Dr Ashok Dhawale, national president , All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), India’s largest farmers’ organisation, has spearheaded the farmers’ movement for over three decades, and is one of the prominent faces of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM). Dhawale’s continuous efforts to empower this vast section of India’s population and his relentless pursuit of rights for the rural poor, give him a ringside view of India’s agrarian scene. He also has extensive knowledge of India’s agriculture sector and a deep understanding of the crisis that unfolded post the economic reforms. Dhawale said that the SKM would remain on Delhi’s borders until this battle was won. He also said that the farmer ensures food security, and unless ruling regimes understand this basic requirement, the country will be looking at a bleak future. Excerpts from his interview to Frontline :
Two-thirds of India’s population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. Rather than implement economic liberalisation policies that focussed on and positively impacted this sector, India has steadily declined into an agrarian crisis which continues to date. Your comments.
The fact that two-thirds of the Indian population depends on agriculture for their livelihood even after 75 years of independence is itself a sign of distress and crisis in Indian agriculture. Economic liberalisation has failed to hasten the structural transformation of the Indian economy. Because of poor growth in agriculture, more than half of the agricultural households are below the poverty line. Rural demand is permanently depressed; there is no growth of purchasing power in the rural areas. As a result, even industrial growth is adversely affected due to poor growth of agriculture.
But coming to agriculture per se , Indian agriculture was historically in a state of crisis due to the complete absence of agrarian reform outside Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, and poor levels of public investment in rural infrastructure. As a result, rural inequalities in India are one of the highest in the world. Such contradictions that were already existent in the rural society were exacerbated by the crisis that has engulfed agrarian society after 1991. The agricultural growth rate slowed down. Public investment is on a decline. Input subsidies are being cut, resulting in a rise in input prices.
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Free trade agreements have resulted in a major inflow of predatory imports, resulting in the crash of many commodity prices. Consequently, profitability rates have shrunk across crops. Agricultural credit is being diverted from small and marginal farmers towards the richer sections and corporate agribusiness houses. These neoliberal policies over the last three decades are, in fact, the cause of the present agrarian crisis that we see around us. The AIKS had predicted and warned against this within a year of the onset of these neoliberal policies, in our national conference held at Hisar, Haryana, in 1992.
Why reforms failed
Despite economic growth, Indian agriculture neither experienced an exponential growth nor did the small farmer get emancipated nor was there extensive rural development. Why?
The reforms failed in agriculture because they wrongly understood the needs of the sector. The sector needed agrarian reforms, and more of public investment and support. But it was assumed by the policymakers, with zero evidence in hand, that if you open up the external and domestic markets in agriculture, then the sector will automatically start growing. Look at the Western world. Western agriculture will not survive for even a year if they open up their markets like we have done in India. That is why there are powerful protectionist policies in Western agriculture, which they have refused to dismantle in the WTO [World Trade Organisation] negotiations. Ironically, while they protect their own agriculture, these very countries exhort countries like India to open up. This is double standards, but our government too succumbs to this completely irrational demand.
The low productivity in agriculture in the context of the reforms and the inability of the sector to absorb a growing workforce is glaring. If anything, the farmer, particularly the small farmer, has become even more marginalised. Could you discuss the reasons?
The low productivity in agriculture is a serious problem. The yield gap in Indian farms is very wide. The AIKS has argued that one of the reasons for the poor levels of growth in productivity is the steady weakening of public agricultural research. We need at least two per cent of our agricultural GDP [gross domestic product] to be invested in public agricultural research. This is what China did.
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China drove out Monsanto from the country by strengthening public agricultural research, and producing equally high-yielding seeds at about 25 per cent of Monsanto’s price. Such strength for the research system comes from higher public investment. We failed here. Here, we are a slave of Monsanto and similar corporate houses in agriculture. Similarly, our extension system has been completely taken over by NGOs and private input dealers. If public research was weakened, public extension just collapsed.
The dangers of free trade
Macroeconomists repeatedly say free trade and cutting public spending will be dangerous for India’s food security.
Free trade, as a system, stands discredited across the world. Even developed countries do not think of the WTO as a credible institution. This is why these countries are pushing for more regional and bilateral free trade agreements. If the WTO was functional and useful, why did you need such new agreements? Across Africa, Latin America and Asia, free trade agreements have wreaked havoc on agrarian societies. Cheap imports have been dumped on them. Prices have crashed as a result. And the agrarian crisis has deepened.
Free trade also impacts food security in those countries that have a poor base in foodgrain production. They try to export cash crops and gain foreign exchange to buy foodgrains. But the prices of cash crops are falling, so export earnings are falling and thus, these countries are finding it difficult to import food grains in the same quantities as before. This affects their food security.
Alongside, cuts in public spending severely affect the ability of small and marginal peasants to produce with a decent margin. Input prices are shooting up due to cuts in subsidies and profiteering by corporates. Farmers are becoming dependent on multinational corporations. All this leads to a severe squeeze of the small and marginal peasantry.
Do you agree that India’s rate of growth would have been higher if its agriculture sector had grown the way it was meant to post the reforms?
The simple fact is that India’s agricultural growth rate in the 1980s was higher than the agricultural growth rate in the last 30 years of neoliberal policies. This single indicator is enough to argue that reforms failed to achieve any growth in agriculture.
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But there is another point here. The Narendra Modi government had argued that it would double agricultural income between 2015 and 2022. This is the single biggest failure of the current BJP regime. In fact, farmers’ incomes are likely to have dipped in real terms in this period. The disastrous demonetisation, the ill-thought-out goods and services tax (GST) system, the inhuman response of a draconian lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis… all of this has hurt the peasants. They are very angry. The reforms, they surely feel, have made their condition worse.
Evolution of farmers’ movement
You have been leading movements on farmers’ and peasants’ struggles for the last 30 years. What has been central to the campaigns and how have you seen the mobilisation evolve?
In view of the deep agrarian crisis brought on by the neoliberal policies of the last 30 years, which has led to over four lakh suicides of farmers in the last 25 years (since 1995), I shall just enumerate the central subjects of the farmers’ movements of this period.
Along with the fundamental issue of the repeal of the three farm laws, these subjects are: a Central law to ensure minimum support price (MSP) at one-and-a-half times the comprehensive cost of production (C2 + 50 per cent, as per the Swaminathan Commission formula); withdrawal of the Electricity Amendment Bill which will privatise the entire sector and lead to massive escalation of power bills for all; halving the astronomical price of diesel, petrol and gas; complete loan waiver to the peasantry and agricultural workers (the current Central government has awarded loan waivers of lakhs of crores of rupees to corporates in the last seven years); a complete restructuring of the crop insurance scheme to help farmers in distress, not insurance companies as is the case at present under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY); cheap and adequate credit to all small and marginal farmers; doubling the days of work and also wages for agricultural workers under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act); stringent implementation of the Forest Rights Act for tribal farmers; a stop to forcible acquisition of land from the peasantry; and, of course, a movement towards genuine land reforms. Added to these is the demand of the working class for repeal of the four labour codes and the demand of the people asking for an end to privatisation and selling off of the country by the BJP regime.
The evolution of the farmers’ movements over the last 30 years of neoliberal policies shows a clearly ascending trend on the issues enumerated above. But there was an unmistakable intensification of the farmers’ movement in the last seven years of the Modi government, which went overboard in implementing its pro-corporate policies. This was strongly resisted by the peasantry, as seen in the large struggles in Rajasthan and Maharashtra, including the 11-day farmers’ strike in 2017 and the AIKS-led Kisan Long March in 2018. Then there were the two huge rallies in the national capital in 2018, one by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) and the other by the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions)-AIKS-AIAWU (All India Agricultural Workers’ Union).
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The current historic farmers’ struggle led by the SKM at Delhi’s borders and throughout the country, which began on November 26, 2020, and has now completed nine months, is the culmination of all these earlier struggles. The three draconian farm laws imposed by the Central government were the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. This farmers’ struggle has transcended religion, caste, region, State and language. It has bravely combated repression and defamation. And it has squarely targeted corporate communalism and the neoliberal trajectory itself. The farmers have resolved to broaden and intensify the struggle till victory is achieved.
Contract farming is a contentious issue. It has been around, has had varied results, yet is being encouraged. Could you explain the benefits and ills of contract farming?
We have had contract farming in this country for some time. What we need is a good and pro-farmer regulation of contract farming. We need to ensure that corporate companies do not cheat the farmers by not paying them the agreed price. We need to ensure that companies do not insist on environmentally unsound cultivation practises on the farmers. We need a farmer-friendly grievance redressal mechanism in place.
But what we instead have with the farm laws is a very poorly crafted regulation, which is formulated so as to only help the companies that engage in contract farming. There is a fear that farmers might lose their land to these companies. We need a strict regulation on contract farming. These regulations can be best formulated and passed by State governments, taking into consideration the State-specific contexts.
The AIKS has been actively participating in the farmers’ protests against the new farm laws. Could you speak about the farm laws?
The farm laws are a massive onslaught on the livelihoods of peasants in India. The APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) mandis [markets] and the ECA (Essential Commodities Act) were protections that existed for peasants and consumers right from the 1960s. They have helped the peasants get better access to markets and a stable price even though the APMC mandi system had a few flaws. These flaws needed to be corrected.
Instead, the government brought this farm law and threw the baby out with the bathwater. They simply do not want an APMC system; they want to dismantle it and pass on the control to private corporate houses like the Adani and Ambani Groups. The demise of the mandi system will throw the farmers into the stranglehold of these corporates. This will result in the death of the peasantry in States like Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. The dismantling of the mandi system in Bihar in 2006 has severely affected the farmers there.
Similarly, the amendment to the Essential Commodities Act would leave the retail sector and the logistics sector open to corporate capture. This would mean that even for consumers, the price of food items in the market will shoot up.
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These three farm laws of the BJP regime, in a nutshell, aim to dismantle the MSP regime, government procurement of foodgrains, and thus the entire public distribution system, which is availed of by over 81 crore people in India. That is why we say with good reason that these farm laws are not just anti-farmer, but also anti-people in a fundamental sense.
Also, we must remember that these farm laws are unconstitutional. These are areas of control of State governments, and the Constitution has explicitly demarcated functions in that way. But the Central government, as in many other matters, has shown complete disrespect and disregard for the Constitution, violated federal principles and usurped States’ matters, to formulate and pass these laws in Parliament. The Left and Members of Parliament from other parties strongly protested against this in Parliament, but the laws were thrust on the country, using shockingly autocratic processes.
Our demand is clear. We want all the three farm laws to be repealed. Our nine-month-old historic struggle will continue until this demand is met.