by T G Jacob
Frontier | Vol. 49, No.28, Jan 15 – 21, 2017
The proliferation and increasing incidence of farmers killing themselves is the most telling illustration of economic non-viability of the current economics of farming. The political leaderships often frivolously approach such a serious malady hitting at the roots of Indian agriculture. The rate of suicide rate is increasing rather than decreasing or remaining stable. The crisis that is structural is sought to be dismissed as non- existent which is nothing but rank irresponsibility and contempt exhibited by the political class of the country. The roots of the crisis are deep with a long history and have become built-in into the socio-economic framework of rural India in its relations to the rest of India and the world. The ongoing crisis in Indian agriculture is in the nature of struggle between producers and their exploiters who are hell bent to extract maximum surplus from crores of the former using the mechanism of the market. This market is not a monolithic one but with different components all of which are unfavorable to the actual producers. The non-viability of agriculture as an economic proposition can hence be rectified only through a restructuring of the market mechanism which in turn necessitates restructuring of the balance of power between classes in society. This is what makes the farmers’ question in India an intrinsic part of the class struggle.
It was during the 1960s that state interventions to transform the production processes in Indian agriculture were begun in earnest. This was also a period of acute food scarcity, food riots becoming endemic, and dependency for most essential food items becoming chronic. Rejecting the Gandhian perspective of self-reliant villages as the keystone of Swaraj the Congress party under Nehru embarked on the path of tuning Indian agriculture to the burgeoning global chemical industry which promised drastic increases in production but without achieving self-reliance in the processes of production and rural economy. In fact, it was the other way around. Production was sought to be hiked up with increasing dependency on external forces which threw up hitherto non-existing contradictions in the vast agricultural sector. These contradictions first broke out in areas like Punjab, Maharashtra and Western Uttar Pradesh where the production processes had become ‘modernized’ and agriculture had become market driven.
The late 1960s and 70s were turbulent in the Indian rural scene in more than one way. Politically disparate movements entered the rural scene. Darjeeling district in eastern India, highlighted by Naxalbari became a trail blazer with peasantry taking up arms to fight for a democratic revolution christened as New Democratic Revolution. Feudal relations of production operating as vicious fetters on socio-economic advancement of society as a whole was the theoretical rationale of this rebellion which revolved around the issue of land relations. It spread to many parts of India and also to neighboring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh. In essence this rebellion became a question of capture of political power through violent means and hence was outside the Constitutional framework which also meant that the ruling powers handled it outside the sphere of Constitutional norms and niceties. The first phase of this movement was drowned in blood by the mid 1970s. The outstanding feature of this movement was that it occurred in areas where the relations and forces of production were what can be termed “backward”, or semi-feudal.
The state sponsored efforts to transform agriculture from traditional processes to one centered round chemical industries and energy sources like electricity and fossil fuels started in the early 1960s on the advice of Ford Foundation and picked up momentum by the late 60s. Initially districts and States with assured water availability were chosen for this production process (the new technology was water guzzling) without radically changing the land relations with the result that output increased spectacularly without any corresponding change in the pattern of distribution of wealth newly created. At the same time multinational corporations dominating agri-business became active players in Indian agriculture. Promotional subsidies greatly facilitated this change-over to modernity in agriculture. Agricultural universities and research institutions, banks, agricultural machinery producers, chemical fertilizers and pesticides producers, food processing industries all together got entrenched in Indian agriculture. The market structure governing this new agriculture consisted of the credit market, inputs markets, and outputs market. In its dynamics agriculture became market driven. By the mid-1970s Indian agriculture had already become beset by new contradictions engendered by the forces of market in opposition to the primary producers and, predictably enough, these contradictions first broke out in articulated militant agitation forms in areas where the dependency on the market forces was the highest and strongest. ‘Shetkari Sangathan’ in Maharashtra and ‘Bharatiya Kisan Union’ in Punjab pioneered this articulation in economic terms resulting in significant mass mobilization of farmers. The areas were what were eulogized as “green revolution” models where new production processes were promoted with active state intervention in collaboration with multinational corporations specializing in agro-chemicals as well as chemical weapons. Objectively it was the structure of the market that was under attack by the farmers. The markets were discriminatory against the producers.
The “green revolution” delta area of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu faced a different situation. Here the landless agricultural workers organized in trade unions by the social democrats demanded a share of the proceeds from increased output which the capitalist farmers out-rightly refused, not even recognizing any sort of bargaining status for the landless workers. When the landless insisted on being listened to the landowners replied by organizing a massacre of more than forty landless in Keelvenmani village (1968) which effectively operated as a warning.
When the non parliamentary militants tried to ignite the fire of anti-feudal struggle in some other districts of Tamil Nadu the leadership and active cadre were exterminated without any preliminaries. During the same period there were stirrings in Punjab where the militants tried hard to identify feudal elements. Though the potential of a youth movement looked a possibility the imposition of an anti-feudal program resulted in the extermination of the militants. This was the time when a farmers’ movement targeting the distortions in the market structure was beginning there. But no linkage was sought to be established between the two perspectives in Punjab or anywhere else. To date, the Maoist movement for democratic revolution remains parallel to the struggle of the primary producers for a more equitable market structure which is objectively very much against the neocolonial order of surplus extraction by the big bourgeoisie from the primary producers through control of the forces of market.
The contradictions between the primary producers and the big bourgeoisie encompass all the segments of the market. The contradiction in the credit market is a product of the contradictions in the other segments of the market. It is the inputs market and outputs market that makes the primary producers insolvent which makes him incapable of playing the rules of the game in the credit market. That is why ameliorative measures in the credit market becomes only a short term patch work which does not solve the problems of the farmers. The destruction of time-honored agricultural production processes which had the character of self-reliance and self-sustenance has certainly increased output but the cost of this increased output has gone beyond the means of the producers pushing them into debt traps. Energy requirements, application of different types of chemicals are ever on the upward graph while the product prices do not keep up to it. At the same time the profits of the food processing industries are ever increasing. The same applies to the fertilizer, pesticide, energy, and, agricultural machinery producers. In the whole scenario the only loser is the producer and his dependents. Only they are committing suicide.
The millions and crores of disparate farmers are pitted against the highly organized corporate sector whose capital backup exercises arbitrary control of market forces to its own advantage. Also, this corporate sector in collaboration with international capital exercises decisive control over state power and is able to manipulate state policies to serve its purpose. Accumulation at the cost of primary sector is a principal source of its economic clout and its capital growth rate is what is equated with the national growth rate. Also, it is the conduit through which imperialist globalization process operates. This power balance/ imbalance makes the farmers’ movement objectively anti-imperialist. It is the same balance/imbalance that operates in the central Indian tribal belt where the corporations want to drive out the original inhabitants for mining purposes and make them into cheap labor. This struggle is also objectively anti-imperialist. These are the two main streams of struggle in the agrarian sector of the country. Though both are anti-imperialist in the objective sense, politically they are unrelated and sometimes even hostile to each other. There are many factors behind this paradoxical situation of which the widely held belief among non-Adivasis that Adivasis are disposable people is probably the most valid one. It is worthwhile to remember that large scale migration of non-Adivasis to Adivasi areas in many parts of the country had resulted in massive displacement and alienation from productive resources of the latter and this was a policy that was abetted by both the colonialists and post-colonial ruling dispensation. This is why Adivasis tend to look at outsiders with distrust and suspicion. Such an attitude is historically created and warranted too.
But presently what people in India are witnessing is the victimization of the primary producers as a whole, ironically called expropriation of the expropriators, by the forces of imperialist globalization. This victimization is done through the so-called invisible forces of market which makes it no less real. In fact the reality is heightened through the all too visible phenomenon of farmers’ suicides of which nowadays no correct account is documented. Some years back farmers’ suicides due to debt trap used to have news value. But now it has become routine and politicians even deny that farmers are killing themselves due to indebtedness. This is because if the nonviability of agriculture is due to rising indebtedness of the producers while other players in the field are faring well it becomes obvious that the culprit is corporate driven market structure which in turn makes the responsibility for the crisis pinpointed. Denying rising indebtedness is only a crass way to deny this responsibility so that corporatisation of land ownership can proceed without hitches and thus agriculture itself can be corporatised in all respects. What is happening in Dandakaranya is a straight fight for and against land usurpation and what is happening in other places is squeezing out the last ounce of surplus through the market forces thereby making agriculture uneconomic for the present producers. What they will do without land is not very relevant in the logic of things as being unfolded. The dynamics of urbanization itself gives the pointer. Those who are forced out of land due to the overwhelming force of market forces will be made to serve those who dispossess them from their sole means of livelihood. This is not an unknown phenomenon at all. In fact crores of dispossessed from the villages are the main occupants of the chawls and bastis of ever expanding urban monstrosities in India and all neocolonial world.
The “development” model adopted after 1947 refashioned the vast agricultural sector as a market for factory made agricultural inputs. Of course, this was not a once- for- all change over; it was a process, which once institutionalized, created its own dynamics. In this process the numerically dominant majority in the countryside was subjugated to the accumulation drive of the superior strength of capital wielded by transnational and all India bourgeoisie. The process attained newer and newer trappings which inexorably enmeshed the primary producers in the web of market forces outside their control. Farmers’ movements are the attempts to break out of this vicious trap of which the most visible manifestation is the credit market trap. That is why demands like the cancellation of debts finds ever increasing acceptance as a slogan among the farmers. But what the farmers’ movement has to recognize is that this is but one aspect of the crisis which actually covers every aspect of their economic life. During the period of the transfer of political power from the British colonialists there was a well articulated village-centric development model which advocated self-reliance and sustainable agriculture and agro-industries. But this perspective was banished by the new political dispensation in favor of a market centered pattern of growth which strengthened and multiplied the bonds of the producers and converting the sector as a whole into a source of accumulation for the big businesses.
Now what one finds is that agriculture has become a gamble for the vast majority of the producers who are only pawns. Their market conditions can be manipulated by the superior power of capital wielded by external agents. The volatility that is very common in agro-related markets has become an institutional feature of agriculture as a whole in such a way that it always serves the interests of the corporate sector. The farmers always face a stone wall against which they find themselves powerless, a powerlessness that drives them to commit suicide. The contradiction is clearly systemic in basic character which means that any real improvement in the situation is possible only if the structural features of the market system confronting the producer are changed. Who is going to change it is the pertinent question. It is the state policy that is cementing the distortions in the market system which throws up the vital question of who is controlling this state policy. Who gains and who loses becomes the yardstick and when this yardstick is applied one can see that the interests that want to expropriate the land of the Adivasis and the corporate forces that fleece the primary producers are one and the same. Unfortunately the uniformity of the genesis of the conflicts is yet to be grasped fully by the victimized.
The contradictions that engulf agriculture pushing the producers to suicide can by no means be divorced from the sustainability question. This sustainability question is a threatening sword not only above the heads of farmers but everyone. It is of universal importance and agricultural production processes have much to do with it. The production processes make agriculture uneconomic, at least for the vast majority of small and medium producers. This direct impact on the producers is supplemented by its health impact on the environment and consumers which makes it a general issue for the land and people. The weakest point of the farmers’ movement concerns this sustainability issue. This was brought out in sharp focus when a report on preservation of Western Ghats was released sometime back. The farmers in the Western Ghats region, especially in the Kerala section, virulently came out with unstudied reaction against the report. The concerned State governments, concerned more with vote bank politics than environment and ecology, as well as the religious vested interests fanned this reaction. The most elementary fact that the Western Ghats exercise decisive and determining influence on the climatic conditions was not taken into account by the farmers who were hoodwinked by the mining lobby supported by vested interests like the Church. The current un-sustainability of agriculture in this cash crops hub drastically needs serious changes in the production process and these changes are possible only if the farmers adopt a nature friendly worldview which was effectively sidetracked by the vested interests and they could use the farmers to serve their purpose. This situation highlights the political immaturity of the farmers’ movement itself. What is underlined in such situation is the dire need for all-round education, especially in fields like organic sustainable production processes in which preservation of natural environmental qualities occupies prime importance. Such education is a precondition for the farmers getting liberated from the clutches of chemicals giants who are the main beneficiaries of the present production processes. Farmers’ struggles, if they are to bring about real changes, have to look beyond temporary economic sops and embrace wider issues in their own as well as general interest.