India’s farmers have stood up to water cannons, tear gas and beatings. They’ve withstood malicious smears, provocateurs, cyber shutdowns, raids and arrest. No matter how brutal the repression by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing far-right Bharatiya Janata Party, the farmers are not buckling. They are striking for their very survival.
The farmers’ strike has galvanised millions since it began in November 2020. From Peoples World to Consortium News, it is reported to be the largest in world history. Solidarity rallies and actions have occurred across Australia, the United States, Canada and Europe.
Setting off this avalanche was the passage of three farm laws in late September. The new laws override 50 years of rules that regulated the distribution of food produced in the fertile states of Punjab and Haryana and protected farmers’ incomes from the vagaries of the market.
More than half of India’s workforce is engaged in agriculture, and approximately 70% of rural households depend on farming for their main income. Yet 86% own less than two hectares (five acres).
The three new laws strip away needed protections. They allow corporations to buy crops at market prices, stockpile mass quantities when prices are low, and engage in contract farming, in which farmers will have no legal redress. India’s food supply, from seed cultivation to marketing, will be controlled by monopolies. The new laws also end the government’s purchase from farmers for its subsidised food distribution to the poor.
As Parliament voted through the bills, India was reeling from Covid’s destruction, ranking second to the United States in infections and deaths. Modi’s business-serving measures worsened India’s widespread poverty, hunger and malnutrition. India has one-third of the world’s malnourished children.
Neoliberal feeding frenzy countered. For over 30 years, under the neoliberal whip of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Indian governments have been deregulating agriculture and industry — throwing farmers into debt and kicking millions off their lands. Since the late 1990s, more than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide, at least 10,000 since 2019.
Three days after the farm bills’ passage, the parliament enacted labour codes that free up employers’ capacity to exploit and sack workers and further restrict workers’ right to strike.
Modi has been promoting India to corporate investors as both a potentially lucrative agrarian market and a replacement of China as the global manufacturer. But he didn’t count on the tenacity of the Indian people.
On Nov. 26, as millions of striking farmers converged on Delhi, India’s capital, workers across all industrial sectors joined them — from banks and transport, steel mills and power plants, postal and health services and more. Throughout the country, 250 million protested, picketed and shut down major industrial centres. They sat across railway tracks and blockaded highways. Transport, banking and business came to a halt.
Trade Unions had been protesting Modi’s labour and privatisation agenda throughout 2020 with multiple, massive one-day strikes. Since October, national strikes have incorporated the call for the farm laws’ repeal under the slogan, “Long live labour-farmer unity.” Workers’ solidarity goes beyond official union statements and stoppages. Their presence is felt, from the farmers’ encampments on Delhi’s outskirts to the ongoing protests in the capital and major cities across the country.
The backbone is female. Three-quarters of India’s full-time farmers are women. They are paid less than men and due to patriarchal customs most cannot own land. According to Oxfam, although women do 80% of the work, they are not counted as farmers.
They are among the small and landless farmers being tossed to large investors, who, as one woman said, “want to acquire our lands and open their corporate houses in Punjab.” Debt for farmers is especially chronic, severely worsened by Covid and lockdown. To keep households running, they depend on loans with interest as high as 100%. Their belongings, from kitchen utensils to dowries, are the first things claimed in debt recovery.
Women farmers say this fight against the corporations and government is not only for their livelihoods and families’ survival, it is also for gender equality. They commute long distances between their communities and the encampments, keeping farms and homes together while leading the protests and being crucial logistical support.
Among them are Dalits. At the bottom of India’s caste system, Dalits are the largest proportion of Punjab’s landless agricultural labour. With the most to lose from these laws, Dalits have been on the strike’s front lines.
The farmers’ strike is historic. It has brought together farmers and workers. It defies systemic division based on gender, caste and religion. India’s most subjugated bring their militancy and leadership. Together, these forces are impervious to Modi’s desperate acts to crush them, including his offer of a truce for “dialogue.”
The outcome is not certain. Victory will take more than the farmers’ proven courage and tenacity. And more than single-day support strikes by the industrial unions. The strike needs the full force of industrial and farmer unions, joined together in combat. And a vision beyond the repeal of the laws, which is the current demand.
If worker-farmer unity, coming from the workplaces and fields, were to seize the reins of their unions, then an historic victory would be in their grasp. This would be a lesson about game-changing power, not just for the struggling people of India but for the rest of the world.
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