The Agrarian Crisis and a Rallying Call for Revolutionary Transformation of Society in India

Agriculture in India is in a grave crisis. This crisis has been in the making for over the last 40 years, but has deepened in the past two decades of neo-liberal reforms in the Indian economy. The crux of the crisis is that although 65% of India’s people still practice agriculture as their main form of livelihood, it is no more a viable mode of livelihood for a majority of them. Although this crisis affects all classes of Indian farmers, the most severely hit has been small and middle peasants and the landless labourers, leading to loss of livelihood and destitution for many of them. The manifestations of this crisis are many, and although the nature of the crisis is general all over India, the particularities of the manifestations differ from region to region, based on the nature of agricultural practice, local production relations and types of inputs required. Some of these manifestations sometimes catch public attention, such as the epidemic of farmer suicides (more than 5 lakhs in the last decade) which has plagued the country over the last two decades, but many of them are not so apparent but have become defining features of the rural situation in many parts of India. For example, outmigration has become the defining feature of villages in vast areas of Indian agriculture: Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Odisha and Jharkhand. Millions of villagers, mainly landless labourers and small peasants, are abandoning agriculture and migrating to the cities to work as construction workers or cheap labour in the service sector. It is no wonder that the only sector of the Indian economy which has shown an increase in employment in the last decade is the construction sector. But this underlies a massive disruption in rural lives and livelihoods, with a large section of people previously connected with agriculture abandoning it and joining the reserve army of labour in cities. Various other manifestations are seen of the crisis, including frequent and severe upswings and downswings in the price of agricultural produce, decreases of productivity in various areas and large-scale conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural usage, mainly real estate development. In many areas, diversion of agricultural land has followed increased consolidation of land holding in the hands of big land owners, as small peasants unable to pursue agriculture as a remunerative source of livelihood have been forced to sell off their land holdings to big owners, who have increasingly diverted agricultural land to non-agricultural usage as a source of greater income. Thus, in many areas, whatever limited land reforms took place is now being increasingly reversed.

A number of factors have contributed to this crisis over the last forty years. Some of the factors are inherent in the production relations existing in the rural economy, whereas some are the result of state policies and some are contributed by the increasing globalization and the play of international capital in the Indian agrarian scenario. The Green Revolution which took place in the 1960’s and 1970’s increased agricultural productivity, but at a great cost, which has contributed to today’s crisis. The Green Revolution, on one hand made agriculture highly input-dependent and capital intensive, by the introduction of high-yielding variety of seeds, large scale mechanization, high fertilizer usage and intensive irrigation. This put small and marginal farmers at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to big farmers and large landholders, who could invest in this capital-intensive agriculture and get high returns. However, the small and marginal farmers, who did not have the ability to invest so highly in inputs, increasingly found it hard to survive and were forced to sell off their landholdings to the big farmers who enhanced their landholdings. This was the scenario in the core areas of the Green Revolution, Punjab, Haryana and western UP, where small and marginal farmers were pauperized and forced to move out of agriculture. On the other hand, long-term input-intensive agriculture has today contributed to a loss in productivity as the soil quality has severely degraded due to over-exploitation and ground water resources have been depleted. This has today put the agriculture in the Green Revolution belt also in a crisis. As returns from agriculture have diminished, farmers, even from hitherto prosperous big peasant families, have faced loss of livelihood and employment, which have contributed to the militancy in Punjab in the 1980s and to the socioeconomic problems such as rampant drug addiction today.

Just as the Green Revolution introduced capital-intensive agriculture in India, and contributed to the pauperization of a large section of small and marginal farmers, it also did another thing. It first opened up the path for the entry of multinational corporations in India agriculture. The agricultural inputs market in India being one of the largest in the world, this was a very lucrative option for multinational agribusiness and chemical manufacturing corporations. The international intellectual thrust behind the Green Revolution came from representative bodies of western capitalists such as the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, although the actual research was carried out in most places in government institutions. Therefore when high yielding seed varieties were adopted, it required large inputs in the form of fertilizers and pesticides that were produced by multinational chemical and petrochemical corporations which came to play increasingly important roles in Indian agriculture, further increasing in the neo-liberal period. Also, farmers shifted in large numbers to cultivating cash crops, moving away from the traditional food crops, in order to receive better returns in the face of the high input costs in agriculture. This fundamentally changed the nature of Indian agriculture from a relatively self-sufficient, labour-intensive subsistence type to a capital and input-intensive type which became an easy prey to the depredations of globalized capital in the 21st century.

While the Green revolution was introducing capitalism in the agricultural economy in some parts of India, in large parts agriculture remained bound within semi-feudal production relations. The oppression by large landowners, mostly belonging to upper castes, backed by a state serving their class interests, resulted in peasant uprisings in various parts of eastern and southern India, heralded by the Naxalbari uprising in West Bengal in 1967. Although the uprisings were crushed by a highly repressive and militaristic state, the peasant unrest continued to simmer through the 1970s and 1980s, creating pressure on the state to institute land reforms. Partial land reforms were conducted in many states, and although it provided some rights over land to sharecroppers and marginal farmers, it was not sufficient, or done with enough political will, to satisfy the land hunger of the small peasantry and the landless workers. Therefore, overall, the vast majority of the agricultural population in India is still composed of very small to small farmers (landholdings less than an acre) and landless agricultural labourers. However, the increased pressure on land, and the increased availability of inputs such as high yielding seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, made the small farmers take up the agricultural practices introduced by the Green revolution, to increase agricultural productivity and to extract the maximum returns possible from their small landholdings. This was the situation in which arose the crisis which started to affect agriculture in India in the 1990s and have steadily worsened over the years since then.

At the beginning of the 1990s, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the return of capitalism to China, US imperialism had a free hand to impose its hegemony over the world economy. This was done through the process of forcing of neo-liberal reforms in the economies of third world countries, which were enthusiastically adopted by the Indian elite through the policies of liberalization-privatization-globalization which were instituted from 1991. These policies rang the death knell of the Indian peasantry. The neo-liberal reforms saw a steady withdrawal of public investment in agriculture on one hand, and the exposure of Indian agriculture to the world market on the other. Agriculture by this time had become highly resource intensive, as high level of inputs in the form of high yielding variety of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation water, electricity for running pumpsets etc. was imperative to get returns from the increasingly small landholdings in a situation of decreasing soil productivity. On the other hand, in many areas farmers had also been encouraged to shift to cash crop production, due to the high prices obtained for these products in a market closely connected to the world market via large food processing multinationals. This encouraged farmers to invest even more resources in the production of cash crops. All these resources required high level of capital investment by the farmers, for which they were dependent on credit. The mandate of nationalized banks had been to provide cheap rural credit, which was reversed or suppressed by the neo-liberal reforms which considered rural credit as a wasteful expenditure. Now the banks would provide credit to farmers only on the basis of large collaterals such as landholdings or other assets, which most farmers were unable to provide. Therefore the peasants were caught in a trap: on one hand agriculture had become highly resource intensive, on the other hand peasants were increasingly losing access to one of the most important resources, credit. At the same time, increasingly the control over the resources such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, electricity etc came to lie in the hand of large multinational corporations and their comprador agents, who were either originated from the semi-feudal forces or were rich and middle farmers who had benefited from the last decades of high agricultural productivity. These people, who had invested the returns from agriculture into non-agricultural sectors, had now become the local retailers of multinationals, selling seeds, fertilizers, pesticides etc and also owning resources such as irrigation pumpsets, tractors, rice mills, cold storages, transport facilities etc. which were required for both the production and the marketing of crops. Together with this, they also gave rise to a new class of moneylenders, who arose to fill up the credit vacuum created by the withdrawal of the nationalized banks and provided credit to the farmers at very high interest rates.

Therefore the contours of the crisis is now clear. On one hand Indian agriculture is dominated by small and marginal farmers with small landholdings with decreasing productivity. On the other, agriculture has become highly resource intensive but the control of these resources is not in the hand of these farmers. Instead, the control over these resources: inputs, storage, marketing and credit, is in the hand of large corporations and their local agents belonging to the rural bourgeoisie. The farmers are dependent on the market both for the inputs and for selling their produce, and therefore completely exposed to the ups and downs of this market. As the state has openly come to serve the interests of globalized capital, state policies have been designed to consolidate this control of the large corporations and their local agents on these resources. Therefore, this situation is the product of government policies based on neo-liberalism, local production and power relations and the increasing control of multinationals on all aspects of agriculture from inputs to agricultural produce retail. This situation has resulted in the grave crisis of the Indian peasantry. As mentioned before, the crisis is general, although its particularities are different in different regions. In some parts it is widespread rural indebtedness leading to rampant farmer suicides whereas in other parts it is the migration of small peasants and landless workers to cities in search of employment in brick kilns, construction sites, petty jobs etc..

Another aspect of this crisis has been the state’s outlook towards the macroeconomic scenario. As the public investment has been withdrawn from agriculture, the state has increasingly diverted agricultural resources to non-agricultural use. This has been the overriding policy of the last decade, in which we have seen massive attempts to divert agricultural land and other resources such as water, to private corporations for the establishment of industries, extraction of minerals or for real estate development. The colonial land acquisition act has been used rampantly by state and the central governments to acquire agricultural land, special economic zones have been set up on agricultural land and resources such as water and electricity, which are essential for agriculture, have been diverted to industrial and real estate development. Therefore a vicious cycle has developed: government apathy and withdrawal of investment has reduced the importance of agriculture in the economy, although the largest section of the population is still dependent on agriculture, and the reduction in the importance in agriculture has led to the government to divert agricultural resources to non-agrarian usage, causing further deterioration in the condition of the agricultural economy. Overall, the effect on the lives and livelihoods of the peasantry, especially the most vulnerable sections of small and marginal peasant and agricultural labourers, has been devastating.

What has been the response of the people, of the peasantry in particular, to this crisis? Overall the response has been a hopeless surrender to the situation, as evidenced in the spate of suicides over the last decade and half, and the droves of uprooted farmers abandoning their land and livelihoods and flocking to the cities in search of work. But on the other hand, there has also been glorious resistance, as demonstrated by the large number of anti-land acquisition struggles which have been the main feature of popular movements in the last decade. However, the land acquisition struggles have their limitations; they are essentially status quoist movements which are localized, which try to preserve the current condition in the villages and do not aim towards the transformation of power and production relations. Also, most anti-land acquisition struggles have been fought by broad, and unstable, alliances of big peasants, middle peasants and the landless with conflicting class interests, and upper castes and dalits/adivasis with contradictory caste positions, which have also tended to maintain the status quo in the countryside. Moreover, struggles against land acquisition can only be waged where land acquisition is taking place, it cannot be waged where the agricultural crisis is present but there is no land acquisition. Therefore, the anti-land acquisition struggles cannot be translated into a national level revolutionary struggle aiming towards political and societal transformation. However, what is clear is that the agrarian crisis is a systemic crisis of the Indian political-economic system, a system based on globalized neo-liberal capitalism working in close conjunction with the national big bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit the working masses and dalits/adivasis of India. Therefore the only solution to the agrarian crisis has to be a struggle to uproot this political-economic system and aim towards the revolutionary transformation of Indian society.

Therefore the agrarian crisis provides a unique opportunity to a revolutionary organization, believing in agrarian revolution, to organize the peasantry for a revolutionary transformation of society in India. It is clear that with 65% of the population still being involved in agriculture, and a vast majority of them being small and marginal peasants and landless labourers belonging to dalit and adivasi communities most severely affected by this crisis, it is this section of the population that has to be the motive force for any revolutionary effort in India. However, the main challenge in this initiative is to develop a rallying cry, a slogan, around which the mass of peasantry can be mobilized for the struggle. Traditionally, “land to the tiller” has been the rallying call for agrarian revolution, but in today’s context it is not enough. This is because of the fundamental change in the nature of agricultural practice. Previously the main resource for agriculture was land, and anyone with land could subsist on agriculture with minimum other requirements. But in the current situation just having land is not enough for a peasant to have a sustainable livelihood from agriculture, because of the reasons described above. Therefore even where land redistribution has taken place, either by the state through land reforms or by revolutionary organizations through militant action, the small and marginal peasants have not been able to practice agriculture and in many cases even to retain control over the land holdings. Therefore in the current situation, it is the control on agricultural resources which determines the ability of farmers to practice agriculture and obtain a sustainable livelihood from it. And it is precisely the lack of control of the small peasant over the resources needed for agriculture…seeds, fertilizers, water, pesticides, cold-storages, transportation, credit, markets…that has caused the agrarian crisis. Therefore, the rallying cry for the agrarian revolution has to be “peoples’ control over resources”, resources that will include land together with all the other resources that is needed for agriculture. This will be a fundamental move forward from the historical slogan of “land to the tiller” as this will directly challenge the state’s, and capital’s, hegemony and control over resources. A bourgeoisie democratic state can address the call of “land to the tiller” by implementing land reforms, but a demand for “people’s control over resources” will directly expose the role of the state as the agent and facilitator of the capitalist class and upper castes. As people’s control over resources cannot be exerted without challenging and disrupting the very basis of the state and current class and caste relations, this will be a true revolutionary slogan aiming toward political and societal transformation.

“Peoples’ control over resources” is therefore an appropriate slogan for a revolutionary party with the agenda of agrarian revolution and trying to break out of the confines of the forests into organizing the masses of the peasantry in the plains. Because the struggles waged in the forests, based on the rights of the adivasis to their resources, “jal, jangal, jamin”, can be intimately linked to the struggles of the plains peasantry for the control over resources for agriculture. However as it is clear that because of the severe state repression and the encirclement of the revolutionary forces in the forested areas, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, for the revolutionary forces to extend to the plains area and build up the struggles of the peasantry there under the current situation. Therefore it is imperative in today’s situation that the struggles of the plains peasantry have to develop independently and then join up with the revolutionary struggles in the base areas. These struggles will also take particular nature in different places, depending on the objective requirements in different areas. For example, in some places it can be a struggle for bank credit, in another place it can be a struggle for control over cold storages, whereas in another place it can be a struggle for the environmental protection of a water resource. But all these struggles will be connected together by their common challenge to the state’s, and of the capitalist and allied semi-feudal forces’, control over the resources and will therefore have the potential for revolutionary change. Also, the slogan of “control over resources” can be broadened and generalized to finally include the historical revolutionary demand for the industrial working class’s control over the means of production. It will also be an attractive rallying call to the progressive intellectuals and students as this will give them the opportunity to get associated with mass struggles of the peasantry, both in theory and practice, to address a crisis which is evident all around us. Therefore, starting from addressing, and struggling, over a concrete issue, the agrarian crisis in its various manifestations, this rallying cry of “peoples’ control over resources” can finally lead to a generalized mobilization of the rural and urban working class, dalits and adivasis and the progressive intelligentsia towards a revolutionary transformation of society in India.

Indian agriculture_resources1

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