectionist milieu?

A free market for agriculture is a non-existent matter outside dogmatic textbooks. Nowhere in the world is agriculture subjected to the travails of the free market. Even in the developed capitalist world, agriculture is the most subsidised enterprise in the economy. Farmers receive large cash transfers, receive inputs at subsidised rates, enjoy the benefits of minimum prices and are provided with export subsidies. This is why countries like India are protesting in the WTO, asking developed countries to come on a level playing field with countries like India, which have listened to the advice of these very countries and opened up their markets.

Also read: Ashok Dhawale: 'Freedom to be exploited'

So, agriculture everywhere is protected and assisted; it is a well-recognised global reality. The rest is all a pipe dream. This is what we have been trying to tell the neoliberal evangelists in Indian agriculture, as well as the government, when they tom-tom the great benefits of the free markets.

A large percentage of rural India consists of landless labour which is dependent on agriculture. What must be done to uplift this marginalised section?

Landless agricultural labour is indeed a large part of rural India, and its number is constantly increasing due to the growing pauperisation of the peasantry and the increasing unemployment in the ranks of informal and migrant workers. That is why, during the UPA–1 regime, the Left insisted on the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which was later named after Mahatma Gandhi. It also insisted on the passage of the Forest Rights Act (FRA). However, under the Modi regime, both these Acts are being undermined, the first by sharply reducing outlays, and the second by proposing even more pro-corporate and anti-tribal amendments in the already reactionary Forest Conservation Act of 1980.

Landless agricultural workers, most of whom come from Dalit, Adivasi and Backward Class communities and who include a very large number of women, must be given a new deal. The number of days of work (currently supposed to be 100 per year to one member per family, but actually far less at 54) must be doubled to 200, and so must the paltry official wages of Rs.203 a day that they get. Their wage dues of thousands of crores of rupees must be cleared immediately. Professor Vikas Rawal of JNU has calculated that the cost of one working day under MGNREGA is Rs.310. According to this, a total of Rs.2,37,692 crore was required to provide 100 days of work to 766.75 lakh active job cardholders. However, the Central government allocated only Rs.73,000 crore in the 2021-22 Budget, which is Rs.38,000 crore less than what was spent in 2020-21. In addition, thousands of crores of rupees are pending as arrears of wages payable to MGNREGA workers. Their other burning issues like house-sites, houses, ration cards, PDS grain, increase in the minimum wage for agricultural labour and so on must be resolved at the earliest.

And then, of course, there is the issue of their land rights. The Left is the only force in India that has consistently supported the need for land reforms. Land reforms are the essential condition for the emancipation of landless workers. The issues faced by landless workers are also closely related to multiple forms of caste- and gender-based discrimination in rural India. It is the upper caste groups that own most of the land in India’s villages, and rural landless women are the most exploited section in Indian society; they are subjected to class, caste and gender oppressions at the same time. Their issues have to come to the fore: politically and socially.

The lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic witnessed a massive migration from urban areas to the rural belt. In the absence of a government-provided safety net, people are rejoining the agriculture sector. Your views?

This was clear during the lockdown of 2020. Millions of people who lost jobs returned to their villages. The only means of survival they had, as the government presence was marginal in relief, was cultivation. So, they have taken up fallow land in the village, or leased small plots of land and started cultivation of crops. For those who did not own land, the only option was to join the agricultural labour force as wage labourers. They worked on a pittance as wages, and most continue to do so as unemployment continues to be very high. The Modi government failed them completely.

Also read: ‘We didn’t bleed him enough’

This is where the need for a comprehensive rural social security programme has been highlighted by the Left. We should urgently provide a cash transfer to the rural households, which should be supplemented by the universalisation of the public distribution system (PDS), increase in per capita allocations of food grains in the PDS, inclusion of pulses as a permanent food item in the PDS, expansion of employment under MGNREGA to 200 days a year and increase public investments in rural education, rural health and rural housing.

Some experts point out that the solution to agricultural distress lies outside agriculture. The country needs to boost its manufacturing and service industries to provide scaled-up employment which obviously results in a better livelihood. Your comments.

Structural transformation of the economy is important. But the questions are slightly different in the Indian context: One, can the industrial and services sectors absorb the large work force in agriculture? Do policies support such employment generation outside agriculture? Two, do conditions exist in agriculture where levels of productivity can be raised rapidly and workers can be released to non-agricultural sectors? The answers to both questions are in the negative.

Across the world, movement of workers from agriculture to industry happened concurrent with a rise in agricultural incomes. But agricultural incomes are falling in India. Such a situation will only lead to more distortions and more misery and pain.

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