Home > In Focus > Food Freedom and the Indian Farmers Struggle

By Dr Vandana Shiva

India is today the oldest living agrarian civilization.  Indian farmers constitute some 20-25% of all peasant farmers in the world. Every freedom struggle of India has been peasant led, from the 1857 uprising against the East India Company, the Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 led by Gandhi against forced cultivation of Indigo, the uprising of Indian peasants and violence in Punjab in 1984, to today’s year-long protest by Indian Farmers against three farm acts passed in September 2020.

Corporate Globalisation – today’s Recolonization

In the mid 1960’s the World Bank and US government imposed the high-cost chemical based Green Revolution, based on industrial chemical inputs.  By the 1990’s India had a 90 billion debt, as a result of the structural adjustment package imposed on India by the World Bank in 1991, with one third of the debt related to loans for the Green Revolution infrastructure.  The Dunkel Draft Text of the ongoing GATT negotiations led to the creation of  the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 which brought into force the present rules of Corporate Free Trade which small farmers of India have been protesting against for more than three decades.

The 1991 Structural Adjustment included conditionalities to dismantle the Essential Commodities Act to prevent hoarding of food grain and speculation. India had lived through the Great Bengal Famine of 1492 which killed 2 million people, not for lack of rice, but for the greed of the empire. I call the Essential Commodities Act the Prevention of Famine Act, by putting restrictions on corporate greed.

Structural Adjustment and Corporate Free Trade are systems of Disregulation – they use the coercive power of International Financial Institutions and big corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, Pepsi to dismantle the regulations sovereign countries have put in place to uphold their Food Sovereignty. The destruction of democratic, public regulations translates into corporate rule. Corporate Globalisation is Recolonisation and the return of “company Raj”.

The year-long protest of Indian Farmers led to our Parliament and farmers movements preventing the implementation of the corporate agenda being imposed by the World Bank and WTO.  It reminded the world that agriculture is not an industry or commerce, it is care for Mother Earth, growing food for society, the highest and most essential form of livelihood, with freedom and dignity.  Food is not a commodity produced for the profit of corporations, but the very basis of life.

India has had a diversity of markets, from local village Haats to the regional “mandis” which have been regulated by the APMC Act (Agriculture Produce Market Committee) through the Essential Commodities Act (ECA). Besides giving farmers access to local markets and guaranteeing a fair price, the act puts limits on hoarding and speculation. I call the APMC Act an Act guaranteeing fair trade.

The World Bank conditionalities wanted this Act dismantled so as to create corporate monopolies. It also wanted to end the regulation of land holding through land laws that protect the rights of small farmers in order to create a regime of corporate concentration over the land.

The World Bank conditionalities and WTO rules have undermined India’s civilisation ethic of “Annadata Sukhi Bhava” where contented farmers are one and the same as contented consumers.  Neoliberal reforms focusing on corporate profits alone have not just led to a deep existential crisis for the farmers by threatening their lives and livelihoods, a crisis of the food and farming system has also created a hunger emergency with every fourth Indian driven to hunger, and every second child suffering from severe malnutrition. The dismantling of the Essential Commodities Act allows traders to hoard food grain and speculate on food prices. Hoarding allows corporate monopolies to emerge. Farmers are exploited through low prices of purchase of farmers produce. Citizens are exploited by rising food prices.

Farmers’ protests enforce Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy combined with people’s democratic movements prevented the implementation of the World Bank Corporate Agenda.

In September 2020, During Covid and the Lockdown, 3 laws were introduced, implementing the World Bank Agenda:

  1. The Essential Commodity Act for regulating stockpiling of food and preventing speculation was amended to exclude food through Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 consonance with the lobbying pressures of Global Powers which had began in 1991.
  2. The state laws for regulating markets and traders were done away with through Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020
  3. A Contract Farming law titled The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 opens the door for global agribusiness giants, e-commerce corporation and food processing corporations to lock farmers into new corporate slavery to agribusiness Transnational Corporations (TNCs) such as Bayer and Monsanto, Cargill and PepsiCo, Amazon and Walmart and the partnerships they forge with Indian Corporations to capture the Indian market with ease.   They are emerging as the new Zamindars controlling not just our food and land use, but also water use and seeds. They trap farmers in buying costly inputs, growing monocultures of commodities as raw materials which they buy cheaply.

For a whole year, thousands of farmers gathered at the Delhi borders and started a protest to demand a repeal of the 3 laws which spell a death knell of India’s small farmers and are a threat to India’s good sovereignty.

More than 600 farmers became martyrs during the year-long farm struggle, which I define as the Third Movement of India’s Freedom and which shows a path to Food Freedom for all of humanity. The courage, the organisation, creativity of nonviolent resistance, the solidarity and unity, and the tirelessness of the farmers’ struggle has lessons for every movement in every country. This is a movement not just for farmers’ freedom. It is a movement in defense of human freedom.

The strength of the farmers movement forced the Government on 19 November 2021 to announce a repeal of the 3 laws.

On 20th of November 2021, I was invited to give a keynote at a national convention on “Farmers’ Struggle and Earth Democracy” organised by the Punjab Women Collective, comprising 11 organisations to pay a tribute to women martyrs in farmers’ struggle. Others present included Medha Patkar, along with writer-activist Dr Navsharan Kaur, were the key speakers of the event, while Devi Kumari, Jasbir Kaur Nat and Paramjit Longowal, and Bhagat Singh’s niece Gurjeet Kaur.

The Convention, which had been organized for the day after Prime Minister Modi announced that he would repeal the 3 laws, became a celebration.  The Convention was also a preparation to build movements for Food Freedom in the future. The next phase of the globalisation of agriculture is based on a continuation of chemical inputs from the Poison Cartel combined with the digital technologies of Big Tech and financialisation and monetisation of nature by Big Finance.

The Prime Minister chose the auspicious day of Guru Purab, the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion to make his announcement on the repeal of the 3 laws. Guru Nanak saw humanity as part of Nature, and the protection of nature as the highest duty of humans. The Sikh Langar has provided food for centuries, and in every emergency today – from the Syrian war to Covid.

As I said at the convention on farmers struggle:

 “The Green revolution ‘chemicalised’ Punjab. The state must do agriculture as Guru Nanak would have liked. Organic is not a luxury, it’s our duty. Half of India cannot pay for its food. So half of India should be supported by public distribution system (PDS). This  should be the national langar. The attack on the PDS by the World Bank was intense. Globalisation of agriculture and agricultural revolution don’t go together.”

The farmers movement of India has shown how the people united will never be defeated. Muslims and Hindus have sat together in the protests to defend  India’s food freedom and food sovereignty. Women and men have fought side by side. The landless workers and landowners came together in a new unity as farmers, the growers of food, the caretakers of Mother Earth, Dharti Ma, whom Nanak called the Great Mother of All. Singers and artists came together with farmers who grow our food. “No farmers, No food” was the slogan that the movement gave rise to, an important slogan to resist fake food which is being pushed as real food.

The farmers’ struggle will continue until all their demands are met, including a law to guarantee a Fair Price to farmers, the Minimum Support Price which is the equivalent in terms of justice to Minimum Wages for workers.

Building on centuries of struggle for freedom, united across divisions created by corporations and governments as part of the divide and rule strategy, Indian farmers have shown how we can continue to defend our freedom in times of Corporate Dictatorship and Billionaire Empires.

Thumbnail Image: Farmers’ Protest at Tikri Border, by Randeep Maddoke is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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