After Six Months of Non-Violent Struggle, Farmers in India Should Move Towards Agro-Ecology and Broader Unity

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May 28, 2021

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By Bharat Dogra

On May 26 farmers in India observed the completion of six months of their protest dharna (sit-in) at Delhi borders. This was observed as a protest day against the union ( central) government, symbolized by waving of black flags, as the government has all through refused to accept their main demand of taking back three highly controversial farm laws of year 2020. These laws, the protesting farmers have said, move farming in India rapidly towards corporate control while moving away from a system of independent farmers supported by government purchase of farm produce at a fair price. The existing system, they argue further, has enabled India to produce plenty of staple grain (wheat and rice), leaving enough for subsidized public distribution (PDS) as well as nutrition schemes.

These arguments of farmers have received support from a wide section of activists, workers, scholars and most opposition parties. This support is the widest in the so-called green revolution (G.R.) belt of North-West India including Punjab, Haryana and Western Utter Pradesh, fertile areas which received special support of the union government to promote them as granaries of the country by concentrating technology based on abundant irrigation , chemical fertilizers, pesticides and exotic seeds here. From here the protests have travelled to many other parts of the country including Haryana , Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, W.Bengal etc. but the protests remain the strongest in this belt of North-West India ,which is also very influential in political terms.

The protest has been peaceful, strong and resilient, refusing to vacate ground in the face of repression, threats and adverse weather conditions. A significant number of farmers, now called martyrs, have died in the various strenuous activities relating to the movement in conditions of often adverse weather and an ongoing pandemic. In fact if one looks at not just the protest sit-in at the Delhi borders but the various scattered but strong protests which preceded it, then the protests have completed around 10 months or more. In the process, several wider problems of the farmers have also been highlighted and their issues have come more to the centre-stage.

Most farmers in India are small farmers and traditionally their problems related to low incomes and small resource base, the resulting resort to debts taken at exploitative high rates, a cycle of interest payments and debt resulting in mortgage of crops and eventually land in many cases. The response of the government, supported to the extent of even being pushed rather heavily by several important western aid agencies, has been to promote higher yields based on heavy doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used on exotic seeds. But this also brought ecological ruin and adversely affected natural fertility based on organic content of soil, also destroying earthworms, other soil organisms and natural pollinators like bees and butterflies on a massive scale, while also hugely increasing repeated expenditure of small, low-resources farmers on expensive external inputs. At the same time as the new technology came, farmers took, or in fact were cajoled to take, new loans for tractors and other farm machinery. While debts of farmers increased hugely, the farm-related businesses of big industrialists increased as never before. Some of the subsidies meant for farmers were in fact given to agribusiness interests.

As debts of farmers increased, the more distressed among them lost their land and status as independent farmers, instead becoming tenants or farm workers, or pushed more towards migrant work. Comparison of census data reveals that farmers have been losing their land at the rate of 100 farmers becoming landless per hour. Today India’s villages on the whole are likely to have more landless ( or almost landless) households compared to land-owning farmer households. This sorry situation has been aggravated by the government increasingly giving more attention to finding land for corporate interests, while going back on its commitments of providing land to landless peasants, which was a fairly strong commitment for the first three decades after independence and had also led to a non-violent campaign by Gandhian activists for obtaining voluntary gifts of land ( bhoodan) for the landless.

Hence despite the much flaunted farm development claims of the government, in reality the costs, debts, tensions and crisis of most farmers have been rising, aggravated by the fact that the support systems provided by the government to lessen the difficulties of the expensive technology can at best reach only a limited number of farmers ( particularly those outside the main green revolution belt may be left out more).

In these conditions the three laws brought by the government with undue hurry in 2020 would have further strengthened corporate control over farming, an ongoing process which has been accelerated by the present government’s excessive closeness to some chosen billionaires, and so the farmers movement has been right in opposing these laws, as confirmed by the support for this demand by several senior scholarly persons, including those with a long and distinguished record of serving in government or government-supported institutions.

However the last six months of the movement have also brought forth some of its limitations. Its main demand of repeal of three laws, as well as other demands of a better price for more crops and some other reliefs, while justified, do not go far enough in the direction of resolving the crisis of farmers and for ensuring longer-term conditions of sustainable livelihoods in conditions of protected environment. There is a compelling need for widespread adoption of those farming methods which protect environment and hence sustainability; which protect soil and conserve water, which protect soil dwelling organisms and pollinators, which reduce costs greatly by reducing external inputs, which make best use of local/ traditional skills and resources, which revive lost good cultivation practices and diversity of traditional seeds, which use mixed farming systems that are mutually supportive of each other, which draw on mutual better help and cooperation among communities. India is a land of many diversities and these practices will be implemented in diverse highly decentralized ways, bringing out the skills and genius of local people, particularly women, in highly creative ways, but the common thread will be to increase environment protection, sustainability and self-help, while reducing costs and debts.

Hence it is important for the farmers’ movement to move in this direction of agro-ecology, and to declare clear opposition to highly disruptive technologies, like those of GM Crops, which conflict with this agro-ecology approach.

In addition it is important to announce more clearly accommodation of welfare of landless rural households, by agreeing to some smaller plots of farmland and kitchen gardens for them, supported by better and more secure employment for them in several schemes of rural development , such as regeneration of forests, pastures, ponds, wetlands and other ecosystems and reclamation of degraded farmland ( such as land spoiled by excessive water and erosion).

All this will be even more useful in times of climate change, as increase of green cover, water conservation and increase of organic content of soil can contribute much to climate change mitigation and adaption. Agro-ecology will also contribute greatly to reducing the use of fossil fuels in farming by drastically cutting dependence on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, diesel etc . Hence farmers who walk this path can hope to get financial help from the international funds that are set up to help the efforts of developing countries in achieving climate change mitigation and adaption.

Hence after six months of admirable, non-violent resistance for rather limited objectives, it is time for the farmers’ movement to take up a much wider and longer-term agenda, which will ensure a much more secure future for all rural households, including the poorest ones, and will get more support at national as well as world level.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author who has been close to several social movements.

27 May 2021