Rice bowl on the boil

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Farmers protest against the farm Bills passed by Parliament, at Shambhu in Patiala district of Punjab, on September 25. Photo: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Punjab witnesses massive mobilisation against the new farm Acts, which threaten to radically undermine the longstanding compact with the peasantry that enabled the success of the Green Revolution.

Punjab, not surprisingly, is the epicentre of protests against the passage of three controversial pieces of legislation governing agricultural marketing. Across the State, farmers, cutting across divisions, have come out vehemently against the new pieces of legislation. A section of traders, particularly smaller ones has come out on the streets in their support. But why would Punjab farmers, regarded as the vanguard of commercialisation of agriculture in the past 50 years, be protesting so forcefully?

For one, the myth constructed around the supposed prosperity of the farmer has frayed for some time now. Two, the gung-ho narrative papers over the deep class and caste hierarchies at play within rural society in Punjab. This still does not explain why Punjab has emerged as the epicentre of the protests.

The most obvious and comprehensible reason is that Punjab is one of the few States where the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) ecosystem has been functioning robustly. Although it is true that farmers with large farms have benefited disproportionately, those with smaller holdings, too, have benefited from the APMC system. It needs to be recognised that the APMC is not a standalone marketing system. Indeed, its functioning in Punjab, especially for farmers growing paddy and wheat, has always been seen by the peasantry as part of a “package deal” that includes the notion of a floor price defined by the minimum support price (MSP). But since the MSP would make no sense without actual purchase at the minimum price, this was backed by state-organised procurement of produce. Thus, the APMC system, the MSP floor and state procurement made sense only when seen as being organised together. The farmers protest has been ignited by the fear that the dismantling of the APMC marks the kicking away of an important leg supporting agriculture in Punjab.

But within this overall picture there is much differentiation. For rich farmers, the longstanding “package deal” has been a formula for continued accumulation and increase in wealth since the Green Revolution. For small and marginal cultivators, state-regulated mandis have provided a buffer against exploitation or discrimination in the market place.

Not just farmers, traders and commission agents, who predominantly belong to the trading castes of Banias and Khatris, have benefited from the APMC system. But within this segment there are differences, between the small and the big, for instance.

The outreach of mandis, although stagnant in the past three decades, has kept transportation and marketing costs equal and relatively low for both small and large farmers. With the enactment of the new legislation, there is a legitimate fear among farmers as well as commission agents that they will eventually lead to the withering away of the APMC ecosystem, a system they know and understand so well. Farmers fear that the replacement of this well-functioning system with one in which they will have little say will lead to chaos. They also fear that an opaque price discovery system will be a sure recipe for an exploitative regime. The uncertainty caused by the legislation has forced Punjab’s farmers to mobilise and protect themselves from the kind of conditions that farmers in the rest of the country face.

Unlike the claims made by the Narendra Modi government about the new legislation that allows trading outside the APMC yards, peasants in Punjab, irrespective of their scale of operation, do not see the APMC-regulated mandis as “restrictive”. On the contrary, they perceive them as providing security from price volatility, an assurance of selling their entire marketable produce and protection from exploitation and malpractices of traders/commission agents. The hollowness of the portrayal of the APMC system as hegemonic and against the interests of farmers is exposed by the fact that it was conceptualised and implemented in Punjab by Sir Chhotu Ram, a prominent peasant leader from the Unionist Party, in 1939, to further the interests of peasants.

Who is leading the protests?

Although the protests have been supported by various organisations and groups, including commission agents, agricultural workers, Left parties, Dalit-rights organisation and other progressive fronts, it is becoming increasingly clear that they are being led by farmers’ organisations with a clear rich farmer bias. Punjab has a large number of such farmers’ unions/organisations with a considerable presence on the ground. One indicator of the rich farmer bias of the protests is revealed by the mode of protests and the illusion of a homogeneous rural society.

Organisations controlled by big farmers typically indulge in a show of strength. Extended tractor and bike rallies, the playing of loud music celebrating the Jat identity (equating it to the identity of a farmer) during protests are obvious markers. Speeches that continuously invoke the martial roots of the Jat Sikhs and remind them of the sacrifices made by Jats in general to India’s development are other standout features of these protests. These are in sharp contrast to the protests led by Left organisations and parties in which close to 50,000 peasants, tribal people and agricultural labourers, from the most marginalised social backgrounds, marched 180 kilometres on foot from Nashik to Mumbai without any fuss. In Punjab, too, protests led by organisations asserting the rights of Dalits over panchayat land have been different from the ongoing protests.

The show of strength in Punjab reminds one of the 1980s when rich farmers mobilised themselves in what was known as the New Farmers Movement. Their demands included higher remunerative prices and subsidies on inputs. The New Farmers Movement eventually undermined the country’s agricultural policy in favour of rich farmers. For instance, state support to agriculture has changed in form—from building public infrastructure and irrigation facilities that benefit all classes of cultivators to providing subsidies on inputs such as fertilizers and electricity, which are overwhelmingly cornered by rich farmers. This is particularly so in Punjab where such farmers receive 94 per cent of state subsidies meant for farmers, as shown by a 2014 study by Prof. Sucha Singh Gill, a leading scholar on Punjab agriculture.

Changes in the agrarian structure

In order to further explore the political responses to the new legislation, it is important to delve into the larger political economy of Punjab and see how it has evolved over time. Five decades of capitalist development in Punjab spurred by the Green Revolution policy has meant there has been an increasing polarisation of the State’s agrarian structure. The structure of landholding in Punjab stands out from the rest of India. Medium and large landowners—those owning five acres and above—constitute two-thirds of all cultivators in Punjab. In stark contrast, small and marginal farmers constitute, on average, 86 per cent of all cultivators in the rest of India.

Farming in Punjab is also relatively more profitable compared with other States. A recent NABARD study confirms this. In 2016-17, agricultural households in Punjab, on average, earned Rs.16,020 a month, the highest among all States; the national average, in comparison, was almost half of it, Rs.8,059 a month. With financial and political resources at their disposal, rich farmers, supported by arthiyas, have been able to mobilise support against the recent legislation.

This should, however, not overlook the empirical evidence of a prolonged agrarian distress in Punjab, reflecting the larger agrarian situation in the country. Most crucially, this crisis has had a differentiated impact, affecting the small farmer much more severely than the big farmer. Stagnant yields, declining profitability per unit of cultivated land, dwindling water tables and increasing salinity of soil and water have all combined to exert an unprecedented stress on the State’s agrarian economy, particularly in the past two decades. This has manifested in a threefold increase in farmer suicides between 2000 and 2014, a large proportion of it among agricultural labourers, Dalits, and small and marginal landowners.

Recent evidence, however, reveals that in the same period of distress and squeeze on profitability from cultivation, rich capitalist farmers have nonetheless found ways to continue their accumulation, both within and outside agriculture, thus furthering more inequality. The evidence also reveals that the rich farmers’ ability to do this is rooted in their caste-class privileges. In the past two decades, rich farmers (particularly Jat Sikhs) have amassed wealth by extending their cultivation by leasing-in more land; expanding into dairy business; intensified cultivation by sowing three crops instead of two wherever local conditions allow; getting into hitherto unexplored occupations such as trading of agricultural produce; and emigrating to developed countries for better opportunities, among others. Moreover, they have benefited from non-taxation of their vast agricultural incomes, multifold increase in the value of land, easy access to institutional credit from sources such as banks and from arthiyas at reasonable rates of interest; and in-migration of labour from impoverished States, among others. Of course, over time, they have also added the business of politics to their portfolio.

The differentiation of the peasantry has not only proceeded along class but also caste lines. In the past five decades, Dalits and traditional artisanal castes have been forced to leave agriculture and enter the class of wage-labourers to a much greater extent than Jat Sikhs. According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data collected in 2012, ‘other castes’, predominantly Jats, dominate operation of landholdings across all size classes including small and marginal ones. . Overall, three out of four farmers in Punjab are from ‘other castes’, and they account for the overwhelming share of all land-size classes

Since secondary databases use constitutional categories to capture data, they tend to render “invisible” the upper castes through amorphous terms such as ‘other castes’ or ‘general castes’. However, primary surveys reveal that Jat Sikhs constitute the bulk of ‘other castes’ among cultivators in Punjab as most of the other ‘upper castes’ such as Brahmins, Banias and Khatris have urbanised, having moved away from villages to nearby towns and cities. Many Jat Sikhs told this writer that they find it difficult to move out of agriculture because they think that farming is central to the desi essence of their identity. The increasing caste homogeneity among cultivators in Punjab has provided a delusion of unity, papering over the wide class differences among the peasantry. It also partially explains the widespread mobilisation against the new laws.

On the other hand, Dalits have been largely de-agrarianised, a process that was initiated during the land and tenancy reforms of the 1960s when Dalit tenant-cultivators were evicted by their landlords. This was further accelerated by the rich farmer bias of the Green Revolution policies, which made it profitable for landowners to cultivate land using hired labour instead of leasing it out. The latest data reveal that Dalits, who constitute 37 per cent of Punjab’s population, accounted for only 13 per cent of the cultivator households in the State. Significantly, Dalits in Punjab account for the largest fraction of the population among all Indian states.

The APMC ecosystem, although beneficial for cultivators from all classes, has had a differentiated impact across classes. Larger cultivators have benefited more from the APMC system than smaller ones. The APMC system, as it existed until now, promoted equality in marketing and transportation but not equity and even this is limited to only wheat and paddy crops. For instance, a small peasant markets a much smaller share of his total produce, especially wheat, than a big capitalist farmer. Moreover, the small peasant also bears, in proportionate terms, a larger burden of the transportation and marketing costs relative to the gross value of output compared with big farmers. Obviously, this perpetuates socio-economic inequalities. Similarly, instead of a class-based MSP policy, the APMC ensures an equal price for all farmers, when in reality small and big farmers do not experience similar cost structures or productivity levels.

It is obvious then that the collapse of the system will have a differentiated impact across these classes of farmers. While it could be the case that some rich farmers might lose out due to the uncertainties in their accumulation strategies facilitated by the enactments of the Bills, it is suspected that rich farmers as a class have much to gain from their interactions with corporate capital, both domestic and foreign. This is evident from the regions where such interactions between rural and global capital have occurred in India, especially in the case of land acquisition. On the other hand, peasants and workers are most likely to be further exploited by the “corporatisation” of agriculture. The implementation of the farm Acts is thus expected to further accelerate the process of proletarianisation in Punjab as the Acts pit small and marginal farmers against a handful of big traders and powerful corporate houses, while bigger landowners get a slice of the profits made by the latter.

But the unity portrayed by farmers’ unions that are leading the protests may not be tenable in the long-run. It is important that farmer unions and organisations examine the limits of this kind of mobilisation and be wary of the contradictions that characterise Punjab’s countryside, especially on caste and class lines, instead of glossing over them.

It is also possible that the consolidation that is being attempted through the new legislation may result in smaller traders and a section of capitalist farmers being rendered unviable. Large farmers, who by their very nature, have interests in areas other than in land, and even in trade, may be willing allies in the corporatisation process being pushed through the new legislative changes. The ‘unity’ that is now visible may evaporate even as contradictions between small and big escalate.

An influential strand in political economy theory has argued that rich farmers no longer play an influential role in Indian politics and that since the 1990s big corporate capital has cemented and strengthened its alliance with the state. Much of this has arisen from an analysis that has focussed excessively on the industrial elite without paying attention to the deepening schisms in rural society. It may be true that agrarian capital’s influence has declined in national politics but they seem as relevant as ever in regional politics in States such as Punjab where the Akali Dal, the BJP’s oldest ally, was forced to break the alliance. It is obvious that the party, which is critically dependent on the support of Jat Sikhs, could not be seen as hobnobbing with the BJP and brazenly betraying the interests of its support base.

Gaurav Bansal is a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.

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