Bandh Against the ‘Black Laws’
Farming supports half of India’s 1.3 billion population, many farms being small and marginal. But farmers are losing their economic influence which once accounted for a third of India’s gross domestic product but now only 15 percent of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy. Farmers frequently complain about being ignored and neglected and have repeatedly staged large demonstrations in past years, accusing the authorities of failing to support their livelihood and demanding state help. However, none of those have matched the numbers and variety of organisations involved in the present protests. On 26 November India’s farmers plus many other workers took part in a general strike (bandh). If the strikers were a country, they would have been the fifth largest in the world after China, India, the United States and Indonesia. 250 million people across India participated, making it the largest strike in world history. Ten trade union federations offered their ‘wholehearted support to the ongoing united struggles of the farmers in demanding the scrapping of draconian agri-laws…[and] welcome[d] the firm resolve and determination of the united platform of farmer organisations to intensify the struggles countrywide…’
At the time of writing, the resistance of many Indian farmers to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government and its new agricultural laws remains on-going. Indian farmers continue to protest in and around New Delhi, blockading the main highways. Farmers reject the laws, which were passed in September, as in their view these would cause the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices and permit private corporations to buy their crops at low prices. This dominance of big business interests and removal of safeguards would lead to increasing difficulties for small farmers and family farms. More than 86 percent of India’s farmland is controlled by smallholder farmers who own less than two hectares (five acres) of land each.
The new laws are seen as contributing to higher costs, more debts for farmers and facilitating the corporations to manipulate policies in such a way as to benefit from the government’s farming budget and schemes. Small farmers fear that they will not possess enough bargaining strength, when they negotiate to sell their produce to larger companies, to achieve the prices which meet their need for a decent standard of living.
Darshan Pal of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) and Punjab president of Krantikari Kisan Union, said ‘They [the government] have actually opened the markets, opened the land and opened the commodities of the farmers for the big corporate houses. They will form the mandis (agricultural markets), they will get the contract farming done and control the agribusiness. Our basic demand is to scrap all these anti-farm laws and assure the Minimum Support Price (MSP) [the price at which the government buys farm produce] as recommended for all the crops and assured marketing guarantee for all the crops.’
Sukhdev Singh, Punjab’s general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta, accused the government of passing the laws ‘to benefit the big corporates… The government didn’t find it worthy or important taking us onboard before bringing these black laws.’
The farmers are not Luddites and acknowledge that the agriculture sector needs reforms but they say the laws passed by the government leave them at the mercy of the private sector as they relax the rules around sale, pricing, storage – rules which have helped protect Indian farmers from the fluctuations of the free-market for decades. This is why the farmers want guaranteed assurance.
The history of the pillaging and plundering of the Raj and the British East India Company has not been totally forgotten although today the target is the government’s corporate-friendly authoritarianism. Already Prime Minister Modi has privatised many nationalised industries. India’s inequality is deeper than just its agrarian problems. The top 10 percent of the Indian population today holds 77 percent of the total national wealth with 73 percent of all wealth generated in 2017 going to the richest 1 percent. India’s wealthiest person, Mukesh Ambani, saw his fortune surge $18.3bn to $76.9bn in 2020.
This mass struggle perhaps commenced as a sectional farmers strike but it has transformed into a class battle which demonstrates the power of solidarity and proclaims our slogan, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’ Contrary to the claims of our leftist critics, the World Socialist Movement accepts general strikes as a useful weapon, but best used sparingly to acquire particular and specific gains from the government or employers. The WSM cautions that the strategy of general strikes is no short-cut towards socialism. Today’s strikes and protests are the sparks of resistance. That said, there is nothing special about being anti-capitalist. In fact, confronting capitalism is the everyday story of working people. What is more vital is understanding our goals and the means of accomplishing them.