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July 03, 2024

Colonization and the Farm Bills in India

farmers protest in india

Farmers from the state of Punjab and Haryana marching towards Delhi in demand for MSP provisions. (February 2023, Photo credit: Reuters)

Colonialization and the Farm Bills in India

Written by: Keerti Narayanan

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, thousands of farmers from the states of Punjab and Haryana marched towards the capital city of India – Delhi – in hopes that the government would recall its proposed farms bills. The proposed farm bills aimed at integrating the previously regulated wholesale mandis (agricultural markets) with the larger unregulated markets that are characterized by intense corporate involvement. Unsurprisingly, the facet of this deregulation which seemed to ruffle the most feathers was the indirect dismantling of the ‘Minimum Support Price’ (MSP). MSP refers to the price the government pays farmers to acquire certain agricultural products when the market prices are lower than the average cost of production. For years, this price served as a standard price floor. The withdrawal of it would transform the market into a completely liberal one – forcing all farmers to compete with market prices.

Due to heavy public resistance, the government withdrew the proposed bill a year after it was set forth. Yet, the farmers’ protests did not cease. In 2024, prior to the national election, the country witnessed a recurrence of the farmers’ protests. This time around, the protests did not address a particular act or bill but sought to hold the prime minister and cabinet ministers accountable for the promise of MSP provisions for a wider range of crops.

What is interesting to observe is the demographics of the farmers who were protesting during the 2020 and 2024 protests. The protests drew out mainly affluent farmers from the states of Punjab and Haryana. This brings to light two important questions. First and foremost, why were the majority of farmers protesting coming from these two states? Secondly, why did poor farmers not constitute a major part of the protesting class? The answers to these two questions, are in fact, inter-related and date back to the colonial period.

The general perception among politicians and academics alike is that colonial rule over north-western India was generally less exploitative than that in the southern and eastern parts of the country. For instance, the Zamindari system (a feudal system of rent collection devised by the colonial empire in India) was not as stringently followed in the states of Punjab and Haryana. This is not to say that colonial rule did not inhibit development in this region. It did, however, not completely break down the region’s social capital – an aspect of society that is often ignored when analyzing the unique case of Punjab. Some scholars argue this is evident in the strong ties held between people from this region and their adherence to traditional beliefs, values, and traditions.

Within the agricultural scene, the social capital within the states of Punjab and Haryana are manifested in the form of close ties between the commission agent (arhtia) and client farmers. These commission agents belong to the mercantile class and have had long-standing relationships with farmers. They are responsible for procuring produce, selling them to the government, and advancing the returns from sale to the farmers. What is unique about the relationship between the commission agents and farmers in the case of Punjab and Haryana is that they are closely intertwined in the local government. Further, they also act as lenders of last resort to farmers at times of uncertainty. These loans often take on a more flexible repayment schedule – given the close ties within the community. Sturdy community associations in the region shield farmers from the exploitation of middlemen and loan sharks that is frequently observed in other parts of the country.

The relatively strong social ties between commission agents and farmers in Punjab and Haryana materialized themselves in the form of increased agricultural productivity during the Green Revolution. Between the years 1950 and 1984, the government of India was set on increasing the nation’s food production. Emphasis was placed on the use of High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds to increase productivity. Farmers were encouraged to grow paddy and wheat (the key staple crops of the country) so as to improve food security in the nation. Surprisingly, during the time, Punjab and Haryana showed to be the most successful in increasing crop yield. These two states witnessed tremendous growth in productivity. Farmers who had the initial land, capital to invest in HYV seeds, and social ties with the arhtia class were able to generate great affluence from wheat and paddy production while the remaining farmers were forced to grow non-perishable goods (such as potatoes and tomatoes) – mainly for self-consumption. Now, since the arhtias generally belonged to opulent classes, they had closer ties to other affluent classes i.e., landowners. Therefore, the services of arhtias were more easily accessible to landowners than peasant farmers – thereby, widening the already existing economic and social gap between the two groups that initially arose from the Zamindari system. This is especially concerning given that a large proportion of the population are landless laborers. Meanwhile, the small segment of affluent producers in the state are known to be the richest in the country.

After the Green Revolution, to shield poor farmers from the adversity associated with farming, the government set up the MSP mechanism. While this scheme is intended to act as a safety net for poor farmers, it has an inherent flaw. The MSP mechanism favors only those with large amounts of surplus while pushing the poor who produce for self-consumption to the sidelines. Not to mention, the government only sets a price floor (MSP) for some crops – most of which are non-perishable. What this does is commodify the market for non-perishable agricultural products such as wheat, paddy, and oilseed while the production and sale of perishable products continue to display characteristics of a subsistence economy.

Today, the Indian agricultural scene is characterized by the simultaneous existence of two groups. The first group consists of affluent farmers who own large areas of land and grow non-perishable goods for sale either to corporate agri-businesses or the government (through the MSP scheme). A disproportionate share of this group resides in the states of Punjab and Haryana. The second group is comprised of poor farmers who own little to no land. They cannot afford the necessities – such as water and fertilizers – to grow crops such as paddy. They are forced to grow perishable products – most of which are consumed by their own household. The remaining small amounts of surplus are often bought by middlemen at extremely low prices. While this withdraws the burden of storage from the farmers, it pushes them towards an endless cycle of subordination to middlemen – thereby, robbing them of their capability to escape poverty.

All this leads us to question whether the proposed farm bills and the withdrawal of MSP are actually just. Are the farmers’ protests simply a fight by the wealthy to retain the privileges that were meant to serve the less affluent farmers? Would government funds spent on the MSP scheme be more efficient elsewhere? While the answers to these questions might not be as clear cut as academics would hope, a relevant approach to ensure overall development in a socio-culturally complex post-colonial state like India is to revisit and, in some cases, rebuild the social infrastructure that existed prior to colonialisation, before imposing market-commodification and liberal policies.

Author Bio

Keerti Narayanan is a Masters student of International Development at the University of Warwick. She is primarily interested in researching the impact of global financial trends on ground-level relationships within the Indian subcontinent. Her current research focuses on the role of the International Finance Corporation in providing affordable housing to individuals in the developing world.

September 14, 2021

‘Brand Modi’ and India's Policy Concerns

Modi image

Photo by; licensed under CC BY 4.0

As India was struggling with its devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, help poured in from expected and unexpected corners of the world. For the first time in 16 years, India began accepting assistance not only from its friendly strategic partners like the US and Russia but also from its fiercest economic and geopolitical competitor, China. However, India has been reluctant to acknowledge the help provided as “aid”. Instead, India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, has referred to it as “friendship and support” and as a favour returned for the earlier COVID-19 assistance India provided the world. Even as its socio-economic, public health, democratic freedom and other indicators continue to plummet, India wants to be seen as an equal partner, not in need of aid but rather only “support”. As India resumed trade talks with the UK, EU and others, it continued its wordplay by emphasising the ideal of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (“the world is one family”) as Modi’s catchphrase Atmanirbhar Bharat ("self-sufficient India") conveniently took a backseat. Such moves reveal India’s excessive preoccupation with maintaining its image both domestically and internationally. What is troubling though is that this posture within India’s ruling elite has also led to the mismanagement of covid crises. The state risked the lives of many by allowing mass religious and political gatherings, irrational vaccination policies, undercounting and underreporting of covid cases and the like. This post delves into why the Modi government is engaging in semantic manipulations to protect its image and how such manipulations harm India.

One possible reason for the BJP bending over backwards with its wordplay is to defend its “Vaccine Maitri” initiative. The initiative, which provided vaccines to countries of the global south, met with immense criticism as India faced vaccine shortages amid its devastating second wave. Two months after the initiative was launched, the government proudly proclaimed in the parliament that more shots were sent out of the country than were administered to its citizens. Thus, as the government was being condemned, framing the aid as a favour returned was essential for party interests, especially as state election campaigns were underway. The government needed to vindicate itself by arguing that the aid it provided was a beneficial foreign policy investment for India.

However, such a defence of vaccine maitri needs to be viewed from the broader BJP agenda of protecting “Brand Modi”. Since the 2014 national elections in India, Hindutva realism has become a mainstay of the BJP’s playbook. The BJP emphasises a strong centralised leadership and a doctrine of self-help or self-reliance. Modi has become the face of BJP’s Hindutva realism. The 2016 demonetisation of Indian currency, the surgical strikes across the Line of Control, abrogation of special status to India’s only Muslim majority state, imposition of a nationwide lockdown with only a few hours’ notice, and Atmanirbhar Bharat are only some projects the government undertook to portray Modi as a fearless leader working for India’s integrity and sovereignty. Even the recent cabinet reshuffle, which saw some of BJP’s top-leadership lose portfolios, was not shown as the government’s acceptance of its failures but rather portrayed Modi as a dynamic Prime Minister, who could punish his own ministers for poor performances. Despite running a heavily centralised administration, where every major policy decision requires his approval, Modi is seen shifting the blame onto his aides.

The BJP government was also pressured into paronomasia due to its obsession with building its brand. As Modi began to depict himself and India as a strong and rising power, Indians in India and abroad began to feel emboldened and prematurely succumbed to the vision of India as a vishwaguru (“ a teacher to the world”). Thus, as India, in a matter of days, was reduced to an aid recipient from its cultivated image of an aid donor, Indians and the Indian diaspora were embarrassed. They were ashamed and resented that the country was brought to its knees. Therefore, in a move to prevent its supporters from feeling disaffected, the BJP began terming the aid received as “friendship”.

The cost of BJP’s rhetoric has been high for India. Firstly, by denying and downplaying the crisis, the Indian political elite had allowed itself to be blindsided in its handling of the crisis. In January this year, instead of preparing for the second wave by ramping up testing and vaccine production, Modi was busy claiming to the world during the 2021 WEF summit that he had crushed the COVID pandemic. As the state can’t fix what it doesn’t recognise as a crisis, India underwent critical failures in governance and administration. Modi proclaiming his victory over the pandemic in both the international and domestic arena also made matters worse as it infused irrational confidence among Indians. Ordinary citizens and political leaders alike, taking Modi’s claims for granted, threw caution to the wind and began attending gatherings in hoards. Millions worshipped their gods at the Kumbh Mela, and their leaders in political rallies with no social distancing or masks putting lives at risk.

Modi’s BJP did not only fail to prevent a crisis, but it failed to mitigate one when it inevitably arrived. The government’s ministries surrendered national interest, democratic freedoms and civil liberties to protect the regime’s interest. As the living begged for oxygen and the dead for a space to lay their bodies, the Government showed little concern for its citizens. It hid its cases and resorted to draconian laws to suppress criticism. The External Affairs Minister also called on his diplomats to counter the apparently “one-sided” criticism of the government by international media. To make matters worse, BJP indulged in medical humbuggery. Vijay Chauthaiwale, the head of the national party's foreign affairs department, encouraged the consumption of bovine urine and turmeric as possible cures. Furthermore, reacting to the criticism over the Kumbh Mela, the Uttarakhand chief minister declared on March 20, “nobody will be stopped in the name of COVID-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus.” National and Global networks need credible data to assess damages and determine disease dynamics and such actions by the government only make policymaking weaker and more difficult. As The Washington Post's aphorism goes, “democracy dies in darkness”.

In the realm of foreign policy, India’s failures have only played to China’s advantage. Not only have China’s doors to South Asia been left unguarded, but Modi’s obsession with image building and photo-ops has made him a liability in dealing with China. Modi had become tone-deaf to Chinese aggression as Xi Jinping met him at least 18 times since 2014 to give him the photo-ops he wanted. This only led to BJP making extremely bold statements such as their intention to take back Aksai Chin from China rather than be vigilant of Chinese transgressions at Eastern Ladakh last year. Instead of taking action, the government was busy denying Chinese occupation. This only let China take control of the public narrative. Though Modi appears to be taking a hard stance on China now, the damage has already been done.

Expectedly, Modi’s excessive preoccupation with protecting his image first and the party’s image second has only decreased India’s standing in the world. As India silences criticism and dissent, with an ever-tightening iron fist, and turns a blind eye to tragedy amidst a “once in a century crisis”, the international and domestic community has now begun to doubt India’s long-standing credentials as a liberal democracy. Modi needs to stop worrying about his image and start working on reality. The BJP is agitated, and perhaps understandably so. However, to save face by sticking its head in the ground is only going to exacerbate the situation.

Author Bio

Manjeeth S P is a Masters student in Political Science and International Relations at Indira Gandhi National Open University in India. His areas of interest are Indian foreign policy, political philosophy, political economies of marginalised communities, climate policy and education. He is currently preparing for the Civil Services Examination in India.

July 27, 2021

Labour in the time of Covid–19: the intersecting struggles of India’s return migrants

Labour in time of Covid

Photo Credit: Sunil Kumar Aledia

Written by Avinash Kumar

Due to the global crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, almost every country in the world placed restrictions on economic activities and curbed the movement of people through the imposition of lockdowns. Migrant workers in the informal economy have faced immense challenges during this period of economic uncertainty and restricted mobility. What impact do job losses in the city have on their household incomes? What struggles do migrants face if they decide to return home? How do their households cope under these circumstances? This piece attempts to explore some of these questions drawing on interviews with return migrants across different states of India.

Perilous journeys to uncertain futures: migrant narratives

In India, a tragic situation arose during the first lockdown announced in March 2020. For internal migrant workers, many of whom are employed in the informal economy with no social security, lockdown implied immediate loss of jobs and shelter. Without access to proper transportation and resources, these workers were left with no choice but to return home on foot. The physical strain of these long journeys caused a huge loss of life among migrants and their families, including pregnant women, infants, and elderly people.

Recently, I conducted telephone interviews with ten returnee migrants based in different states in India with the aim of understanding how migrants manage their livelihoods after coming home from cities.[i] Many of the research participants discussed their treacherous journeys from cities to their homes. A resident of Uttar Pradesh described how he still feels the physical consequences of the journey. He said:

“Even after one year passed, I am still not well and there is a swelling in my leg because of the long journey on foot. I didn’t get food properly for 22 days while I was traveling. How do I work and feed my child and other members of my family? (March 28, 2021).

Others I spoke to mentioned that they have resumed agricultural work but are unable to make ends meet with such jobs. One said:

“The situation is getting worse because of unavailability of work. Sometimes I work as an agricultural laborer on someone else’s land and in return get Rs.60 a day which is not enough for survival with three children along with mother and wife” (May 17, 2021).

Many migrants informally employed in cities belong to Schedule Castes (SC), Schedule Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC)—groups with the least landed assets in the country. None of the return migrants I interviewed owned more than one acre of land, which is insufficient to produce the amount of grain needed to feed the family. A migrant, from Bihar said:

“I don’t have agricultural land so I work as a construction worker but work is not regularly available. It’s very difficult to manage the everyday household expenditure by working alone. Therefore, my wife also works on someone else’s land and in return gets some amount of grains” (March 15, 2021).

These narratives corroborate the fact that India faces a deep crisis in rural employment. Evidently, this crisis worsened during the pandemic in 2020. According to monthly Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data, the rural unemployment rate in India shot up 7.69 percent in June 2019 to 21.11 percent in May 2020. This explains why most people I spoke to confirmed that they do not have any choice but to return to work in the cities.

Gendered impacts of reverse migration

The impact of reverse migration has notably affected the women of the household, their burden of housework and domestic violence has increased. The women I spoke with didn’t disclose their experiences of domestic violence[ii], but many spoke of an increased burden of housework. A woman resident of West Bengal explained,

I am the only person who does all the household and agricultural work. I also have to take care of animals in the house. We have three children and mother in law to be taken care of” (May 17, 2021).

Another woman from Bihar working as a primary teacher in a government school explained that even though she is currently the sole-breadwinner in her family, providing unpaid reproductive labour is still expected of her.

“I am a school teacher but along with it, I also have to do all the household work. I have one child to be taken care of. My husband was working outside but he quit his job because of the covid crisis, no I am only earning member in my family. We cut our expenditure on food, traveling and clothes to manage the day-to-day household expenditure” (April 3, 2021).

Some women reflected upon the patriarchal norms that ensure that the burdens of day-to-day household work are not divided equally between women and men. A woman resident of Jharkhand argued:

What does a man have to do? He only has to earn money. We have to do all the housework and look after the needs of the house. We also have taken care of our children” (May 18, 2021).

Concluding thoughts

The difficulties faced by migrants and their households during the Covid-19 pandemic provide an opportunity for policymakers to refocus their attention towards the wellbeing of migrants. For socially disadvantaged communities, staying at home renders them more vulnerable due to the unavailability of employment and being landless. Most SCs, STS and OBCs suffer due to their economic and social conditions despite various affirmative action programs. The government needs to prioritise the provision of special protection to them through caste-based social security support within existing labour laws in India. Similarly, women in the household are also victims of patriarchal discrimination; they are considered as free labourers at home and paid less in the workplace. Special emphasis on social, economic, and legal protection for women through various social security measures are needed to curb domestic violence and economic dependency on male members of the family.

Author Bio

Avinash Kumar completed his master’s degree in Development Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi in July 2020. His master’s dissertation titled “Migration, informality, and conditions of existence: A focus on Delhi”, examines the participation of socially disadvantaged groups (SCs, STs and OBCs) in informal migrant work and to examine their housing and living conditions. Currently, he is applying for PhD programmes.

[i] This research was conducted as part of a pilot study for a planned research project involving WICID researchers and collaborators. I worked under the supervision of Saba Joshi. All research participants gave their consent for interviews to be digitally recorded and to be quoted in research outputs developed from the pilot study.

[ii] Being a male interviewer, I found that women respondents were hesitant to openly talk to me about issues such as domestic violence. Conducting interviews over the phone also hindered discussions on these topics because I could sense on many occasions that women’s’ husbands were also present when they spoke to me, making it harder for them to speak openly about conflicts within the family and gender-based violence.


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