As the 2019 Indian General Election Takes Place, Are the Nation’s Farmers Being Dealt a Knock-Out Blow?

Colin Todhunter

Challenger Rahul Gandhi (left) and incumbent Narendra Modi (right).

In 1830, British colonial administrator Lord Metcalfe said India’s villages were little republics that had nearly everything they could want for within themselves. India’s ability to endure derived from these communities:

Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down but the village community remains the same. It is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.”

Metcalfe was acutely aware that to subjugate India, this capacity to ‘endure’ had to be broken. Since gaining independence from the British, India’s rulers have only further served to undermine village India’s vibrancy. But now a potential death knell for rural India and its villages is underway.

There is a plan for the future of India and most of its current farmers don’t have a role in it. Successive administrations have been making farming financially unviable with the aim of moving farmers out of agriculture and into the cities to work in construction, manufacturing or the service sector, despite these sectors not creating anything like the number of jobs required.

The aim is to displace the existing labour-intensive system of food and agriculture with one dominated by a few transnational corporate agribusiness concerns which will then control the sector. Agriculture is to be wholly commercialised with large-scale, mechanised (monocrop) enterprises replacing family-run farms that help sustain hundreds of millions of rural livelihoods, while feeding the urban masses.

So why would anyone set out to deliberately run down what is effectively a productive system of agriculture that feeds people, sustains livelihoods and produces sufficient buffer stocks?

Part of the answer comes down to India being the largest recipient of World Bank loans in the history of that institution and acting on its ‘advice’. Part of it results from the neoliberal-driven US-Indo Knowledge Agreement on Agriculture. Either way, it means India’s rulers are facilitating the needs of (Western) capitalism and all it entails: a system based on endless profit growth, crises of overproduction and market saturation and a need to constantly seek out and expand into new, untapped (foreign) markets to maintain profitability.

And as a market for proprietary seeds, chemical inputs and agricultural technology and machinery, India is vast. The potential market for herbicide growth alone for instance is huge: sales could reach USD 800 million this year with scope for even greater expansion. And with restrictions on GMOs in place in Europe and elsewhere, India is again regarded as a massive potential market.

A few years ago, influential ‘global communications, stakeholder engagement and business strategy’ company APCO Worldwide stated that India’s resilience in weathering the global downturn and financial crisis has made governments, policy-makers, economists, corporate houses and fund managers believe that the country can play a significant role in the recovery of the global economy in the years ahead.

Decoded, this means corporations moving into regions and nations and displacing indigenous systems of production and consumption. And where agriculture is concerned, this predatory capitalism hides behind emotive, seemingly altruistic rhetoric about ‘helping farmers’ and the need to ‘feed a burgeoning population’ (regardless of the fact this is exactly what India’s farmers have been doing).

Prime Minister Modi is certainly on board. He has proudly stated that India is now one of the most ‘business friendly’ countries in the world. What he really means is that India is in compliance with World Bank directives on ‘Ease of Doing Business’ and ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’: facilitating environment-destroying policies and forcing working people to take part in a race to the bottom based on ‘free’ market fundamentalism.

None of this is a recipe for national sovereignty, let alone food security. Renowned agronomist MS Swaminathan recently stated:

Independent foreign policy is only possible with food security. Therefore, food has more than just eating implications. It protects national sovereignty, national rights and national prestige.”

Despite such warnings, India’s agrarian base is being uprooted. In a recent interview, Director of Food First Eric Holt-Giménez notes that when Cargill, Bayer or Syngenta say they need to expand the use of GMOs or the other latest technologies so they can feed the world, they’re really talking about capturing the market that’s still controlled by peasant agriculture. To get those markets they first must knock out the peasantry.

Looking at the Industrial Revolution in England, historian Michael Perelman has detailed the processes that whipped the English peasantry into a workforce ‘willing’ to accept factory wage labour. Peasants were forced to leave their land and go to work for below-subsistence wages in dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of industrial capitalists. Perelman describes the policies through which peasants were forced out of agriculture, not least by the barring of access to common land. A largely self-reliant population was starved of its productive means.

Today, we hear seemingly benign terms like ‘foreign direct investment’, ‘ease of doing business’, making India ‘business friendly’ or ‘enabling the business of agriculture’. But behind the World Bank/corporate-inspired rhetoric lies the hard-nosed approach of modern-day capitalism that is no less brutal for Indian farmers than early industrial capitalism was for English peasants.

GDP growth has been fuelled on the back of cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers: the gap between farmers’ income and the rest of the population has widened enormously. While underperforming corporations receive massive handouts and have loanswritten off, the lack of a secure income, exposure to international market prices and cheap imports contribute to farmers’ misery.

Farmers must also contend with profiteering seed and chemical companies, corrupt middlemen, high interest loans and debt and the overall impacts of the corporate-inspired US-Indo Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture that flung open the sector to US agribusiness. Up to 400,000 farmers have taken their lives since 1997 and millions more are experiencing economic distress.

As independent cultivators are bankrupted, the aim is that land will eventually be amalgamated to facilitate large-scale industrial cultivation. Those who remain in farming will be absorbed into corporate supply chains and squeezed as they work on contracts dictated by large agribusiness and chain retailers.

Even the scaling up of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) across Andhra Pradesh is a cause for concern. For instance, the involvement of BNP Paribas Bank (which has funded numerous questionable projects, including in India), the Gates Foundation (with its staunch commitment to GMOs and gene editing technology and its cosy relationship with global agribusiness) and the potential illegal accessing of agrobiodiversity and traditional knowledge by foreign entities does not bode well.

There are also serious concerns about farmer’ interests being ignored. In effect, ZBNF seems to be focused more on global export chains, the further commodification of agriculture, facilitating consumerism and the involvement of unethical international finance. Even here it seems Western interests are being handed the reins.

If British rule, the impacts of the Green Revolution and neglect and mismanagement of the countryside since independence all served to undermine rural India and its inhabitants, Western agricapital now seems intent on delivering a knock-out blow. The timely reminder as voting in the 2019 Indian General Election gets underway is that certain leading politicians have been all too willing to facilitate the process.


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Apr 24, 2019 10:11 PM

Thank you, Colin for another excellent and vital article.

Essential viewing – Chris Hedge interviews environmental activist and author, Vandana Shiva for On Contact. Things are indeed looking very bleak for India.

If you tolerate this, your continent will be next.

Apr 24, 2019 7:17 PM

This is heartbreaking – people’s lives, so cheap nowadays. The Enclosure Acts in the UK and the so called industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of farming here. The massive cheap loans forced on farmers when joining the EU; the resulting ‘butter mountain’; Bastard Blair and his Foot and Mouth scare (during which 65 farmers committed suicide); Mad cow disease (when one sick cow was shown endless times as proof); EU money NOT to grow; endless paperwork for rebates based on ridiculous criteria such as “how far is your hedge away from……, etc.; deliberately lowered prices for milk to put independent farmers out of business. It has been a constant war – and now repeated in India. THERE ARE NO COUNTRIES!!!!! There is land where we live and the same group of bastards operating all over the world to take our livelihoods, our food, our shelter, our energy,… Read more »

Apr 24, 2019 4:53 PM

Modi = murder ( of a nation)

Apr 25, 2019 8:16 AM
Reply to  Jay

MODI, an acronym for Manipulation of Destitute Indians.

Apr 24, 2019 3:22 PM

Excellent, Colin. Here, India is the microcosmic metaphor for the current world situation. It had a networked system of neo-self-sufficient mini-republics – which is perhaps the human scale system to which humanity has to return in order to flourish, post-dominance and relentless coercive capitalist accumulation. But the para-capitalist state stands in the way. Capitalism must always have an outside, a new territory to colonise. David Harvey calls it the ‘spatiotemporal fix’. Often accompanied by the techno-fix: with which here is fitted like hand-in-glove. If the space to be colonised is occupied: the current ‘primitive’ and ‘nativist’ indigents have to be nihilated unto corporate state dependency – out of humanitarian concern. This is why neoliberalism is so inimical to life. The fact that the mini-republics had endured cycles of famine and drought for 4,000 years – developing endemic resilience – means nothing. If we returned to that indigenous community logic, we… Read more »

Apr 24, 2019 7:05 PM
Reply to  BigB

I saw a poster today saying we should eat them (our controllers) – they are GMO free……

Apr 24, 2019 7:38 PM
Reply to  Mikalina

The thought of roasted Treason May – complete with apple – a la “the Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover”? I think you just put me off eating ever again!

Apr 24, 2019 8:31 PM
Reply to  BigB

Sounds like an interesting plot – but I couldn’t watch it; I’m painfully sensitive to visuals: I was totally traumatised by The Wizard of Oz when I was five…..

Digestion might be a little easier if you remember their ‘cunning plan’ for us? Solent Green? Talk about predictive programming……

Apr 24, 2019 10:12 PM
Reply to  BigB

From her behaviour and the way in which she constantly keeps forcing Parliament to vote over and over on her Brexit Plan, which the MPs continue to reject, I’d have thought Treason Mayhem was a robot with a CPU that constantly jams and is stuck in a repeating loop. Hardly much meat there.

Apr 25, 2019 9:09 AM
Reply to  Jen

A cabinet minister the other day (can’t remember which one) said, in effect “half the cabinet think we have agreed X; half the cabinet think we have agreed Y – then May announces Z”.

This is anecdotal evidence that the Cabinet Office – or the shady Pearle Office within – are running May. MPs have no say and no power. There has been an administrative coup – following Blair’s rearranging of Parliamentary power to form an elected dictatorship – in the form of a bureaucratic Presidium. Only May is no Blair, and rather than controlling – she is totally controlled. This would make total sense in the light of the current Whitehall farce.

If and when May is deposed: there is no reason for me to suppose that her replacement – even if it is Corbyn – will be anything other than a public figurehead. Real synarchical power lies elsewhere.

Apr 24, 2019 3:18 PM

I know individual farmers are not to blame, but in the immediate wake of the massacre in Sri Lanka, for which I suspect India’s intelligence agency RAW is responsible (and I’m not alone in this opinion), I’m finding it difficult to sympathise with the plight of India right now. If Indians know what’s good for them, they need to put an end to the disastrous rule of Hindutva fascism.

Apr 24, 2019 1:03 PM

The above article presents important, albeit disturbing, information that people need to know. Indians can’t expect problems seen in this story to be resolved while nazis run the country.

Apr 24, 2019 12:16 PM

Well-written and well-informed article that discusses some very real and very disheartening developments..
India’s being shafted.. again..