By Garry Sran
Over the last month, there have been two record breaking acts of resistance in India against capitalism. Over 250 million kisaans (farmers) and workers have gone on strike in India against the attack on workers’ rights and farmers’ protections by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The November 26 and December 8 “Bharat Bandh” were national strikes coordinated by India’s trade unions in solidarity with kisaans. Sikhs, farmers, workers, women and many historically oppressed communities including Muslims and Dalits have joined in solidarity and are on the frontlines to this day risking their lives.
The economic situation for kissans and workers in India has dramatically worsened under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime. Since Modi was elected in 2014, the BJP has pushed through numerous pro-market reforms. As the wave of right-wing populism gripped the world, Modi’s BJP won a majority government in Indian’s general election in May 2019. Immediately after this victory, the BJP introduced a historical and massive reduction in the corporate tax rate, changes to personal taxes, a regressive tax on goods and services that favours export orientated corporations, regressive labour reforms, regressive agricultural policy, and worsening environmental regulations.
These recent protests are a response to the years of Modi and BJP rule and their favour of the capitalist class over the working class. India’s economy for kisaans and workers has been in decline over the last several years. While Modi and the BJP made changes to how economic indicators such as how real GDP and unemployment are calculated, the data cannot hide the reality of the working class – falling incomes, declines in jobs, little to no social supports, detoritiating labour rights, worsening on environmental conditions, and a general fear of life for India’s most vulnerable populations and oppressed groups.
Real GDP is not a great measurement for the overall well-being of an economy, it is the most widely used measurement. While the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted all countries, India’s economy was already in years of economic decline. Since Modi’s election in 2014, the real GDP growth rate has flatlined and since 2016 real GDP has been in decline. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, India fell into recession and is now facing record declines in real GDP of 23.9% and an unprecedented increase in unemployment rate of 27%.
However, the attacks on kissans and workers go back decades since India’s independence from British colonial rule and the violent partition of India in 1947. With neoliberalism reforms in the early 1990’s and the recent aggressive pro-capitalist reforms of Modi and the BJP, Kisaans and workers have had enough and are rising up and risking their lives against capitalism.
Brief history of Sikhs and Kisaans fight against capitalism in Punjab
Sikhs in Punjab have organized three mass protests in the last five years starting with the “Sarbat Khalsa”, “Bargari Insaaf Morcha” and now “Delhi Chalho”. All three protests are linked, as they are rooted in economic injustice, and Sikhs have been in the forefront fighting for social and economic justice. The current protests are reminiscent of Sikh movement during the “Green Revolution” in Punjab in the 1970’s. The Ford Foundation along with the Indian government enacted violent policies against Sikhs and farmers. The “Green Revolution” included a number of economic policies which allowed for the capitalist exploitation of SIkhs and farmers. It forced farmers to abandon traditional sustainable farming practices in favour of a capitalist driven profit model for agriculture.
Under the leadership of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Sikhs and farmers were organized en masse to protest against the “Green Revolution”. The devastating impacts of the “Green Revolution” forced many families into debt, drugs and alcohol addiction, and into suicides while companies like Monsanto were profiting heavily from their genetically modified seed sales. Due to the economic injustices being experienced by farmers and workers in Punjab, many Sikh leaders were united in the endorsement of the Anandpur Resolution of 1973.
The Anandpur Resolution included many important statements that were based on the principles of Sikhi and the equality of all regardless of religion, caste, or gender. The inspiration of the economic policies in the Anandpur resolution were based on the secular, democratic and socialistic concepts of Sikh founder Guru Nanak Dev Ji and of Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The economic programme was based on three principles: the dignity of labor, an economic and social structure which provides for the uplift of the poor and depressed sections of society, and an unabated opposition to the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the capitalists.
In 1982, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderwale launched the “Dharam Yudh Morcha” (“righteous campaign”), with its goal of fulfilling demands based on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution and to create an autonomous state within India. This would have ended the profit seeking behaviour of corporations in Punjab and would have stopped the exploitation of kisaans and workers. However, what ensued in June 1984 was the Sikh Genocide which continues to impact Sikhs today from both a sociological and economic perspective.
Brief Summary of the Three Farms Bills Passed in India in 2020
With the violent oppression of Sikhs since the partition of India, capitalists have continued to exploit farmers and workers. The capitalist mode of production enacted during the “Green Revolution” in India has been destroying families and farms to this day. The “Green Revolution” increased farm yields dramatically and led to an increase in India’s economic growth, but that economic growth was not shared equally. While large corporations profited immensely, many kisaans were left indebted, pushed to alcohol and drug addiction, and were committing suicides at rates unheard of before in India. These problems continue to this day and these new capitalist farm laws will only make it worse for kisaans.
Punjab is considered the breadbasket of India and like the rest of India, farming is entrenched in every aspect of people’s lives from culture to religion. Agriculture directly contributes to 25% of Punjab’s economy and indirectly the percentage is even greater. Agriculture in all of India makes up 18% of its economy and employees roughly 58% of the workforce. Agriculture is valued at roughly CAD $353 billion for India’s economy and of that, CAD $76 billion is exported worldwide with the majority of the exports going to North America. It is this reason why capitalists have been supporting the Modi and BJP government to not back down from reversing these laws.
Roughly 85% of all farms in Punjab are considered small farmers or farms being less than five acres of land. The “Delhi Chalo” protests started in Punjab and have now spread all over India. Sikhs and kisaans through organizing and mass mobilization are demanding the roll back of three farm laws that were pushed through by the BJP this year.
The first of these laws is “The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill (2020)”. The law’s title is an insult as it provides no empowerment or protection for farmers. This defines the legal agreement between a farmer and a buyer and has specific clauses that favour the capitalist class. This law includes specific definitions for electronic trading and transaction platforms which was strictly written in favour of the tech industry. The bill also states the dispute resolution mechanism that is skewed in favour of large corporations with deep pockets as the majority of kisaans do not have the resources to fight large corporations over disputes.
The second bill titled “The Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020” effectively will cripple the government “mandi” or Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) system. These mandis were easily accessible to farmers in Punjab that would pay the minimum support price (MSP) for their products. This also allowed states like Punjab to raise state revenue and reinvest these funds back into communities. The change to this bill states that farmers will now be able to sell their produce outside the mandi system. As the mandi system is dismantled, the ones who benefit would be large landowners and corporate farms while small farmers will not have the resources to get their products to market. Effectively, they will face higher costs to produce their product while gaining lower prices when selling their product. Since 85% of farmers in Punjab have small farms, this will devastate both their livelihoods but also the identity of Punjab and Sikhs.
The third bill titled “The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020” basically removes the minimum support prices for farmers goods. The indian government is basically handing over the pricing of products to large multinational corporations. This bill will also allow companies and traders to store as much quantity of food as they want. This practice is known as hoarding and large multinational corporations will use hoarding to manipulate agricultural prices. This will eventually lead to the cartelisation of agricultural pricing as a few companies will dictate the price of agricultural products. This law, coupled with the other two farm laws, the bargaining power of workers will be destroyed, farm incomes will plummet, debt will sky rocket, and communities will be devastated.
Connections to Canada and Global Capital
The farm laws that were written and passed in India were not drafted in isolation. They are carefully crafted pieces of legislation that other countries have introduced and passed over the last several decades. There are numerous examples worldwide where capitalists have dismantled the rights and livelihoods of farmers and workers. For example in Canada in 2012, then Prime Minister of Canada and the conservative party dismantled the Canadian Wheat Board with Bill C-18 Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act. Large multinational corporations back then convinced Stephen Harper to push through anti-farmer laws including dismantling the single desk marketing system.
According to the National Farmers Union in Canada, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) was one of the most important institutions working for economic justice for farmers. In a 2015 study by University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Rich Gray, reported that Canadian farmers had lost more than $7 billion in reduced sales and pricing of grain commodities due to the loss of the Wheat Board. In a 2019 Statistics Canada report on farm incomes, it stated that across the Canada farmers’ net income has dropped by 45 per cent. The National Farmers Union states that its large landowners and multinational grain companies are capturing the premium value for agriculture products. The CWB was dissolved in 2015 but private corporations took its place G3 Canada Limited and the Global Grain Group, a joint venture of Bunge Limited and the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company. The National Farmers Union stated that ending the Canadian Wheat Board was an economic tragedy.
Turning back to India, we can point to similar capitalist forces behind these regressive farm laws. Through the WTO, representatives of Canada, USA, and EU were pressing India on its agricultural industry and its agricultural trading practices. They were also seeking more liberalization of India’s agricultural industry including having access to more data on India’s trade of agricultural goods. In addition, Facebook and Google have invested over CAD $13 billion into an Indian based tech company called Jio Platforms. Jio Platforms is majority owned by Reliance Jio, who’s CEO Mukesh Ambani has backed Modi in the recent Indian election. Google, Facebook, and Reliance Jio together released JioKrishi, an app that connects farmers to buyers. One of the provisions of the farm bill directly referenced an “electronic trading platform” which is exactly one of the operations of JioKrishi. The access to information that JioKrishi will get through data will further lead to the exploitation of kisaans and workers.
What are Kisaans’ demands?
Kisaan demands are straightforward. They are demanding a special Parliament session to repeal the three new farm laws. They are also pressing for the withdrawal of a proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020 which would increase the cost of electricity for farmers.
In addition, the kissans are rising up in solidarity with the workers’ strikes and their demands on the Indian government. The joint trade union platform includes central trade unions of India such as the INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF and UTUC. The joint trade union charter of demands includes:
- Direct cash transfer of Rs 7,500 ($129 CAD) to all families who earn less than the income tax threshold
- 10kg free ration per person every month to all in need.
- Expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to provide employment from the current 100 days to 200 days work in rural areas with enhanced wages, and extension of this programme to urban areas
- Withdrawal of all anti worker labour code changes and anti-farmer laws
- Stop privatization of public sector corporations, including those in the finance sector. Stop the corporatization of government-run manufacturing and services entities in railways, ordinance manufacturing, ports and similar areas.
- Withdraw the draconian circular of forced premature retirement of government and public sector employees.
- Provide a pension to all and restore earlier pension schemes.
The survival of Punjabi culture and identity
These laws have global and domestic implications, from economics to human rights. Much of the Sikh diaspora is still connected to their land back home in Punjab. This is why protests related to these farms laws have popped up globally— from Toronto to Edmonton to Oakland and beyond. There are several reasons why Punjabis all over the world are rising up. From the economic implications for their families to a genuine fear of state violence against Sikhs and the people of Punjab reminiscent of what’s been occurring since the partition of India. Over the past several weeks, protesters have faced state violence in their march and protest towards justice but kisaans and workers are united in their goal and will not be deterred by government armed forces.
This is not just about economic justice for kisaans and Sikhs in Punjab. Farming is inherently linked to the existence of Punjab. Our culture, our language, and religious roots are in the soil in which we feed our families and the world. Our culture and language preservation, existence, and transmissions comes from the villages that are linked through farming all over Punjab. If farming is destroyed by capitalism, this will destroy Punjab and its entire backbone.
This is more than about economic justice, it’s about the survival of Punjab, the survival of our culture, our language, and the existence of our religion. It’s in the spirit of Sikhi and the socialist concepts that are defined by our historical leaders that kisaans are fighting against capitalism and these regressive laws. Sikhs and kisaans demands are simple: remove these laws and allow the people of Punjab and kisaans to rewrite laws that favour the masses over the few.
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