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Kisaan Andolan and the Neoliberal Food Economy

by Amardeep Singh Dhillon
February 15, 2021

The Farmers' Movement of India's North Western states should be understood not only as resisting Modi's Black Laws but as a challenge to a much longer history of imperialism and oppressive social relations. 2771 words / 11 min read

There are multiple complementary frameworks through which we should engage with the conditions facing the farmers of India’s North-Western states and their resistance to it. While recent contributions from UK left media have variously offered nuanced exploration of the solidarities of the resistance, the interests of Indian corporations and the context of Modi’s Hindu nationalist project, there has been comparatively little historical grounding of these “historic” protests in the global agriculture sector. Modi’s twin pillars of Hindutva and neoliberalism are built on wider trends in Indian and global politics, that go back to the colonisation of the subcontinent and the creation of the modern nation state of India.

The biggest strike in world history; hundreds of thousands of tractors parading from villages across the North-West towards Delhi; a six-month long campaign of agitation, blockades, occupation and civil disobedience; the convening of panchayats (village councils) and mahapanchayats (state-level councils) - these are not a response to a novel threat, but to the culmination of decades of oppression and exploitation faced by Indian farmers and labourers.

In order to begin to understand the significance of Modi’s Kale Kanoon (Black Laws) and the Kisaan Andolan (Farmers’ Movement’s) resistance and to work out what a response in solidarity might look like in the global North, we need to turn to the history of colonial rule, the caste system, the Cold War, the Green Revolution, Khalistani separatism, Hindu nationalism, multinational monopolies and a suicide epidemic. Above all, we need to understand the persistence of oppressive social relations in rural India and the ways in which these are determined by casteism, stabilised by state-welfarist intervention and technological development, and how often these relations and the ecology of rural North West India have been subject to extreme pressures by imperialism, the effects of capitalist technologies on nature and the coercive opening up of markets. This is a story about the development of neocolonial capitalism, class struggle, capitalist world ecology and climate change. It starts in 1849.

To understand Modi’s Black Laws and resistance to them we need to turn to the history of colonial rule, the caste system, the Cold War, the Green Revolution, Khalistani separatism, Hindu nationalism, multinational monopolies and a suicide epidemic.

The Raj

In 1849, the East India Company annexed the northern Sikh kingdom of Panjab, one of few remaining independent territories on the Indian subcontinent, and following the Indian Revolt of 1857 it came under direct rule of the British Crown (along with the rest of India). Its fertile land - Panjab means “land of the five rivers” - offered opportunities to fill the imperial coffers, and the Raj quickly introduced large-scale cash crop farming - cotton, wheat, tobacco, sugar cane - for export. The Raj embarked on a programme of infrastructural development that would see millions of acres of barren land transformed by canal systems. Crucially, it also enshrined in law caste-based, individual (rather than collective) ownership of arable land. This formalisation of existing dynamics of power through ownership ensured the duration of casteist exploitation.

The caste system has its roots in Hindu scripture, and organises society into a hierarchy of four varnas - Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and the Shudras (labourers). Within these are thousands of minor castes, and below them, at the bottom of the hierarchy, are Dalits (“untouchables”). The Raj standardised the system in its current form through a series of administrative policies centred on formalising private ownership of land. By individualising land ownership along caste lines, the Raj cemented the status of jatt - peasant farmers - as primary landowners, and of lower-caste Dalits as an exploitable labour source (since they could not farm their own land). In Panjab, the majority of jatt were Sikh and Muslim. In 1947, with the partition of Panjab between India and Pakistan, the majority that remained in Indian Panjab were Sikh - they own more than 80% of arable land in Panjab today.

The Cold War and the Green Revolution

The government-regulated mandi system eventually developed (“eventually” as the post-independence Nehru administration initially focused on industry over agriculture) from the state-run rationing systems of WWII, in response to fears of food shortages in newly-independent post-war India. It involved state-run markets setting minimum support prices (MSPs) for grain, with government intermediaries guaranteeing procurement, supposedly acting as a security for farmers against exploitative firms, and enabled the public distribution of subsidised food to some of India’s poor (since the state controlled supply). While public oversight in mandis dates back at least to 1939, the MSP was the brainchild of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

As the Cold War gathered pace, for the West these measures represented a compromise between the demands of labour and capital to satisfy a domestic need for food, maintaining private ownership of land alongside guaranteed government procurement, little meaningful redistribution of resources but offering some government support through MSP and subsidies. Theodore Schultz’s theory of the “poor but efficient” farmers of the developing world - as rational actors in pursuit of profit - precipitated the aggressive introduction of new technologies with an emphasis on private profit motives that, combined with the mandi regulation and welfare measures, would become known as the Green Revolution.

Organisations like USAID and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations steered India to agree (in The Treaty of Rome of 1965) “to purchase any [chemical] fertilizer produced in excess of market demand at world market prices” and open up space for private production and distribution. These (US-produced) chemical fertilisers were then subsidised and offered to farmers in the North-Western states, in conjunction with a mass campaign of private tubewells for irrigation (incentivising private profit), alongside hybrid seed varieties (developed by the Rockefeller Foundation) and pesticides.

Simultaneously, India engaged in one of the largest logistical operations in history, setting up the Food Commision of India to procure significant proportions of grain that could be provided cheaply to consumers in the cities. This mass procurement enabled the state to mediate the conflicting demands of farmers, consumers and industry, and when it was later expanded to provide subsidised grain to the rural poor, it enabled India to break away from reliance on imports by the mid-1970s. It was this policy, in conjunction with new tech and welfare measures, that has cemented the perception of the Green Revolution as a triumph in the minds of policy-makers and historians.

Yet while the Green Revolution was celebrated as a resounding success, in practice it laid the foundations for a shift away from the state providing cheap food for domestic consumption to farmers pursuing profit maximisation, through a combination of private irrigation and subsidised inputs, encouraging competition by demonstrating the opportunities of optimising crop yields through intensive farming. Over the years, this would create a cycle of dependency on patented seeds and imported fertiliser, worsening soil degradation and depleting groundwater. As state-welfare measures were eroded, farmers would be left ill-equipped to deal with the adverse long-term ecological effects.

While the Green Revolution was celebrated as a resounding success, over the years it would lay the foundations for a cycle of dependency on patented seeds and imported fertiliser, worsening soil degradation and depleting groundwater.

The Neoliberal Food Economy

The World Bank, WTO and IMF have a long history of coercing countries in the global South into opening up protected markets to private enterprise in return for loans to pay back debts - many of which can be traced back to colonial extractivism in the first place. Multinationals, through a series of mergers and diversifications (controlling every aspect of food procurement from patented seeds to food processing) have consolidated themselves in food chain clusters with near monopolies on the global agricultural sector. Many multinationals based in the global North have had an historic vested interest in limiting competitive exports from the global South, since their profits could be threatened by them. But if these multinationals control supply in both the global North and the global South, they can manipulate the global market more efficiently. They could simultaneously demand high-yield crops for export to satisfy international markets (having already established a cycle of reliance on imported chemical fertilizers and pesticides with devastating long-term ecological consequences) while hoarding domestic supply to drive up prices and maximise profits.This is where contract farming comes in.

While India experienced a balance of payments crisis in 1966, it stood relatively firm with regards to limiting private sector involvement in protected markets - while the Green Revolution contained tensions between private actors and stated government policy, it can nevertheless be read as an attempt to hamper the influence of corporations. By the next major balance of payments crisis of 1991, however, the situation had changed substantially.

By the 1970s, American agriculture was experiencing a crisis of profitability due to overproduction - it needed new opportunities for profit, and it couldn’t get them at home. The Green Revolution had enabled limited access to India’s agriculture sector, but it wasn’t enough - indirectly, the WTO, World Bank and IMF played key roles in changing this. Throughout the 1980s, “minor reforms” in India laid the groundwork for further liberalisation of the sector. Companies like Pepsi Foods Ltd. brought the contract farming model pioneered in the US - whereby private actors supply “inputs” (seed, fertiliser, tech) and farmers supply land and labour, selling a proportion of crop back in return - to Panjab. In one sense, this model had been prefigured by the state-provision of subsidised inputs in the Green Revolution, but the centrality of the private sector operating outside of state mandis represented a significant (if gradual) change.

External assistance from international players had initially been coded into India’s food procurement through the reliance on food aid imports from the global North; later coded into the agriculture sector through the subsidies and policies of the Green Revolution; coded into the wider economy through India’s increasing reliance on the IMF. By 1991 domestic actors were able to make strong cases for globalisation and deregulation by pointing to this reliance as being unsustainable. Under the Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh, state policy shifted from favouring state-led industry to globalisation. Outside of the mandi infrastructure, contract farming became increasingly popular across India, weakening the public sector in the process. In tandem, Indian multinationals like Reliance and the Adani Group scooped up lucrative contracts in agri-logistics (ports, transportation, warehouses for grain) and have since consolidated their hold on agriculture-related infrastructure in anticipation of further liberalisation.

The 1995 WTO Agreement on Agriculture effectively aimed to curtail subsidies to farmers in “developing” nations while enabling countries in the global North to continue offering large subsidies. Since then, floods of cheap imports from the global north have threatened the livelihoods of Indian farmers. At the same time, the Indian state has become the world’s largest exporter of rice, choosing to sell much of its procured crop on international markets for profit rather than funnelling it towards the 32% of its own population experiencing food insecurity. This “success” may partially explain why in 2019, the WTO ruled against India in a dispute with the US, finding that its existing export subsidies for Indian farmers were in violation of the 1995 agreement.

Developments in biotech opened up novel avenues of exploitation of farmers, with deadly consequences. Multinationals like Monsanto - associated with the Rockefeller Foundation - introduced “terminator” seeds at the turn of the century, genetically modified to ensure subsequent seeds are infertile. Aggressive marketing campaigns conned farmers into buying the patented seeds, only for their crops to fail after a single harvest.

Caught between an expanding exploitative private sector and a corrupt mandi system (now extant primarily in Panjab and Haryana), and struggling amidst diminishing groundwater, soil degradation and the ever-increasing costs of fertiliser- and pesticide-intensive farming, many farmers were plunged into poverty. Since the turn of the century, a suicide epidemic of Panjabi and Haryanvi farmers has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

At the same time, the dismantling of the mandi system at state level elsewhere - notably in Bihar - led to increased grain price volatility and saw many farmers and labourers made destitute, forced to travel to Panjab and Haryana in search of work. The dismantling of the existing system in these last bastions is the culmination of a neoliberal project, not its onset. This is one context in which the Black Laws have been brought in and resisted: another is the right-wing imaginary of the modern Hindutva state.

Hindutva

Hindu nationalism - or Hindutva - has long been the backbone of the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but it has also been a key element of the supposedly liberal Congress Party’s election campaigns historically. Hindutva is most sympathetic to Sikhs relative to other Indian minorities, primarily because it seeks to locate the Sikh tradition within Hinduism, framing them as the historical “protectors” of the Hindu rashtra (nation) against “Muslim invaders”. Prior to Modi’s ascension, the BJP had been able to benefit from openly espousing Hindutva elsewhere whilst leveraging the legacy of the Congress Party’s violence against Panjabi Sikhs and centralising of power under Indira Gandhi’s political dynasty, to shore up its share of the Sikh vote in Panjab in a coalition with the Shiromani Akali Dal - a Sikh-dominated Panjabi party. However, years of state-level corruption and the intensifying of Hinduta rhetoric under Modi came to unravel this, with Panjab an outlier in rejecting the “Modi wave” in the elections of 2014 and 2019.

There has been much debate in the Sikh diaspora over how far the current Kisaan Andolan can be viewed as a continuation of the struggles of the 1980s, in which some Sikhs strived for greater autonomy and parity of treatment within India while others demanded a Sikh nation - Khalistan. Indira Gandhi’s second partition of Panjab into three states (Panjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh); her denial of the rights of Sikhs and Panjabis; her assault on Sri Harimandir Sahib (the holiest site for Sikhs) when it was occupied by separatists in 1984’s Operation Bluestar; her ruthless attacks on Sikh gurdware in Operation Black Thunder; her assasination by Sikh bodyguards and subsequent anti-Sikh pogroms across Delhi - the bloody scars left by these traumas have in different contexts stoked or suppressed calls for Khalistan by India’s Sikhs. While the extent of genuine Khalistani sentiment in Kisaan Andolan today is debatable - particularly given the recent prominence of Hindu farmers from Uttar Pradesh in joining the movement in their thousands - an often-overlooked element of Kisaan Andolan that Khalistanis have correctly identified is that these new laws are part of long-term process of centralisation that goes back decades, orchestrated by both Congress and BJP governments.

Insofar as Kisaan Andolan can be partially read as a revolt against Hindutva, parallels have been drawn between Kisaan Andolan and the Shaheen Bagh protests of 2019, in which Muslim women led the charge against the Citizenship Amendment Act that discriminated against Muslims. This framing makes sense, but it’s also important to bear in mind that at least some of the jatt farmers of the current movement have been implicated in caste-based violence against Dalit Muslim labourers in the past, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. It’s also vital to remember that adivasi (Indigenous, sometimes referred to as “tribal”) farmers have long been fighting dispossession from their lands at the hands of mining multinationals and dam-construction projects. The current Kisaan Andolan seems to have prompted many jatt farmers to understand that their struggle is alongside these dispossessed groups - and against the instruments of neocolonialism (World Bank, WTO, IMF etc), the Hindutva state, and homegrown multinationals.

The current Kisaan Andolan seems to have prompted many jatt farmers to understand that their struggle is alongside dispossessed groups - and against the instruments of neocolonialism, the Hindutva state, and homegrown multinationals.

Meaningful Solidarity

As anti-capitalists in the global North, it’s vital that we don’t fall into the trap of seeing Modi’s Kale Kanoon as a break from existing trends. Showing solidarity with the Kisaan Andolan has to mean meaningful interrogation of the global powers that have a vested interest in their suppression (and which they challenge). We can neither understand the complexities of the ongoing class struggle without reference to casteism and Hindutva, nor contextualise this resistance without specific reference to the global players that stand to gain from its suppression. It is not enough to explain the Kale Kanoon and resultant Kisaan Andolan by saying that India is increasingly fascist or increasingly neoliberal: we have to understand what that functionally means. It’s only once we have done that work that we can identify actions of solidarity at home that go beyond words.