The All India General Strike on November 26, called by 10 trade unions and more than 250 farmers organisations, mobilised more than 250 million workers and farmers in protest against the anti-working class, anti-farmer and fascist policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
Farmers are continuing their protests, attracting support from around the world.
In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the BJP government is seeking to privatise the public sector and reduce worker and farmer rights, to meet the economic growth demanded by neoliberalism.
Agriculture is the only sector that recorded positive growth amidst an otherwise across the board free fall of India’s GDP in the first quarter of the 2020–21 financial year. The government now seeks to hand over the reins of Indian agriculture to corporate agribusiness.
The strike brought workers out from the coal, telecommunications, engineering, transportation, ports and banking sectors. Students, domestic workers, taxi drivers and informal sector workers nationwide also participated.
Major Singh, a Punjabi farmer for more than 35 years told The Wire: “Since independence, farmers have contributed more than 75–80% to the Centre’s stock of food-grains, even in the most difficult conditions, and have always supported the government.
“But they have received very little in return. We don’t get even the basic price promised as MSP [minimum support price] to our produce. [If] a farmer doesn’t protest, he doesn’t get anything.
“That is why we are here, to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Union demands included: the withdrawal of all anti-farmer and anti-worker laws; payment of Rs7500 to each non-tax-paying family; a monthly supply of 10kg of food grains to needy families; expansion of the rural employment guarantee scheme to provide 200 work days every year, higher wages and the scheme’s implementation in urban areas.
Unions also demanded an end to the privatisation of the public sector and a stop to corporatisation of government-run manufacturing and services such as railways, munitions factories and ports. They also called for the scrapping of the National Pension System and the reinstatement of the previous pension scheme.
Some protesters marching to Delhi were met with police violence at the city’s border. Police used tear gas, water cannons and roadblocks to prevent them from entering the city. But they persisted and the government was forced to back down.
The media demonised the farmers, accusing them of being terrorists. The strike was portrayed in the media as unruly, violent and causing inconvenience. It received little coverage outside India.
Rife with cronyism, Modi and the BJP are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to strip the public sector and the means of production from the hands of the Indian people.
Two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population depend on farming for their livelihoods.
India’s agricultural sector makes up around 17% of the nation’s total economic output, amounting to about $2.3 trillion.
Since September, there have been ongoing protests by farmers against the unilateral passage of the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, by the BJP-controlled parliament.
However, like other laws passed by the BJP, these are more likely to destabilise whatever remaining infrastructure is in place to support farmer property rights, commodity prices, and provide food security.
One of the biggest changes is that farmers will sell their produce at market prices directly to agricultural businesses, supermarket chains and online grocers. Most farmers currently sell the majority of their produce at government-controlled wholesale markets or mandis. The Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) guarantees the MSP.
The government has said the mandi system will continue and they will not withdraw the MSP. However, previous liberalisation efforts have trapped farmers in a vicious cycle of rising costs of cultivation, high levels of uncertainty over crop outputs, suppression of crop prices, rising debt and a lack of modern farming techniques.
Farmers are concerned this will eventually lead to the end of wholesale markets and assured prices, leaving them with no back-up. If they are not satisfied with the price offered by a private buyer, they won’t be able to return to the mandi or use it as a bargaining chip during negotiations.
Experience across the world has shown that free market reforms have depressed, not improved, farm incomes.
In Bihar, the APMC was repealed in 2006. The Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist – Liberation (CPIML), which recently contested elections in the state, is supporting the farmers’ protests.
Returning from a visit to one of the farmers' protest sites, Battacharya told Green Left “the government is resorting to all kinds of lies and divisive tricks, but the unity remains intact and the spirits high.”
“The government is clearly under pressure, and we need to keep it up and force it to repeal these acts.”
Forty-four labour laws were consolidated into four labour codes in April: Code on Wages; Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions; Code on Industrial Relations; and Code on Social Security.
In order to increase the “ease of business”, the BJP has committed to liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation and has effectively thrown the Indian working class under the bus.
The Modi government has weakened workers’ rights across the board, whether in respect of industrial relations, social security provision or working conditions and occupational health and safety — all in the name of attracting foreign investment and multinational corporations wanting to shift their supply chains from China.
The government announced the minimum wage would be set at Rs178 a day, less than the wage currently paid in about 31 locations across the country.
The government has also introduced contract employment, undermining permanency.
The base year was changed for the Consumer Price Index for Industrial Workers from 2001 to 2016, in effect lowering the compensation paid to workers for the rising cost of living.
The changes also permit factories with up to 300 employees to hire and fire without seeking any statutory permission.
The new laws are full of ambiguities. For instance, the terms “worker” and “employee” in the Code are confusing and will only make discrimination easier. A “worker” is defined as a person employed in an industry who does work including manual, unskilled, skilled, or technical work. An “employee” is defined as a person employed on wages who does work including skilled, semiskilled unskilled, technical, managerial and administrative work.
The Modi regime has also used the economic decline during the pandemic to ramp up its privatisation of public assets.
The Department of Investment and Public Asset Management moved a cabinet proposal in July on “Redefining Public Sector Participation in Commercial Sector Enterprise”.
One likely beneficiary of the latest privatisation push is Modi’s friend, billionaire Mukesh Ambani, who has interests in the petrochemical, oil and gas, telecommunications and retail sectors.
The government approved the privatisation of six airports in 2018, which were all bought by Gautam Adani, another long time friend of Modi.
For the Modi government, these latest laws mean turning the whole of Indian economy into an Adani-Ambani enterprise.
The Modi government wants to overhaul the banking sector and is also pushing the privatisation of banks and other state-un companies to help raise funds for budgeted spending amid a fall in tax collections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The privatisation of the farming sector will only benefit private agribusiness interests in the long term, according to the CPIML, which “will now have complete freedom to buy from anywhere and store as much as they like”.
“It will not take long for the free market between farmers and with agribusiness companies to turn into a new form of bondage.
“Apart from adversely affecting small farmers and share-croppers who lease land for cultivation, the new system is also likely to deal a mortal blow to India’s self-sufficiency in food grains production and the whole system of food security and public distribution.
“Once contract farming becomes the dominant mode of agriculture, the pattern of cultivation will be decided by agri-business companies, according to their own interests and calculations, to satisfy their own hunger for profit, and not fulfill the needs of feeding India's billion-plus people.”