Emerging Unity of Farmers and Workers A Sign of Hope in India’s Difficult Times

Written by Bharat Dogra and Jagmohan Singh

It is very good that the farmers’ movement has given a call for observing  February 27 as Day of Unity of Farmers and Workers. On this day the nation is observing Sant Ravidas Jayanti. Along with other saints of the Bhakti and Sufi movements Sant Ravidas  stood for devotion and spirituality which contributes for justice and welfare for all humanity and indeed for all forms of life. Several centuries have passed but if India follows the path of bhakti and sufi movements, the path of  Guru Nanak, Sant Kabir, Sant Ravidas and Garib Nawaz then India will become an ocean of devotion and love that leads to justice and welfare and create a  confluence of inter-faith harmony which will contribute to great peace, learning and spirituality. Everyone respects Sant Ravidas but there is a special place for him in the hearts of  toiling masses, dalits and workers and so it is all the more appropriate that his birth anniversary  is being observed as the day of the unity of workers and farmers. February 27 is also observed as the martyrdom day of the great revolutionary freedom fighter Chandra Shekhar Azad. He was the coordinator of the foremost organization of revolutionary freedom fighters called the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association which placed a lot of emphasis on working among farmers and workers and called upon young freedom fighters in particular to do so. Azad in particular became a symbol of the highest form of courage and determination among freedom fighters. So it is very appropriate that his martyrdom day should be observed as the day of unity of workers and farmers.

A significant step in the direction of this unity was taken about three months back. On November 26 2020   India witnessed a significant escalation of resistance movements in the form of a nationwide  one-day strike by a very large section of workers , accompanied and followed by an indefinite movement of farmers which is still continuing.

Covid  times have witnessed the emergence of a serious economic crisis which refuses to go away after the lifting of the lockdown. Its worst impacts have been felt by weakest sections particularly informal sector workers and migrant workers. Reports of increase in unemployment, denial of due wages,  poverty, hunger, malnutrition,  school drop-outs , denial of essential medical care, exploitation and even trafficking have been frequent since then. The situation has been redeemed only very partially by  announcements of modest relief measures by the government.  This relief, such as increased rations of subsidized food plus some free food allocation up to November, have been found to be very meager and  high level of economic distress has been leading to increasing resentment.

It is against this background that the decision of the government to hurriedly  push through highly controversial legislation on so-called reform of labour and farming sectors added fuel to the already simmering fire of discontent and resentment.

Early in 2020 three ordinances for the farming sector were issued without even waiting for a session of Parliament. This was seen as an arbitrary act taken without any meaningful consultation with farmers. Despite the main voice given to the states on the  subject of agriculture by the Indian constitution, any significant efforts  to obtain the consensus of state governments were also not made, all the more so in the case of states ruled by non BJP/NDA parties or opposition parties . As these laws were widely perceived by farmer organizations to be harmful for farmers while advancing the interests of big corporate interests, particularly those known to be close to the ruling party, protests against these ordinances started but were ignored by the union ( central) government.

The government’s other decision to pack several diverse labor laws into four labour codes had been in the making for a longer time, drawing much protests from trade unions and other labour organizations for weakening and diluting rights of workers gained after decades of struggles. Now the government used Covid times to hurriedly push through three labour codes ( one had been introduced earlier ) in the monsoon session ( September 14 to 23) of the Parliament whose periodicity was cut back due to Covid factors, ignoring strong objections from labour organizations and several opposition parties. The three labour codes passed included the Industrial Relations Code Bill 2020, the Code on Social Security Bill 2020 and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code Bill 2020.

Soon after the new labour laws were passed, on October 2, co-inciding with Mahatma Gandhi birth anniversary, ten central trade unions and other labour federations/organizations decided at a virtual convention to observe a nationwide general strike on November 26. The issues and demands emphasized at the convention were opposition of new labour codes as these were rolling back labour rights, opposition of privatization, and pressing need for immediate relief in the form of cash transfers to non-income tax playing households and free foodgrains to all needy households.

Sanjeeva Reddy of the Indian National Trade Union Congress said that the  government is trying to take away rights we earned after years of struggle. Tapan Sen of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions stated that we will consistently oppose government efforts to sell public sector companies.(R1)

The need for united action of trade unions was emphasized and attempts were also made to forge links with farmers’ organizations. Amarjeet Kaur of the All IndiaTrade Union Congress said that the government was actually proceeding to benefit those at the top of the food chain. (R1)

In the same curtailed session of Parliament, the three farm ordinances were converted into parliamentary legislations with even more unseemly hurry. As an expert on parliamentary procedures M.R. Madhavan, President of the PRS Legislative Research,  commented, “ The Bills to replace the ordinances were introduced in Lok Sabha ( Lower House )and passed within three days without being referred to a Standing Committee. In the Rajya Sabha ( Upper house), several members moved motions to refer them to a Select Committee. These motions led to a commotion, amidst allegations that a demand for division ( recorded vote) was ignored, and the Bills were passed amidst pandemonium.” (R2)

Further this review states, “ Thus, an opportunity to discuss and debate the bills with stakeholders was missed…It was important to address the concerns of various stakeholders, including farmers and State governments. The absence of proactive engagement with affected parties has led to the current crisis. Three States, all with Opposition governments—have passed their own laws to negate some of the provisions of the central laws. And a large number of farmers are protesting against the laws.” ( R2)

The three controversial legislations, which received Presidential assent on September 27, are known by very impressive looking titles—The Farmers ( Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 ( FAPAFS); the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce ( Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 (FTPC); and the Essential Commodities (Amendment ) Act ,2020 (EC). However protesting  farmers’ organizations quickly looked beyond the facade of impressive bureaucratic jargon to find a rather thinly veiled agenda of big  corporate interests gaining increasing control over farming and marketing at the expense of the farmers and   government-regulated marketing.

Vijoo Krishnan of the All India Kisan Sabha criticized the creation of new trade areas without appropriate regulation and price intelligence as the government effectively abdicating its responsibility.(R3) Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance  for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture ( ASHA) criticized the last bill as effectively legitimizing hoarding of essential commodities for earning big profits and ridding it of its illegality tag. (R4)

The coming together of farmers’ organizations and trade unions added to the strength of both the movements to oppose new labour laws as well as the new farm laws, the entire effort culminating in the joint action on November 26 and 27. The labour strike on November 26 claimed to have a participation of as many as 250 million workers and supporters, including sections of government services, banking, insurance, steel, ports and docks, telecom, mining, manufacturing as well as nutrition scheme workers and informal sector workers. (R5)The strike was reported to be most effective in Kerala, W.Bengal and Tamil Nadu followed by Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Telengana and other states. (R6).

As the workers’ strike ended, centre-stage was taken by the farmers’ movement. Farmers from Punjab ( highest number), Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and to a lesser extent from some other states came in large numbers to occupy vantage positions on the border of Delhi. While several demands were voiced, repeal of the farm laws  emerged as the most important demand. The government has expressed willingness to consider some possible changes in laws but farmers’ movements have been insisting on taking back  these laws. The demands of farmers and workers have received broad support from social movements including the National Alliance of People’s Movements ( NAPM), several organizations of youth and women.

At a time of increasing distress of people and the adoption of anti-worker, anti-farmer policies by the government which is also resorting to many undemocratic and discriminative actions and laws in other contexts, this surge in the resistance by workers and farmers is welcome, as also the forging of unity and common cause by them. This gives some new hope to the overall agenda of justice, equality and democracy in India in difficult times.

While this is very welcome, it is uncertain whether the critical aspect of creating an ecologically protective farming system will be helped in the present processes or not. While this has always been desirable, the importance of this objective has increased much more in these times of climate change. Yet most of the protesting farmers’ movements do not appear to be giving adequate importance to this objective and instead there is much more preoccupation with ensuring a government administered minimum support price or MSP which has become a key word in the entire current debate. In the process the highly desirable, much needed and extremely creative quest for more satisfying and durable livelihoods based on ecologically protective and sustainable farming has not received the due attention. (R7)

The real task is to integrate concerns of environment protection with concerns for livelihood protection as well as justice and equality. In any discussion on justice and equality we cannot forget the concerns of rural landless worker households whose number is likely to be now even higher than farmers or landowning cultivators.(R8)

The share of the bottom 50 per cent of the rural households in land ownership was only 4.0 per cent in 1987-88 and this has now declined further steeply to 0.4 per cent. On the other hand the top 10 per cent of rural landowners have around 50 per cent of the farmland. (R9)

Land reforms with emphasis on land redistribution provide the way forward. India once gave importance to such land reforms, but in more recent times the door has been shut firmly on them, with the government getting overactive in finding land for corporate projects than for the rural landless.(R10)

Hence the wider and bigger challenge is to move rapidly towards a combination of an ecologically protective system ( which can also contribute much to checking climate change) and a justice based system. (R11)

If this happens, opportunities of forging justice and equality based unity of farmers and workers will increase significantly. It is a welcome sign that organizations of more or less landless farm workers have also been joining the protest of farmers to some extent, but it is not yet clear how many farmers’ organizations support the cause of at least some land distribution among the landless. On the whole , despite some limitations of the farmers’ movement, this movement as well as the increasing efforts of the unity of farmers and workers should get wide support. The farmers’ movement should consider improvements like getting closer to rural landless workers, ecologically protective farming ( which can also help in checking climate change) and some badly needed social reform efforts (R12).The farmers’ movement has done well to raise issues relating to food security and protecting the public distribution system in particular.

The workers’ movement has increasingly raised issues of much wider public interest including threats from bad debts of banks, privatization of banks and insurance sectors, many sided harm from disinvestment policies  as well as the wider systemic plunder by crony capitalism. This should bring in much wider support of concerned and honest citizens. Hence the growing unity and strength of the movements of farmers and workers should be accompanied by these wider concerns to protect food security and overall economy, in the process also widening its support base further.

References

R1—The Hindu, October 2 , 2020– Trade unions to strike on November 26 against labour laws

R2—M.A. Madhavan—Hard bargains and the art of policymaking –The Hindu, December 3, 2020.

R3—Anuj Srivas—A level-playing field for farmers can only come through a MSP regime. Interview with Vijoo Krishnan, the wire.in—September 21.

R4—Kavitha Kuruganti—Agri-reforms bills—what will the new system look like,The Wire.in—September 21,2020.

R5—Subodh Verma—World’ biggest strike begins in India, Newsclick, November 26, 2020.

R6—The Wire.in—November 26, 2020–Labour unions’ nationwide strike, near total shutdown in Bengal, Kerala, rallies in other states.

R7—Bharat Dogra—Yes, the three controversial farm laws should be scrapped but we also need to look beyond this—Countercurrents.org December 1 2020.

R8—Bharat Dogra—Amid an important farmer debate, don’t forget the woes of India’s landless workers—The Wire.in November 30, 2020.

R9.—Vijay Jawandhia and Ajay Dandekar—Three farm bills and India’s rural economy—the Wire.in, October 1,2020.

R10.—Bharat Dogra—Land Reforms—A Plant Uprooted Before it Could Bear Fruit, Newsclick—October 17, 2020.

R11—Bharat Dogra—What is the alternative farming and food system that India needs–Countercurrents.org—December 2, 2020.

R12—Bharat Dogra—The Peaceful Path Ahead for the Farmers’ Movement—Increasing  Internal Strength While Reaching Out Widely—Countercurrents.org—February 10, 2021.

Bharat Dogra is a senior journalist and author.

Prof. Jagmohan Singh is Chairperson of Shahid Bhagat Singh Creativity Center and Chairperson, All India Forum for Right to Education. He is nephew of Shahid Bhagat Singh and has devoted his life to spreading  ideas and vision of the great revolutionary and his colleagues. Both the writers are co-authors of When the Two Streams Met—Freedom Movement and its larger Hindi version, Azadi ke Deewanon Ki Daastaan.


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