Home / Opinion / The effect of farm sector changes on agrarian movements in India

The farmers movement last year succeeded in forcing the government to repeal the three farm laws passed in 2020. While the agitation did find mention in the political discourse in some parts of the electoral landscape in the recently-concluded state elections, it did not succeed in generating any political consensus on most of the issues that farmers were protesting. In Punjab, a group of farm protestors also contested elections but failed to register their presence. Even in Uttar Pradesh, the agitation failed to mobilize farmers beyond the state’s western belt, which was the hotbed of farmer mobilization. It is too early to assess the impact of the agitation on Indian politics. While electoral outcomes are not the best metrics to analyse it, given the multitude of factors at play, the movement did not seem to influence voters beyond a narrow geographical region.

Part of the reason is that it was largely a response to an action of the government rather than an organic mobilization over the concerns of a large majority of farmers. With the repeal of the farm laws, the very raison d’etre of the protest ceased to exist. While farmers deserve credit for a successful mobilization for a sustained period despite hardships, their political articulation failed to find resonance even in other parts of UP or neighbouring Uttarakhand.

But the failure of farmer unions to find common ground is not only true of these but also of other farmer protests. During the past five years, several states have seen strong farmer protests, including in Madhya Pradesh, where seven farmers were killed some years ago in police firing. Farmers in Maharashtra took out a ‘Long March’ to highlight their plight. Farmers from Tamil Nadu protested in Delhi for 100 days. There were several other protests, but despite spirited mobilizations in various states, these farmers movements have failed to build alliances. They have also failed to reach common ground with workers in rural areas, including agricultural and non-farm casual labourers, even though their lives and livelihoods are also affected by agriculture.

At the root of the dissonance is the changed nature of agriculture, particularly over the last three decades. One change pertains to cropping patterns across states. Since the beginning of the last decade, horticulture crops have overtaken the total production of food-grain in the country. This shift away from primarily cereal-based agriculture to a more diversified cropping pattern dominated by horticulture and commercial crops has implications for how the state supports agriculture and also the farm-market interface. Unlike rice and wheat, which continue to enjoy state support by way of public procurement at minimum support prices (MSPs), no such protection is available to horticulture or other crops such as coarse cereals, oilseeds and pulses. This increases not only the dependence of these crops on the market, but also their vulnerability to price fluctuations. That is why agricultural concerns differ in states where MSP-led procurement is not dominant or state mandis are non-functional.

A changed cropping pattern has been accompanied by a growing trend of monetization of agricultural inputs. The need for large working capital is often met through loans. But greater dependence on markets has led to increased variability in output prices and loan defaults. Demands for farm loan waivers are now a recurring phenomenon, with political parties increasingly ready to grant them.

Another aspect of the change is an increase in capital intensity and recourse to mechanization that has led to a decline in the use of farm labour. This has forced most casual-wage farm labourers to seek employment elsewhere, weakening the solidarity among wage workers and cultivators. With the rising dominance of the non-farm sector, the challenge for agrarian politics is to go beyond the narrow demands of loan waivers and MSP guarantees.

At a time when India’s rural economy has been in distress for a long period amid declining agricultural profits and stagnant wages, agrarian mobilizations will require a broadening of the movement for it to have any political impact. This requires building coalitions across different classes of farmers as well as wage workers who are impacted by the prevailing rural distress. In an agricultural environment that’s growing increasingly vulnerable to market vagaries, such a mobilization is necessary for farmers to attain a stronger bargaining position vis-a-vis the state, which has a duty to protect agriculture, farmers and the rural economy.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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