India: Social Movements upset that the government is exploiting the pandemic to push through corporate-friendly reforms

Since India went into a strict lock-down in late March this year, the national ruling government has brought in a slew of legislation, policy measures and ordinances that proclaim to relax existing laws around land acquisition, labour rights and agricultural commodities.

“The pandemic is being seen as an opportune moment to push through reform measures that encourage privatisation and contract farming. Attempts are underway to amend land acquisition laws. They are diluting the rights that the working class, won through years of hard-fought struggle. All of these are taking place through an opaque backdoor process, disregarding people’s concerns and interests”, said Rajegowda, who is among the senior leaders of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha. He is also a member of the International Coordination Committee of La Via Campesina. 

Since 2014, the country has been witnessing an upsurge in majoritarian politics. A heady mix of hyper-nationalist and hyper-capitalist ideals influence public policies in India now. The current ruling government enjoys massive popularity among urban professionals and has the backing of several Corporations operating in the country. It has also managed to appeal to a broader rural base by invoking nationalism and xenophobic narratives, that feeds on people’s insecurities and fears. Over the years, many progressive legislations have faced erosion, despite sustained protests by the civil society. This time, however, social movements in India fear that the lock-down period has presented the government a perfect setting to push through anti-worker, anti-peasant policies, as curfews prevent mass demonstrations or agitations.

India is neither the first nor the only government to push through corporate-friendly reforms during the global pandemic. In her book The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein notes, “In moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure—whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or… a terrorist attack.” 

However, India – where nearly 400 million people depend on agriculture and allied activities, and where 93% of its workers belong to the unprotected informal sector – resorting to ‘shock therapy’ will indeed derail the global efforts to reduce rural poverty and hunger.

OPENING AGRICULTURE TO CORPORATES

In May this year, among the many steps that the ruling national government took, one of them targeted the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). APMC is a marketing board established by a State government in India to ensure farmers are safeguarded from exploitation by large retailers, as well as ensuring that farm-to-retail price spread does not reach excessively high levels.

With this move, the government claims to have ended the monopoly of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) and allow anyone to purchase and sell agricultural produce. The measures, they claim, will help improve farm incomes.

Farmers’ movements and activists do not agree.

“This move will allow private companies to dictate the supply and demand, threatening food security and guaranteed prices for farmers. The entry of big corporate groups will create more trouble as they will use their financial might to drive down prices, accentuating the crisis that the farmers already face.”notes this release by La Via Campesina South Asia.

Speaking to Telegraph, Rakesh Tikait of the Bhartiya Kisan Union feared the government was looking to dismantle the minimum support price mechanism itself and that this seemed the first step in that direction.

“Most of the farmers are small and marginal ones who cannot move their produce to far-off places even when they know they can get a better price there. Farmers cannot don the hats of traders and scout for prices and transport the produce,” he said. “There are pitfalls within the existing APMC system, which needs to be reformed. The entry of big corporate groups will create more trouble as they will use their financial might to drive down prices, accentuating the crisis that the farmers already face.” Tikait added.

Meanwhile, several agribusiness corporations including PepsiCo, ITC, Cargill India have welcomed these moves by the national government, even as farmers’ organisations across the country have denounced these measures.

Newsclick, a progressive news outlet ran an opinion piece that argued, “The opening of ‘farm-gate’ and dismantling of the APMC has opened the doors of agribusiness to Indian farms. The farmers in the United States are at the end of this tunnel, where the Indian government aspires to take us. In Merchants of Grain, Dan Morgan describes this journey of “market access for farmers” and how it led to the consolidation of elevator shafts and storage, and other mechanical technologies by giant companies.”

In her blog that further delves into the topic, Kavita Kuruganti argues thus; “It is clear from Bihar and Kerala which have no APMCs and have de-regulated agricultural marketing that farmers have not benefited in such a system either.” She also brings out a vital clarification while writing. “It has been touted as that reform which will give freedom to farmers to sell anywhere in the country. They are conveniently lying about the fact that farmers are already free to sell anywhere. All APMC Acts had exclusion or exemption clauses that kept farmers and agriculturists out of the purview of the Acts. They were never criminalised in any Act and had the freedom to sell wherever they could.”

She also points out that the APMCs needed improvements. “Several areas of functioning of Mandis can be improved, and it will not serve farmers’ interests to ignore this channel of marketing. We do need the density of Mandis to be improved, without full control of marketing in scheduled areas and commodities in the hands of APMCs. We do need licensed traders to be able to operate across Mandis. We do need the intermediary costs to be reduced in the APMC transactions. APMCs should be de-politicised, run mainly by concerned line department.”

DILUTION OF LAND AND LABOUR LAWS

Several State governments in India, to attract foreign investors, are also aiming to relax laws around labour rights and land acquisition. 

For instance, the Southern state of Karnataka announced that it would amend the Karnataka Land Reform Act of 1961. It has decided to ease many clauses of the Act to enable trouble-free buying of farmland. The new amendments will open the way for the purchase of the farm by non-agriculturists and removes the existing ceiling limits on land ownership. Farmer’s movements have vehemently opposed the new changes, calling it an anti-farmer and pro-corporate move by the government. Farmers are worried that the new amendments would spell doom for the marginal and small landholders by reducing them to farm labourers. The new changes to the Act will only help the rich and the corporate to buy more land. It will have socio-economic impacts in rural areas besides its effect on food sovereignty and security. Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha leaders have warned the government of statewide protests in opposition and have called upon the government to withdraw the amendment.

Several states have also made sweeping changes to labour laws, reports The Wire. Most of these changes are calling for increased working hours, absence of a job contract, reduction or removal of paid leaves – apart from attacking the regulations around minimum wages. It is shocking to call these changes “reforms”. What it can lead to is “a race to the bottom where states provide more incentives to capital and turn a blind eye to exploitative working conditions and destitution wages”, the authors argue.

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