Kisan Protests Are More About Survival of the Peasantry
The kisans gathered
around the Delhi border have unerringly put their fingers on the real issue
confronting them, namely their very survival as peasants. Till now there was an
arrangement in the country which, though crumbling under the impact of
neo-liberalism, still kept the peasantry alive. The three agri laws brought in
by the Narendra Modi government are meant to remove this lifeline altogether.
These three laws thus carry the neo-liberal agenda in this sphere to its limit.
This is also why there can be no meeting ground between the protesting kisans and
the government, within the ambit of these laws; these simply have to be
These laws, for the
first time since Independence, would allow encroachment into agriculture by
unbridled capitalism, of which, naturally, the big players, i.e. corporates
like Ambani and Adani, and multinational agribusiness firms, will be the main
beneficiaries. To see this point, a distinction needs to be drawn first.
There was much talk
in the seventies about the development of capitalism in Indian agriculture; and one
may wonder why so much fuss should be made of encroachment by capitalism now if
a tendency towards capitalist development had already manifested itself nearly
half a century ago. If the peasantry has not disappeared despite the appearance
of capitalism so long ago, then why should one worry about its disappearance
That capitalist development,
however, had been internal to the agricultural economy. It
consisted of an admixture of peasant and landlord capitalism that was
developing within a regime that actively discouraged the encroachment of
capitalism into agriculture from outside. This regime included the
MSP (minimum support price), procurement operations, public distribution at
subsidised prices, and so on.
The government, in
short, interposed itself within that regime between the peasant producers on
the one hand, and the outside capitalist sector and the world capitalist market
on the other. The development of capitalism in agriculture occurred then within
a universe where there was such an interposition by the government, where
agriculture was insulated from the outside capitalist sector.
The chief mechanism
of such encroachment from outside is by drawing peasant
agriculture into the ambit of commodity production. Rosa Luxemburg, who had theorised about
capitalism destroying the peasant economy, had emphasised the introduction of
commodity production as a means towards this destruction.
But it is important
to be clear about what commodity production means. It does not mean any
production for the market, not even production that is exchanged for money
under the C-M-C circuit (commodities transformed into money which is
transformed back into commodities). Commodity production in the full sense
occurs when the product which is both a use value and an exchange value for the
buyer, is only an exchange value, just so much money, for the seller;
and this amount is determined by the spontaneous operation of the market.
An important feature
of commodity production, namely, that it leads to a swallowing by big producers
of small ones, which in the present context means a swallowing of peasants by
the corporates, manifests itself fully only when commodity production in this
true sense binds both the peasant and the capitalist economies. Within the
regime of MSP and procurement there were restrictions on the spontaneity of the
operation of the market. In fact, the MSP itself was a restriction of this kind
which prevented such swallowing.
The introduction of a
neo-liberal regime was aimed at re-establishing such spontaneity of the
operation of the market. This demanded the dismantling of the arrangement that
had prevented the swallowing of peasant agriculture by corporate capital.
But, but while several parts of the earlier regime were dismantled, making
peasant agriculture increasingly unviable and giving rise to a spate of peasant suicides, a central feature of it, namely the
system of MSP, procurement operations and public distribution system, remained
The MSP was kept for
long below what it should have been, but was not given up. No government had
till now been so brazen in its insensitivity towards the peasantry that it
could dismantle the whole system. The Modi government, however, has beaten all
previous governments in its insensitivity. It has decided to dismantle the
regime that stood as a bulwark against the corporate takeover of peasant
agriculture where the peasantry would be reduces to the status of labourers
or de facto tenants-at-will.
In fact, exposing
agriculture to the full blast of commodity production, with the State not
interfering in the functioning of the agricultural markets, will bring about at
least three fundamental changes.
First, it would open
up the country’s land resource to the dictates of the world market, which
means, in effect, the dictates of imperialism, since the superior purchasing
power of the advanced countries would then determine the pattern of land use.
Second, since in the
present context the demand of the advanced countries is for tropical crops
other than foodgrains, full-fledged commodity production would mean a diversion
of land away from foodgrain production, i.e. a substitution of other crops and
other ways of using land for foodgrain production, which would mean India’s
becoming food import-dependent in the event of domestic food demand exceeding
Third, as already
mentioned, it would mean leaving the peasantry to the mercy of the corporates,
and a loss in the economic status of the peasantry. There are many ways in
which this would happen. By way of illustration, we can think of one possible
way as follows: peasants producing cash crops at the behest of the corporates
to meet world demand, would get indebted to the latter in a poor crop year or
in the event of a crash in the price (whose effect is invariably passed on to the
peasants irrespective of what the original contract price was). Once they are
trapped in debt, they would lose their lands and become labourers.
All this should be
familiar from the experience of the colonial days when the peasantry was thrown
to the mercy of the market with no government intervention in the form of MSP
and procurement prices. The distress to which it was reduced has found
heart-rending expression in virtually every vernacular literature of the
country during the thirties and the forties.
And yet so many
intellectuals appear unaware of the implications of leaving peasant agriculture
to the untrammelled operations of the market. It is as if they do not know the
history of their own country. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s being
innocent of any knowledge of history is understandable; but several non-BJP
intellectuals being starry-eyed about commodity production without government
intervention is surprising.
These implications of
full commodity production will necessarily mean an increase in the
pauperisation of the peasantry; and since any worsening of the peasants’
material condition brings about a synchronous movement in that of the entire
working people, there will necessarily be an increase in absolute impoverishment
of the working people as a whole.
To see this, let us
assume deliberately that employment per acre remains unchanged because of the
shift from food to cash crops. (If it does not remain unchanged but declines
instead, then the increase in impoverishment is obvious). Let us even assume
that the per capita income of the peasantry and of agricultural labourers
remains unchanged by the shift from food to cash crops. Even so however, if
there is a single year of price fall for the cash crop, the incomes of the
working people, i.e. peasants and labourers, would drop, necessitating
borrowing on their part.
And once they have
got into debt, there would be no stopping their downward slide toward
destitution because of a very simple fact associated with commodity production,
namely, that while the effects of price falls are fully passed on to peasant
producers by corporates mediating between peasants and the market, the effects
of price increases are not. So the chances of debt incurred, when world market prices
fall, being paid back when world market prices increase, are non-existent. The
debt, therefore, would remain like a millstone around the peasantry’s neck,
resulting in its pauperisation; and since many peasants would migrate to cities
in search of jobs, swelling the reserve army there, such pauperisation will
impoverish the working people as a whole, including even the organised workers.
The issues involved
in the peasant protests, therefore, go far beyond this or that clause of the
three laws. They concern the very survival of the peasantry.