Why landless and marginal farmers are the backbone of farmer protests

The government says the new farm laws will give farmers more choice in where and to whom to sell their produce. The protesters fear the laws will push small and marginal farmers into penury.

WrittenBy:Anumeha Yadav
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Over the past week, protests against the Narendra Modi government’s three new farm laws have expanded. More and more rural residents of Punjab and Haryana have thronged Singhu village on Delhi’s border in tractor trolleys and minitrucks.

The three laws permit transactions of farm produce outside of existing agriculture market yards — in factories, warehouses, cold storage, and so on — without paying the existing market yard fees. They also remove stockholding limits on foodstuff except in emergencies, and promote contractual farming. On Sunday, prime minister Narendra Modi described the laws as “reforms which open doors to new possibilities”.

But those protesting near Delhi say opening new markets in farm produce will pauperise the most marginal among rural communities.

At Singhu, a range of farm and rural communities expressed their resistance to the new laws. These included landless farmers, those who supplement their small farm incomes with other subsistence jobs, and marginal farmers belonging to different socioeconomic groups.

Sajjan Singh, 68, travelled 430 km to Delhi from his home in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district. He said his small holding of 1.2 hectares is all he has.

A farmers' union demonstrator at Singhu border.
Commuters walk through concertina wire put by security forces on the Delhi-Haryana border to barricade the protests.
Rural residents of Punjab at Singhu say they will not return home until the government responds.

“I have a small landholding which is my livelihood,” he said. “Already nothing is left for expenses after our family’s subsistence costs, because farm yields are unpredictable. The government now claims it will continue price support but after one or two years, it may withdraw all of price support to rice and wheat.”

Sajjan’s fear is rooted in the fear that with the new laws, the government will phase out its current practice of procuring farm produce at the minimum support price in market yards or mandis. He said when government-assured procurement weakens, he won’t be able to transact directly with corporations.

“Direct contracts with corporates will not work for small farmers like me,” he said. “For a year or two, corporates may offer good rates. Then they will control the market and the prices.”

Gurmail Singh, a Mazahabi Sikh belonging to a Dalit caste, is a landless cultivator and farm worker in Rauke Kalan village, located in Nihal Singwala tehsil in Punjab’s Moga district. He survives by leasing land, something he may find harder to do once corporates establish bigger farms.

“I was able to educate my daughter who now works in a bank in Chandigarh,” he said. “My two sons are daily wage workers. I lease small holdings to grow vegetables and saplings for Rs 20,000 per acre a year, and sell them in the market. For some months, we earn daily wages of Rs 300-400 by harvesting other people’s crops. Big commercial agro-firms will acquire farms and they will not hire us.”

Gurmail Singh had travelled the 320 km from his village to Delhi in tractor trolleys along with several other small landholders and those who lease land.

“Already, state politicians and central parties who run illicit trade in collusion have put our youth on drugs,” Gurmail said. “If these laws are passed, our coming generations will have nothing.”

Labh Singh is, like Gurmail, a landless Mazahabi Sikh and a Dalit. He’s also the pradhan of the Dehaati Mazdoor Sabha in Kohali village in Ajnala, a town in Amritsar district.

He said farm labourers and small farmers from his village came to Delhi’s borders to attend the protest. They are currently protesting sitting in the trolleys parked on highways; the trolleys are layered with hay and clothing to protect them from the winter cold.

“Firstly, the Modi government has done wrong as it brought these laws in the middle of restrictions during a pandemic-induced lockdown,” Labh Singh said. “Secondly, we understand that after these legal changes enable large corporates to come in, when small farmers and cultivators try to buy farm inputs like seeds, it will be out of our reach. Big corporate houses will loot us. They will soon determine crop prices and harass the poorest among us.”

The demonstrators told this reporter that 50-100 people had gathered at the protest site from each of Punjab’s 13,000-odd villages, with teachers, transporters, and farm workers’ unions and associations backing the protests. Those who had stayed behind were tending to the cattle, wheat and potato crops of those now at Delhi’s borders.

Hardev Singh Bhatti, a poet and brick-worker from Butala village in Amritsar’s Baba Butala, is a landless rural worker. He earns Rs 650 for every 1,000 bricks he makes in kilns, which takes two to three days.

“The prime minister earlier did demonetisation. Then, in the middle of the pandemic, he brought these laws to enslave those who survive on subsistence wages,” Bhatti said. “The government wants resources to get accumulated with big corporates, not in workers’ homes.”

Rakesh Narwal, a Jat farmer from Kathura village in Sonipat, said he owns 1.2 hectares of farmland, and supplements his farm income by working in urban and factory jobs. “If we will not be able to grow crops, we will starve,” he said.”The factories pay nothing. Across castes of Jat, Khaati, Teli Dhobhi — all are here.”

Deepening agrarian crises

From 1951 to 2011, the percentage of India’s population dependent on agriculture to make a living reduced from over 70 percent to 48 percent. But at the same time, the number of families dependent on agriculture and the total number of holdings have increased. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of farmers reduced by 85 lakh, but the number of farm labourers increased by 3.75 crore, according to the State of Rural and Agrarian India Report 2020.

For the census, the government classifies land holdings into five groups: marginal (with holdings of less than one hectare), small (1-2 hectares), semi-medium (2-4 hectares), medium (4-10 hectares), and large holdings of over 10 hectares. As per the agriculture census of 2015-16, the majority of land holdings in India — 86 percent — are small and marginal. They are less than two hectares in size, and these households’ incomes are already below what they spend on consumption expenditure.

In Punjab, according to census data from 2015-16, 33.1 percent of land holdings are small and marginal, while 33.6 percent are semi-medium. In Haryana, 68.5 percent of holdings are small and medium.

In India in 2015-16, 92.3 percent of operational land holdings held by scheduled castes were in small and marginal categories. In Punjab, like elsewhere, the upper caste Sikh Jat dominate farm land ownership with only 3.5 percent of private farmland (land titles) being owned by Dalits or scheduled castes. The majority, 57.8 percent of operational (including leased) land holdings held by scheduled castes, were small and marginal.

Social activist Ramandeep Kaur addressing the protest at Singhu.
Young demonstrators express their anger at the 'distorted' coverage of the protests.
Police and paramilitary personnel barricading the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu.

According to the 2020 report, after the onset of the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, between 1970 and 2010, the area collectively under rice and wheat increased from 47.2 percent of the total cropped area to 80.3 percent in Punjab. Even small cultivators in Punjab and Haryana have switched from diverse crops, such as millets, to monocultures of paddy and wheat, marked by an increased reliance on chemical inputs, hybrid seeds, and an excessive extraction of groundwater.

Over the years, the soil and water conditions have worsened. Between 1970 and 2005, there was a 75 percent decline in the yield of grain per nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium fertilisers used. There’s also been a decline of 0.33 metres per annum in the water table in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. This impacts all categories of cultivators and has broadened the base of the agitation, argued Shreya Sinha, a postdoctoral researcher studying agrarian change, in the India Forum. The Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, a union working for access of Dalit cultivators to reserved common lands, has also joined the agitation, reported Hindustan Times.

Some farmers grow other crops, such as cotton and maize, in the kharif season, but with no public procurement of these crops at assured prices, they view paddy and wheat as the only crops where both markets and prices are assured. In 2019-20, the government procured 226.5 lakh tonnes of paddy and 201.1 lakh tonnes of wheat, according to the Indian Express, from Punjab and Haryana, worth close to Rs 80,293.2 crore.

Professor Sukhpal Singh, a principal economist in agriculture marketing at Punjab Agricultural University, said that irrespective of the size of landholdings, every cultivator has joined the protests.

“Whoever has any marketable surplus, large or small, is affected and protesting,” he said. “Farming is in deep crisis in this region. The small farmers are in severe crisis.”

He added: “The per acre debt is more on small peasants, and it is the small and marginal farmers who are dying by suicide. The small farmers and cultivators fear getting ‘de-peasantised’ or phased out as a social group, and they fear the loss of access to farmland.”

Sukhpal argued that the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, would lead to regulated markets such as mandis getting dismantled as was done in Bihar in 2006. “All this is being done to deny farming communities of assured prices,” he said.

Gurmukh Singh is a zonal committee member of the Zameen Prapti Sangharsh Committee, working for the access of Dalit cultivators to reserved common lands. He joined the demonstrators at Delhi's border at Tikri, and expressed concerns that the new laws would first impact the procurement of wheat and paddy, and then later possibly lead to the phasing out of the distribution of subsidised grains by the government through the public distribution system at ration shops.

“Besides this, the weakening of the mandi system will result in direct loss of livelihood for the palledaar workers, those who lift loads of paddy and wheat sacks at market yards and on to train racks,” he told Newslaundry. He added: “The removal of stockholding limits on essential foodstuffs will make it difficult for the poor to even afford essential food.”

Existing contract farming

Besides the law on transaction platforms, the government has argued that the Farmers Empowerment and Protection Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act will provide a framework for farmers to enter into direct contracts with those who wish to buy farm produce and improve their opportunities.

But previous experience drove protesters at Singhu to express scepticism over the working and fairness of direct contracts with corporates.

Amarjeet Singh, a member of the Dehaati Mazdoor Sabha, owns a 1.6-hectare holding in Ajnala in Amritsar. He worries that when the government phases out assured prices, corporate buyers will enter into contracts with farmers, buy produce, stock it in cold storage, and manipulate prices to the disadvantage of small farmers.

Mandeep Singh recently completed his postgraduate degree in social anthropology at Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati. He worked in the non-profit sector before quitting to work directly on farm and labour issues with the Kirti Kisan Union in Barnala district.

Mandeep said farmers were comparing the laws with their direct experience of selling to corporates.

These trolleys are our homes till the laws are withdrawn, said Amreek Singh, a farmer from Mohali.
Central trade union representatives from Delhi at Singhu to express solidarity with the protesting farmers.
Apart from the three farm laws, union functionaries said the electricity law changes would make irrigation unaffordable for farmers.

“When large multinational companies, such as Pepsico, contract with us to buy farm products, say, potatoes, at the time of harvest, they reject half the produce saying the quality is poor,” he said. “They say the size of the potato must be exactly 12 inches, or the moisture content must be exact to this specification, and so on, which we cannot give them. They then reject half the produce.”

He added: “We have experienced that such corporations come to us when there is excess production to buy at low rates. They then stock the produce in large warehouses or cold storage and when there are seasons with less output, where we are getting better prices, they refuse to buy and further drive prices down.”

Major Singh, an elderly farmer, owns a hectare of farmland in Bahadurpura in Sangrur district, and is a member of the Kirti Kisan Union. He said the middle- and upper-classes do not understand the concerns of farmers because of the corporatisation of education and the means of mass communication.

“In a democracy, the means of mass communication must be owned by the public,” he said. “People have a right to these, and not by corporations. Quality public education needs to be expanded.”

He continued: “I supplemented my small farm income with dairy work to bring up and educate my children. When my daughter got a first division in high school and wanted to study for a college degree in science, the college asked for Rs 1 lakh as fees, but we could not afford it. I earn barely Rs 1 lakh a year, despite all our family working. I could not fulfill my daughter’s wish to study further...Now, these laws will push us into the void.”

All photos and videos by Anumeha Yadav.


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