Indian farmers prevail: A conversation with Kavitha Kuruganti, a farmers’ rights activist

“Repeal the evil laws,” demands the placard in the picture above. A determined yearlong opposition by a popular farmers’ movement to three agricultural laws ultimately did force their repeal in the Indian parliament earlier this month. I recently spoke with Kavitha Kuruganti of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Farmers’ Joint Action Committee), a longtime activist working on farmers’ rights and sustainable farm livelihoods.  She is also the founder-convener of the “Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture” (ASHA), a pan-Indian alliance of more than four hundred organizations working toward food security and sustainability. Kuruganti was a key actor in the intense political tussle between the country’s farm unions and the central government over the farm laws that threatened to irrevocably move Indian agriculture toward free market fundamentalism, and hand over the control of farming operations and trading of produce to large corporations. Consequently, the farmers’ unions mobilized a relentless yearlong movement that resulted in this extraordinary triumph. Kuruganti was the only woman in the farmers’ delegation that negotiated with the government for the withdrawal of the farm laws.

To get an insider’s perspective on the compelling rationale behind the movement, its solid organizational underpinnings, the intrepid yet effervescent spirit that characterized the farmers’ protests, and its dynamic impulse for change, please see my interview with Kuruganti below.

For readers who are unfamiliar with the current state of Indian agriculture, and why the three laws were challenged, I offer a short introduction to the subject before the interview.  Those who are conversant with these discussions can go straight to my conversation with Kavitha Kuruganti.

Pallav Das

The opposition parties in parliament vigorously contested the BJP government’s clandestine maneuver to pass the three farm laws without any public review.

INTRODUCTION

The legislative subterfuge and the farmers’ response

The yearlong tumult forced on Indian farmers by the government started in June 2020 in the form of three ordinances, and then intensified in September 2020 when a slate of three farm bills was introduced in parliament under the cover of the on-going pandemic. Contrary to the convention that legislation of significance be introduced and debated in public to mobilize support and address misgivings and reservations, these bills were allowed no public review, particularly from the farmers, and were rushed through the legislative process. This clandestine maneuver with its enormous economic consequences provoked resolute public resistance all over the country, particularly in rural areas. In a forceful display of their organizational power, the farmers’ unions launched their movement with a countrywide strike last year on the 26th of November with an estimated 250 million people across many sectors of the economy participating in protests. The agitation, which swiftly gained ground, forced the Indian Supreme Court to suspend the three laws in January/21. The movement, however, wanted a complete withdrawal of the bills along with the acceptance of other demands, and the protest continued with permanent farmers’ sit-in camps at four entry points to the capital city of New Delhi, along with sustained protests all over the country, until the government revoked the bills in parliament on December 2, 2021. What, then, were these laws, and why were they resisted with such righteous fervor?

In an overwhelming response against the three laws, people across multiple sectors staged marches and rallies all over the country on the 26th of November/2021.

The new laws

The essential goal of the three farm bills was to deregulate and liberalize agricultural activities in India.  These bills were, in fact, a continuation of the neo-liberal economic agenda adopted by India in the 1990s. The first law, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, would have reorganized the process of trading agricultural produce by setting up markets outside the existing system of government established trading posts known as “mandis” in India. These private markets would have done away with the requirement for a government license as well as any operational fees or taxes, and trading would have taken place without any regulatory oversight.

The second law, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, introduced contract farming into Indian agriculture at the national level. It provided for written agreements between farmers and buyers prior to the beginning of the cropping cycle, by which the latter would have been legally contracted to buy the produce at an agreed upon price. The farmers were particularly incensed about the contract farming statute favoring corporations, which could eventually have resulted in the farmers losing their lands on a large scale.

The third law, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020, would have removed stocking limits and other regulatory mechanisms on agricultural commodities, which the government currently imposes, periodically. Under the bill’s provisions stocking limits could then be imposed only in “exceptional circumstances”, when the prices of perishable produce increased by 100% and those of non-perishable ones by 50%.

86% of the total landholdings in India are less than two hectares, and these small farmers’ lands as well as their livelihoods were threatened by the new laws.

The farmers’ viewpoint

Agriculture is the source of livelihood for more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people, and accounts for nearly 15% of its $2.8 trillion economy. More than 65% of the population also lives in rural areas. The farmers were convinced that these laws would only add to the myriad challenges confronting the agricultural sector in India. Spelling out that contention with clarity through the yearlong protests, they vehemently opposed the proposal to open up the sale of agricultural produce outside the government run Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC). With no license or fee required to enter this market, anyone with or without experience or expertise in agriculture would have been able to start trading in produce – be it large corporations, small businessmen and traders, a group of end customers, even journeymen speculators or operators.  Anyone who took a fancy to agriculture and had money could have come and taken a chance on agricultural produce.

The farmers feared that circumventing the APMC system would have meant an open season on them and their willful exploitation in an unequal playing field. While the government asserted that APMC- based procurement as well as the apparatus of the “Minimum Support Price (MSP)” would continue, the farmers insisted that large corporations with enough resources and time to wait out a financial trough could afford to pay a higher price in the beginning, but would be able to squeeze out the APMC mechanism over time and then take control over farm prices.  The farmers were also worried that gradually APMCs would become ineffective, and eventually die out, as the corporations would have desired. Citing the government’s assurances that under an open trading regime farmers would stand to gain higher prices from the corporations and private traders, the farmers’ unions had asked the government to include a legally binding floor price guaranteed by corporations in the new laws. But the government was unwilling to accede to that demand, which convinced the farmers that the state’s outreach on the three laws was being done in bad faith. 

Indian farmers recognized that the three new laws threatened to compound their enormous challenges.

The sorry state of Indian agriculture

The capital-intensive, quasi-industrialized agriculture system, known popularly as the Green Revolution, was promoted by the Indian ruling elite with the support of the West, and has been on a downward spiral for some time, now. The system has been devoid of flexibility, and while the approach may have benefited the politics of one era, it is now flailing for survival. Unable to figure out how to transition from the focus on dominant landowning farmers and their needs, the state has steadily withdrawn from the agricultural space, in part under pressure from global finance, and international monetary and development organizations. As farmers can’t experiment with locally available seed varieties and adapt to rapidly evolving agro-ecological needs on their own, their continued reliance on the old regimen has pushed them into debt, while the nature and character of the land itself has changed due to climate and other environmental causes. The groundwater table is dropping precipitously all over the country due to overuse, and surface water mismanagement has led to wetlands drying up, causing further hydrologic degradation. Massive flooding or droughts caused by the shifting patterns of the monsoon rains have resulted in frequent crop devastations. Soils are getting degraded and increasingly salinated, while overuse of pesticides is inflicting harm on human health, and poisoning the land.

No exigency, however, comes close to the tragedy of suicides afflicting rural India. Financial debt and general despair in the absence of future prospects have contributed to a sharp increase in farmers taking their own lives. Twenty-eight people dependent on agriculture commit suicide every day in India, and nearly 10,300 farmers did so in 2019. The cost of production in the agricultural sector has been going up steadily while the incomes have generally declined, and the market has become increasingly unreliable as the state continues to withdraw from agriculture. To stay afloat as viable producers, farmers inevitably have to borrow money: by one estimate, roughly 70% of the farming population in India has one or more existing loans, but their ability to pay back has atrophied. The percentage of bad loans in the farm sector has climbed to more than 10%, and, in fact, due to the typically poor asset quality of farmers’ holdings, banks have become increasingly shy of lending to them, often expecting gold or land as collateral. As a result, farmers have been forced to borrow from the open, unregulated loan market at predatory rates. While the banks lend out money at anywhere between 4 to 10% interest, the moneylenders are known to charge from 25 to 50% and sometimes even more, depending, obviously, on the desperation of a farmer. Eventually, if the harvest is good, most of the profit goes in paying the interest on loan. And, if the crops fail, the farmer has to sell a portion of his/her land to repay the moneylender.

The Indian rural hinterland has been ravaged by suicides due to the farmers’ increasing inability to repay financial debt.

Even at the permanent sit-in camps around New Delhi, suicides periodically jolted the calm resistance put up by the protesters. Yet, the farmers persisted, and their conviction that these three laws were not going to solve their varied problems only got stronger. The Indian farmer recognized that once the food trade was deregulated and corporations entered that market, the production process as well as the mechanism of stocking the produce would be opened up to private players. Only then would it be possible to cut down production costs, bump up labor productivity and reduce the margins on trade. That’s why the three laws were designed to work in tandem. The economies of scale would have demanded that farming operations be mechanized and executed on huge, contiguous farms so as to cut down on costs.

In a country where 86% of the land holdings are less than two hectares, and those larger than 10 hectares are less than 1%, it was unimaginable that mega farms could have been established without a large scale introduction of contract farming. That had the farmers worried because once large companies entered agriculture, small farmers would lose out under the new power dynamic. The provisions of the bills, in fact, made it quite clear that any disputes regarding such contracts would have had to be resolved within the local administrative judiciaries without recourse to the Indian court system. It is quite conceivable that such a skewed relationship of power could have resulted in massive disruption of life and physical dislocation had agriculture been corporatized and farmers started losing their land.

The commitment to protest

A conviction has grown among the Indian farmers that corporations have identified agriculture as the only sector of the economy where they could expect assured returns on their investments because of the never ending demand for food: people have to eat to live. And, with the pandemic playing havoc with the economy and corporate profits, the Indian big business turned to the BJP to open the gates of the rural heartland for its survival. This movie has already played in the United States where the capitalist subjugation of the rural farm based economy started in the 1980s. First an increasing number of small farms became unviable because of the barriers to credit, and price volatility. Then, a rural land grab began with large agricultural businesses and investors like banks, pension funds and hedge funds swooping in to capture all available land. In recent years, another ominous development, which replicates the feckless guile of “sub-prime mortgages”, now threatens the American rural heartland: Wall Street traders have been bundling commodities for their mega deals just like they packaged mortgage debt into bond-like financial instruments prior to the 2007-08 global financial crisis. This risks the growth of price bubbles, and as it happened to the housing market in 2007, it could make the entire operation of agriculture vulnerable to extreme fluctuations, which could force a total collapse.

The harsh reality is that capital only looks for the next high, the next spike in profit. It has no interest in preserving the integrity of the farming community or the health of the soil and the natural environment or the well being of society, and India is in the initial stages of that potential disaster. Indian farmers recognized the threat the government’s agricultural policy posed to their existence as well as to the food security of the country, and that’s why they were so strongly committed to the protests. In the end, their tenacity led them to a rare win against the government.

Indian farmers defied the might of the Indian state with unity, organization and tenacity to seize an incredible win.

INTERVIEW: Here’s my conversation with Kavitha Kuruganti

Pallav Das: Thanks for making the time to speak with RED, Kavitha, and congratulations on a remarkable win! After an eventful year the farmers’ movement has forced the government to repeal the three laws, and the participants have now gone back home – what stands out in your own memory about this year, not just as one of the prominent leaders of the movement, but as a citizen of India, and as someone who looks at the issue in the global context of solidarity against the corporate assault on farming and people’s livelihoods?

Kavitha Kuruganti: What are the sharpest memories? To me some of the core values that the so-called “ordinary protestor” or the so-called “ordinary farmer” brought to this movement are really the outstanding aspects of the last one year. Those core values are really personified and embodied in almost every person who participated in this movement. You can’t miss noting these because they stand out. The notion of unity, for instance: this is one movement which has taught India’s farmers unions as well as the farmers themselves that if they are united they can actually assert their identity as citizens, which allows them to be back squarely and firmly in the public debate on nation-building. This sort of emphasis on unity, and experiencing the strength that comes with it, is something that every protestor would talk about, and I experienced it myself! Peace is the other value. There was never a single moment when the protestors who were being led by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Farmers’ Joint Action Committee, SKM) ever gave up on this value. And, this is actually pretty interesting because most of the protestors looked up to revolutionary heroes like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and others, but what they adopted in their actions were Gandhian principles of Satyagraha (non-violent resistance, and the assertion of truth). Another outstanding value embodied in each person was that of hope, which, of course, comes from being a farmer. You are really into a risky enterprise, and you are not going to go into the next sowing season unless you hope to be able to harvest something at the end of the season.

Despite constant provocations from the ruling party and the government, the protest remained peaceful all through the one year period.

Two other values that the protestors brought to the movement emanate from Sikh religious precepts: sewa (service)and shahaadat (sacrifice/martyrdom). The entire protest movement imbibed these two values from their Sikh colleagues from Punjab. Sewa was everywhere – everyone was actively exploring ways in which they could do something for the larger cause: it could be sweeping the streets of the protest township, and making sure that the place was clean; or feeding someone a meal. There was a woman farmer from Punjab who would stitch clothes for the protestors free of cost: people had to bring their own pieces of cloth, and she would stitch kurta-pajamas for them. In a certain sense there was a gift economy running at the protest venues. As for shahaadat, being ready to become a martyr and sacrifice one’s life for the cause, that was something absolutely unique about this movement. In other andolans (movements) people are ready to go to jail, but here they were willing to give up their lives – and more than seven hundred protesters did die due to various reasons in the last twelve months.

Protesters raising a banner with the picture of Bhagat Singh, a revered revolutionary martyr of the Indian freedom struggle.

Finally, there is the striking memory of people’s resistance against corporate control or crony capitalism – the protesters physically occupied a mall at Singhu border (one of the entry points into the capital city). There was a physical structure with a large parking lot, and the people pitched their tents there, turned it into an encampment, and started living there. They also went to the top floor and hung huge pictures of heroes of the independence movement and warriors of the Sikh faith. This was the most symbolic iconic image from the last twelve months – that of our resistance against the brazen attempt to hand over control of our food and farming systems to corporations. There are many memories but some of these really stand out.

PD: Now, that you have raised the issue of resistance to corporatization of agriculture, I would like to probe that point further. There has been much speculation about the reason behind the clandestine manner in which the three farm bills with their enormous economic consequences made their way through the Indian parliament, and what has followed since then. The Supreme Court suspended the laws in January, followed by a prolonged period of uncertainty, repression, and lack of any interest on part of the government to resolve the issue through negotiations. And, then, suddenly the three laws were withdrawn in November, and revoked in December. It wasn’t quite clear whether the government had any strategy behind this yearlong episode, leaving people wondering if there were some external pressures driving the whole issue? I wonder if after these twelve months you have any clarity on the dynamic behind the three laws?

KK: We can only speculate upon the reasons behind the government’s thinking and actions. Some say that it is genuinely committed to the so-called “reforms” that these laws promised. That is somewhat hard to believe because the same people who introduced the legislation under the cover of the pandemic and the lockdown had voiced somewhat contrary policy approaches, previously. So, I am not so sure about their deep belief in “reforms”. But, it is also true that almost every political leader in India has bought into the free market macro-economic perspective on what reforms ought to look like for the agricultural sector, and I am sure Mr. Modi is no exception. But, there was another dynamic at play, too: Modi wanted to send out a message, that, he is a decisive leader, and unlike his predecessors who were dilly-dallying on things that needed to be reformed, he had taken action. It was also this acute need to portray a strong image, to convey that he was a leader who does not bend or blink under pressure that he took twelve long months to withdraw the laws.

Unable to design “alternative” solutions to the myriad problems confronting Indian agriculture, the ruling elite wants corporations to take over control, potentially jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of Indian farmers.

It is also possible that Modi’s advisors made him aware of the already evident negative consequences of the three laws, despite the fact that they had been suspended by the Supreme Court: mandis (government established trading posts) were closing down; regulated markets were weakening and their incomes were declining; they were even unable to pay their own staff. The impact of the laws on the regulated markets was running almost to the script, as foretold by the farm unions. The story with the unregulated markets was even more worrisome: farmers were getting cheated and exploited by fly-by-night operators, and they were getting minimal prices for their produce, much lower than other years. But, it’s also possible that the advisors would have cautioned the government against withdrawing these laws, saying that any other reforms would be impossible to push through in the future. As we know, this government has been trying to deregulate the entire economy, be it the public sector, labor laws and much more. Corporate lobbies have been hard at work in various ministries, and they are there at NITI Aayog (government’s public policy think tank), too.

In the end, it is possible that it was simple electoral politics that forced the government’s decision to repeal the laws. The protesting farmers also knew that elections are a weapon for the citizens of any democracy, and SKM had formally announced Mission Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, two key states going into elections in early 2022, urging voters to punish the BJP. I think the BJP finally blinked under this electoral pressure, and did not want to take any chances with crucial states like Uttar Pradesh.

PD: What do you think the government’s next move would be? Could they bring back these laws in an altered form, perhaps after diluting them somewhat? Do you feel that after the experience of the last twelve months you have a better idea of how this government operates and what its strategy is? Do you and your colleagues in Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Farmers’ Joint Action Committee, SKM) feel better prepared for something similar if it were to happen in the future?

KK: In the end, it was a big misadventure for somebody like Mr. Modi, and we can only hope that the BJP (the ruling party) has learned from this experience. It’s true that in the past they have attempted to introduce these reforms in other ways: state governments had been encouraged to carry out reforms that the union government desired, with both incentives and disincentives. And, it was not just the BJP government, which made this attempt: the UPA government under the Congress party, too, was as eager to deregulate the agricultural sector. But the resolute response to the three laws, and the public debate that followed has made farmers all over the country quite intensely conscious of the bogey of reforms. I think it would be very tough for any government – national or state- to be too brazen in the future. Governments might attempt to bring back the laws in some form or the other, but the farmers are not going to stand on the sidelines, and quietly watch things go wrong the next time either.

PD: In one of your earlier interviews, you had offered quite a stinging rebuke of the three laws, stating that they were designed “for the upper caste, male farmers who had large land holdings with access to irrigation.” That, in a way, sums up the focus of agricultural policy in India since the start of the Green Revolution, which began under Nehru and gathered momentum under Indira Gandhi – a form of State Capitalism aimed at a particular kind of farmer. How do you look at that period in the history of Indian agriculture? Do you think the mistakes of that period are now piling up, and the present government being quite clueless about how to address them is only exacerbating the situation?

The green revolution, which gained momentum under Indira Gandhi in the 1960s-70s, was aimed at farmers with large landholdings, and never attempted to solve the socio-economic inequities historically entrenched in the Indian rural heartland.

KK: The Green Revolution was certainly focused on a particular kind of farmer, and on particular regions of the country. Having said that, we also have to acknowledge that under that system farmers were not left to the market’s mercy, neither at the input end nor at the output end. They received disproportionately high rates of subsidies, and an institutional architecture was created just to support them. It’s also true that a failed attempt was made to take the same model to other parts of the country. Today, however, the situation is quite bleak: we seem to have destroyed and decimated both the well-irrigated green revolution pockets as well as the neglected rain-fed areas of India. Farmers, as a community, feel increasingly marginalized, and are in great economic distress all over the country. The point is that there was a whole ecosystem built around the upper-caste male farmers who owned large, irrigated land holdings, and it did bring them short-term prosperity. However, over time this intensive form of agriculture has left even those who benefited from the green revolution quite insecure. We have farmers in Punjab under acute distress. Their natural resources are totally degraded and the land is going dry as the water table plummets. Financially, their income may have higher than the national average, but they are also some of the most indebted farmers in India, and not surprisingly farm suicides are also very high in Punjab. It puzzles me as to why the government thinks that tweaking the current paradigm through bits-and-pieces reform can help the Indian farmer. We cannot institute meaningful change without a systemic approach to agriculture.

Farmers in even the richest agricultural areas of India are now under stress from climate change, the continuing collapse of the infrastructure and increasing indebtedness.

PD:  It seems there is a policy paralysis in the government, and its failure to provide a solution has created a vacuum, which the corporations are only too eager to step in to. Would you agree with the accusation that the government was actually crafting an insidious handover of the existing state capitalist apparatus to a few corporate houses?

KK: I do agree with that charge, though I cannot prove it. We do need a radical shift in agriculture to combat climate change, to take care of nutrition, to regenerate natural resources, and to bring back profitability and dignity to farming as an occupation. We need a completely different paradigm. These farm laws would have only exacerbated the existing situation. I can’t prove that the government was intentionally planning a handover to a few corporate houses, but it does appear to be so.

PD:You have said previously, that “farmers aren’t anti-reform, but a central top-down reform doesn’t do justice to the economic and cultural diversity of agrarian life. Reform should be ground-up, about economic viability, social equity and farmer’s household sustainability” , and it “must factor in the concerns of marginalized farmers.” While these three laws have been revoked, is it possible now to work toward real reforms? Or, do you think that is a different struggle altogether, and needs to be taken up by farmers separately? Also, would you agree that ground-up reforms have to be tailored to the specific requirements of different eco-regions, climates, soil conditions etc.? Is the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) planning to take up that campaign as part of the next stage of the movement?

KK: Well, I have no doubt that ground-up reforms need to be tailored to the specific requirements of farmers in different regions, and also to meet new challenges of the farming communities. But, having said that, I don’t expect the state to be the architect of fundamental change in agriculture, and certainly not the central government. The present government, however, has tried to promote agro-ecology, which is surprising given that no previous government has expressed any interest in that field – it was considered regressive, like going back to the bullock-cart age. But, for some reason this government does talk about natural farming and that is a welcome development – any intervention that helps bring down our green house gas emissions is good.  A few state governments are also showing interest in progressive programs – there’s a natural farming project in Odisha, and an effort to revive crop diversity and biodiversity in Andhra Pradesh. While we are not naïve enough to regard these as deep shifts in the paradigm of farming, we have to acknowledge that a fresh understanding of agriculture is driving some of these progressive programs. Not everything looks dismal.

As for Samyukt Kisan Morcha’s own initiative and interest in pushing for ground up reforms, I must confess that just like most other movements, it is also able to state quite strongly what it rejects, but fails to communicate the alternative equally strongly. Resisting something collectively is always a little easier than articulating the alternative, that constructive play of creating or recreating your future. So I have no hesitation in saying that SKM has failed on that front. At the moment, we do know what we want, things like price assurance and other related demands. We do, however, need to work on our approach to ground up reforms and the strategy for implementing them. But, I have full faith that we can take it up in the future.

To prevent the corporate takeover of Indian agriculture, alternatives have to be imagined and crafted by farmer unions in collaboration with environmental and progressive movements.

PD: You raise such an interesting point there, that it is easier to work on resistance than working on alternatives. In our own work with Vikalp Sangam (Confluence of Alternatives), we have recognized that the ability to imagine and craft alternatives is a complex effort, not just in India but all over the world. I wonder if in the case of Indian agriculture, for instance, survival, itself, is such an enormously difficult task, and then resistance takes so much effort that it doesn’t leave enough mind space to think about alternatives? What could SKM do to facilitate that? Could there be a role for Vikalp Sangam, and the ideas it has advanced? Would SKM be willing to consider those ideas?

KK: Let me say this frankly – in the people’s movements, there is a certain disdain for what NGOs seem to represent in India, and I would not hesitate to say that a large part of the blame goes to the NGO world for having brought discredit to itself. I am not talking about every NGO, and there are some excellent grassroots organizations, which are the redeeming high points of the NGO world. But a lot of the NGOs have merely become service providers to the state, and the resistance movements are skeptical of their vision. All said and done, most NGOs are able to do what they are doing only in a projectized, periodically funded fashion. In the current setting, a trust deficit exists both ways. Those rare, excellent NGOs who are really setting up models of alternatives on the ground, they are also skeptical of farmer unions. For them, resistance activists have a short-term view of agriculture, aiming at immediate gains for farmers, and neglecting to think comprehensively about creating an alternative world. All that is true.

Unions are there to respond to immediate needs – a fertilizer shortage occurs, certain subsidy is removed – and those become mandates for struggle. So, you cannot blame farmer unions for shaping their agendas the way they do. I am just saying that right now there is no bridge between these two worlds, and we need a facilitated process of deep conversations between them. We have the Vikalp Sangam process set up as part of the larger effort at nirman (construction/creation), and you have sangharsh (resistance) on the other hand caught up with immediate issues. I don’t immediately see Vikalp Sangam being accepted by farmer unions, or Vikalp Sangam constituents having respect for all farmer unions. It is a two-way process of communication that we will have to invest time in.

PD: That, certainly, is a sobering thought and a vital piece of advice. Speaking of alternatives, do you think cooperative farming could contribute toward solving agricultural distress? Could communities with smaller land holdings come together as cooperative farmers?

KK: There have been cooperative farming experiments across the country particularly those organized by left groups, but they have not been quite successful. I think cooperative farming with everyone pooling their land, and working as collectives has not worked in India. But, cooperative farming operations in terms of labor exchange, seed exchange, knowledge exchange etc. have been an intrinsic part of traditional Indian farming. Adivasi (indigenous) communities, to this day, practice that kind of cooperative agriculture. So, cooperative farming has had a different meaning in the larger Indian context.

We do have the experience of women’s collectives where groups of women, especially those who are single and disadvantaged, have experimented with group farming, especially in the southern states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. There are academic reports indicating that group farming on leased land by such women’s groups has been successful. Sometimes, the owner of the land becomes an equal member of the group, and such enterprises are found to be more profitable than family farming.

Deccan Development Society, where I spent my initial years learning about development work in the 90s, is centered on autonomy, local food sufficiency and ecological agriculture, and is considered an excellent example of group farming. Similarly, the Kutumbashree model in Kerala where the state supports group-farming enterprises both at the back end and the front end is also a good proof of concept, that too at scale.

Women farmers have shown that cooperative and group farming have enormous potential in the country.

PD: It seems many of the successful group and cooperative farming operations are run by women, which is remarkable given the grip patriarchy has in India, particularly in rural areas. I wanted to talk about land ownership for women, an issue which is marked by enormous inequities and gender discrimination. I wonder if SKM is trying to address that problem?

KK: Well, because of the hold of patriarchy in India, women who are involved in agriculture are not even considered farmers, because farmers are understood to be landowners, and women largely don’t own land in India. Our view is that women need to be given land entitlements, and treated on par with male farmers, with or without land ownership. On the other hand, to promote their empowerment and for radical change in rural women’s lives they do need to have equal land rights. Not only are women equal partners in agriculture, compared to men they also spend longer hours and more days on farming activities all across the country.

There are two important issues, which stand out regarding land ownership. Due to some progressive amendments in inheritance rights, even though they apply to specific religious communities, the Indian laws do provide women an equal right in property inheritance on par with their brothers. But, this provision called the Hindu Succession Act is often not implemented due to the hold of patriarchy – for instance, the dowry paid to a woman at the time of her marriage is considered a fair substitute to inheritance of land. A patriarch would tell his daughter, “I have already given your dowry why do you want to claim a share in property?” And the woman, also, in most cases, relinquishes her property rights in favor of her brothers in the hope that if something goes wrong in her marital family, it is the brothers who would take care of her. But, this discussion applies only to those communities, which do possess land and where property can be passed on as inheritance. There is a huge section of Dalit households (the lowest strata of Indian society) where inheritance rights for women just don’t matter, as neither a man nor a woman gets any access to land ownership. And, in those cases we have to specifically talk about the responsibility of the state to grant land ownership to women. It is a huge pending task for Indian social and political activists, and farm unions need to pick it up, too.

Women farmers spend longer hours and more days compared to men on farming activities in India, but intractable barriers to their ownership of land persist in the rural society.

Has SKM begun addressing these issues? No! SKM was waging a life and death struggle with hundreds of thousands of people occupying the highways leading into the capital for the last twelve months. They just didn’t have the time or the mind space to take on multiple demands, simultaneously. It would only have diluted their focus, and the government would have accused them of changing their goal posts. So, that was not the right setting for expanding our agenda. But SKM is here to stay and it will steadily pick up on these crucial issues in the future.

PD:  Another very compelling and tragic narrative related to agriculture in the last couple of decades is that of debt driven suicides. I was wondering if SKM is thinking of proposing lending and bank reforms in the agricultural sector so that a farmer is not driven towards private moneylenders who demand exorbitantly high interest rates?

KK: SKM has not picked up on that issue, yet. It is merely an infant, only a year old, even though it has gained much success in its infancy. But in the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC, All India Farmers’ Resistance Coordination Committee), which is a joint platform comprising of several hundred farm unions, and was instrumental in the formation of SKM, the issue of debt driven suicides has been taken up with definite purpose. AIKSCC formulated the The Farmers’ Freedom From Indebtedness Bill, 2018, a draft legislation to establish a national legal framework to free the Indian farmer from the burden of debt. It was based on a legislation which the Kerala legislative assembly had passed in 2006, and which led to a dramatic reduction in debt driven suicides in Kerala.

The Kerala law stated that any indebted or bankrupt farmer or farm labor could put in an application to the state debt relief commission saying that they are bankrupt, and they are unable to repay their loan, which would prevent a creditor or lender from taking up legal proceedings against that person. They could not take any of those actions, which typically trigger suicides: the lenders could not auction or seize the property; they could not paste a notice outside the farmer’s home saying that this house belongs to a defaulter; they could not dishonor a farmer in front of his/her entire community. Even though suicide is a complex phenomenon, the loss of social honor often pushes farmers toward suicide.

The Farmers’ Freedom From Indebtedness Bill, 2018, was introduced as a private member’s bill in India’s Parliament. But private members bills are difficult to pass, and this bill was never taken up for consideration by the Lok Sabha (the people’s assembly). Soon it was time for the next elections in 2019 and the Lok Sabha was dissolved. The government has shown no interest in bringing this bill to the floor of the house for discussion. The bill had some important features – we introduced the concept of limited liability for farmers, which is taken for granted for the biggest capitalists all over the world who have limited liability regarding the risk faced by their enterprise, making their own personal properties and assets safe in case of the failure of the business. Limited liability does not apply in agriculture, which is one of the riskiest enterprises out there. In India, a banker would still demand payment for a loan irrespective of crop failure, natural disasters, even if there was a government notification declaring a season to be a drought. You are forced to repay your loan at the end of the season.

The provision of limited liability in the Farmers’ Freedom From Indebtedness Bill, 2018 could address many risk factors related to farmers’ indebtedness, and my colleague Kiran Vissa and I drafted it based on a very elaborate, widespread process of consultation across the country before it was made into a private member’s bill. It is a good piece of legislation, and we do need something like that for farmers all over the country.

It is time the Indian state granted “limited liability” in agricultural operations to the Indian farmer through legislation.

PD: Indeed, it definitely sound like a path-breaking legislation needed urgently in India. I wanted to come back to the specific near term goals of the movement – how is SKM planning to go ahead on the questions of Minimum Support Price (MSP), the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and the mandi (traditional trading posts) system, and how are you looking at engaging with the government on these issues? What have you been promised, and how do you look at your next steps?

KK: Well, the government has promised a somewhat vaguely conceptualized committee for dealing with the issue of MSP, and no details have been made available at this time about the constitution of the committee, the time tenure, terms of reference etc. There is also some confusion regarding the demand for MSP as legal entitlement, largely caused by the so-called experts, deliberately choosing to misinterpret farmers’ stance on it. Our group, ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture) is trying to clear up the confusion because we think that any MSP related legislation should be flexible enough to be responsive to the specific requirements of different regions, different commodities, different kinds of farmers etc. Right now, it seems, the government wants the proposed committee to have a somewhat dispersed agenda – MSP, crop diversification, natural farming and so on. While these issues are certainly linked to each other, I would have preferred the committee to have a clear focus on MSP. Eventually, a wise and well-informed committee would itself have expanded its scope to include issues related to agro-ecology. A diffused agenda, right in the beginning, makes one wonder about the purpose and the efficacy of the committee. As for the Mandi system, it requires a lot of changes, and the central government has to work in partnership with state governments to effect those changes. So we will have to wait and watch what happens in which state.

PD:How would you and your colleagues in SKM approach the issue of stocking limits on agricultural commodities that the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 was aiming to remove?

KK: The Essential Commodities Act, 1955 gave a whole set of regulatory tools in the hands of the government to ensure that supply chains, especially for the poorest citizens of the country are not restricted in any manner whether it is price supply affordability or actual physical availability of essential commodities. There is no point in talking only about the imposition of stock limits. With the 2020 amendments to the Act, the government merely pretended that imposing stocking limits was the only tool required to deal with the fluctuation in prices. In fact, there are a lot of different price triggers, and the parent act of 1955 had covered a broader area – movement, license, price control etc. Stock limits, frankly, is too narrow a focus.

Unseasonal rains and other climate related challenges are causing huge losses to the Indian farmer.

PD:Do you think there is a role for farmer-controlled Farmer Produce Organizations (FPOs), which provide technical services, marketing, processing and others aspects of cultivation inputs? In fact, is there a need for more farmers’ participation and control in agricultural administration in the country?

KK: The three laws that got repealed actually wanted FPOs to work as easy aggregators for big companies. They were not looking at them as an institutional framework to empower farmers. I hesitate to use a term that a colleague of mine once used, but ‘handmaidens of big corporations’ is how FPOs were visualized in these three laws. So on one hand the FPOs were seen as the first line of contact for big corporates who couldn’t deal with millions of marginal farmers in India on their own, but on the other hand these laws actually tried to interfere with the autonomy of FPOs. That intention of the government is exposed now, which is a good thing. But, we do need greater investments in FPOs with a better focus on improving social equity within farming communities, particularly on invisible farmers, the women in Indian agriculture. We have to build these institutions to make the processes more democratic, and we failed to do so in the earlier versions of cooperatives though they were visualized as very progressive institutions. In reality, we have neglected setting up democratic institutions in farmer collectives and cooperatives, and we need to invest in institution building as the primary focus when we talk about FPOs. Our objective should not be on market interfaces and greater incomes being raked in by farmers as collectives. It has got to be on true empowerment and larger autonomy for farmers’ collectives.

PD: Climate change is a growing challenge facing Indian agriculture, and is being increasingly felt by farmers in the form of frequent droughts, drop in the water table, unpredictability of monsoons etc. How is SKM approaching this issue, and what can the environmental movement in India do to explore opportunities for synergy and joint action with the farmers’ movement?

KK: In a sense, the environmental movement did get itself involved in the farm movement when youngsters like Disha Ravi and others actually raised their voice in support of the SKM led movement. Also, the younger colleagues in the environmental movement do understand that when farmers are driven to desperation, their farming practices do veer away from environmental standards. Consequently, they view the issues of straw burning and herbicide usage with understanding, and with the intention of solving the issue rather than as a condemnation. The farmers’ movement needs some empathy right now. The second thing is that people from across different movements have to strike individual conversations with leaders of other movements rather than try and engage with any movement as a whole when it is really caught up in a tough struggle. Now, that an intense agitation has just gotten over, this would be a good time in which leaders of the environmental movement should reach out to farm movement leaders on a one-on-one basis and understand how they are approaching environmental issues. This could initiate the process by which a joint action plan could emerge.

Exploring synergy requires engagement, and this is what I keep telling all my feminist friends who bemoan the fact that whether it is farm unions, progressive people’s organizations, trade unions, all appear to be steeped in patriarchy and male dominated ways of doing things. I feel that those who claim to be using a certain progressive lens of looking at the world, the onus is on them to go and convince others, engage with others to share their worldview. Change is not going to happen on its own in mainstream institutions because they are blind to other perspectives. There is a greater responsibility on the feminist movement, on the environmental movement, on the Dalit rights movement and others to change the outlook of farm unions.

The Indian environmental, feminist and Dalit right’s movements have to create increasing synergy with grass roots movements fighting for bread and butter issues, like the farmers.

PD: I do agree with your point about broad engagements between various movements, which brings me to the question about the lessons that other movements could learn from the success of the farmers’ yearlong agitation? How should the rest of the people’s movements for democracy, workers’ rights, against religious, ethnic and caste-based discrimination now mobilize themselves for success? Also, what is SKM’s future plan regarding larger political issues in the country given that these issues are critical to farmers also?

KK: SKM realizes that its strategy and action plan as part of the farmers’ movement has actually contributed to reviving democracy itself, especially at a time when an authoritarian regime is at the helm of things. There were occasions in the past 12 months where specific days were observed by SKM as ‘Save Democracy’ days. Some of the largest farmer unions from Punjab actually raised the issue of political prisoners as part of their protests. They talked about the Elgar Parishad; freedom of the press and media; they encouraged citizen journalism quite actively. The farmers’ movement also used social media to its advantage. So, these strategies became a part of the larger politics of the farmers’ movement. However, as part of the larger spectrum of political ideologies represented in the farmers’ agitation there were some right of center organizations, too, which makes incorporating many progressive issues a challenge. But this movement did give a clear indication to the country’s opposition as to where they should be looking for direction and purpose – to those who are fighting for bread and butter issues, like the farmers. It is certainly obvious that the farmers’ movement has provided immense inspiration, courage and impetus to other movements, and that, hopefully, would start more struggles based on similar principles of satyagraha and with similar values of patience. Farmers, just by their outlook on life, have thrust the ideas of patience and persistence into the movement world, and if other struggles for justice were to imbibe these values into their practice, they can generate more successful outcomes.

PD: Thanks again for your time, Kavitha! This has been a very meaningful conversation, and I’m sure it will contribute to the unfolding debate on the future of Indian agriculture.

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Kavitha Kuruganti is an Indian farmers’ rights activist.

Pallav Das is a founder member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.

This interview was transcribed by Meenal Tatpati of Kalpavriksh.

Some of the images used for this article have been taken from open online sources.

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