During the last days of the Farmers protest at the borders of Delhi against the three farm bills introduced by the Union government, Sreerag PS, Associate Editor of Indian Ruminations spoke with All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) leader Vijoo Krishnan about the deep-rooted crisis faced by the farmers in the country.
Sreerag: Could you please elaborate how your interest in farmer’s issues began?
Vijoo Krishnan: I have been involved with the student movement since 1995. Being part of student movements in a university like JNU, we have tried to link it with the broader issues of people outside the campus as well. That led to a lot of engagement on issues of the workers, the working class and the peasantry. My Ph.D – The neoliberal economic policies and its impact on Indian Peasant: a comparative study of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala – was at a time when the agrarian crisis was at its peak. People like P. Sainath and Patnaik were writing about it. I spent considerable time in the villages, trying to understand the problems of the peasantry, what they were going through, problems of the agricultural labour and how these policies are pushing them into an acute crisis. I shifted to Bangalore after my Ph.D. in 2005. I worked for about three and a half years as the head of the Department of Political Science, St. Joseph College. I was called for an interview in JNU on 2008 December, but I decided not to take part and work amidst the farmers. Since 2009 January, I have been part of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and visited different states, villages and has been part of organizing farmers.
Your leadership was instrumental in the 2018 Kisaan Long March in Maharashtra. Maharashtra is a state where there were multiple co-operatives which thrived in the 1980s. However, at present we don’t see as many of them in the state, what do you think is the reason for the decline of farmers co-operatives?
In the last 30 years of neoliberal economic policies, the government approach has been to dismantle many of these cooperatives. In Maharashtra, in the sugar sector, there were many cooperatives; and in states like Bihar, where the sugar factories were in the cooperative sector are now closed down as there hasn’t had much support. If you look at the majority of the cooperatives in Maharashtra or Karnataka, they are run by the rural rich and many of them are political party leaders. You have leaders in the NCP, Shiv Sena, the Congress, BJP and Janatha Dal (S), who run some of these cooperatives. If you study the situation of sugar mills, there are huge arrears due for farmers. It would come around 23,000 crores. This is not just the arrear that has to be given to the cooperative sugar mints, but also to other corporate sugar mills as well. This is the present stature of the cooperatives in some of these regions. We envisage cooperatives where the interests of the working class and peasantry are protected. For instance, let us say, processing, value addition, marketing and the share of the surplus going back to the farmers; that is something we envisage. Unfortunately, these cooperatives aren’t running in that manner. Even now, the government is talking about something like the farmer’s produce organization. But there is no enough promotion for such cooperatives. There has been a systematic attack even on the primary agricultural cooperatives, which were providing credit to the farmers for agriculture. There have been different committees that have recommended the dismantling of this entire cooperative system. So, this is a struggle that we have to fight. Also, this is a long-drawn battle that is going to be there to protect the cooperatives which are in favour of farmers and the workers.
Could you also speak about the crisis faced by the Cotton farmers in the states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh?
The suicides that are happening in the Cotton belt in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra is a phenomenon that has been often spoken about. It has been witnessing an increase in input costs with the coming of BT cotton and there is total decontrol now. The prices of the inputs are fixed by the corporate companies which are only interested in profiteering, they have no interest in the farmers. So, the cost of cultivation is increasing and also, the credit sources or the institution sources are scarce. Hence, farmers have to depend on the money lenders and pay high-interest rates on the loans they take. Once the product is ready, they do not get commensurate prices. This leads to a crisis where the investment is huge and the farmers are not getting remunerative prices at times. There are also cases of crop losses. It may be bollworm or other pests or even natural calamities like drought, flood, and so on. Having all these risks the government is not doing anything to mitigate those risks. Even providing effective insurance is not happening. So, this leads to a crisis wherein a lot of farmers in this area are forced to commit suicides
Could you share with us your opinion about the importance of providing insurance for agricultural crops?
This is a diverse country and in northern India they say, at very short distances, the taste of the water changes as the language changes. When there are agricultural losses, the investment on the seeds and the cultivation is gone. Also, the expected output is gone. If so what income would it generate in such a situation? That has to be kept in mind when the compensation is given. There is also a need, especially to seed companies. Farmers have suffered huge losses because of the spurious seeds by the companies. In the last three decades, the policies implemented here allow companies to go scot-free, and at the same time farmers suffer huge losses when the seeds are not performing as required. So, there is a need to ensure that if there is a loss and the farmer suffers, that has to be compensated to the maximum. We often come up with demands like pre seeds for the next season, subsidized inputs for the next season, interest subvention and loan waivers. If such losses occur, depending on the situation in each state, the central government may also have to pitch in with the State governments.
What message does this farmer’s movement set for the Narendra Modi led government?
This struggle has sent a strong message to the Narendra Modi-led BJP government. In their arrogance, they have made all attempts to suppress this movement. They spread canards, did a big campaign through the corporate media, and called the farmers who were protesting on the borders of Delhi as Khalistanis, terrorists, and Chinese agents or Pakistani agents. They use repressive measures, arrests, attacks using their sangh gundas and more than 700 farmers have become martyrs in this country. It is after overcoming all these hurdles that we have been able to achieve this result. There are more than 500 organizations that have come together. We also managed to build a never-before kind of solidarity with the working class. So, it is a clear message to the Modi led BJP government that we will not tolerate anti-farmer policies; we will fight till our demands are met. Usually, the repression unleashed by the state machinery, the police, leads to some sort of fear about the state mission. But in this struggle, the farmers and the workers have overcome fear and we have literally sown fear in the minds of our enemies and won this struggle. So I think the ruling classes will think many times before implementing policies like this without consultation and discussion with any states or the main stakeholders the farmers.
How do you view the criticism that the farmer’s struggle is merely lead by a particular section of castes?
Actually, there have been different arguments. Some people have argued that the agriculture laborer is not part of this protest. Some have argued that the oppressed sections, the Dalits and Adivasis have not come in this. Some have also argued that this has been the demand of rich farmers and not a struggle of the poor and landless farmers and so on. However, that has been disproved by the nature of this protest itself. Such a prolonged struggle in extreme cold, in extreme heat, 700 deaths happened. Which rich or the rural rich person would come and sit, be willing to go through these travels for more than a year? It is the sections that are losing out all their source of livelihood, they are threatened, their futures are threatened, that realization that these acts have been brought, not for their benefit, but to promote corporate profiteering. That has led to this kind of mobilization. And the mobilization is not just in the areas where Jaat farmers are there. All sections have come into this struggle. Agriculture and labor organizations have come in a big way. Different Dalit groups and Adivasi organizations have come out in support. This struggle unlike what Modi has claimed that it was only restricted to a few people or only to Punjab and so on, has become a pan Indian movement. It is spread across – all states. You take a look at the Muzaffarnagar Kisaan Mahapanchayat, and the sections coming there. From an area that saw the worst communal riots, which led to a communal polarization and victory of the BJP in the last election, there – evolved a strong message of unity, a strong message against the communal forces. If you look at the State like Haryana, how the unity of different sections of the peasantry is forged. Haryana and Punjab have come in big numbers. There were almost 1000 Adivasi farmers coming all the way from Maharashtra and sitting here and sitting in the borders in extreme cold. So, it is absolutely wrong to say that it is only one community’s protest. This has created a broad based unity, the entire working class also have come out in support in a big way, in all forms. They have come out and have been part of these struggles – not just making token actions, but stood shoulder to shoulder with the farmers contributing even financially to the struggle. I think it should be seen and given the due it deserves. It is a movement that has generated hopes among all sections that talk about the protection of the Constitution. We’re fighting the communal forces, and protesting for the rights of the labour and other oppressed sections.
As the agricultural bills have been repealed, how do you and your organisation foresee the future of farmer’s rights movements in the future?
First and foremost, yes, these acts have been repealed now. Along with that, we had made certain other demands that are ensuring a minimum support price at 50% above the cost of production and then making it a legal guarantee. Also, we demand the withdrawal of the amendments in the Electricity Act, withdrawal of all cases against the farmer leaders of the organizations which have been foisted during this time, and compensation for the families of the 700 farmers who have died in the course of this struggle…The labour code has to be withdrawn. And we are watching how this government is out in a pandemic, to literally sell the country by keeping the people under lockdown. They have tried to unlock the country for corporate profiteering and corporate loot. So the slogans that have emerged – is ‘Save India’, ‘Stop Corporate Loot’, ‘Save Farmers Save India’. So these are the direction in which future struggles will happen. It is required that an alternative set of policies is required against the neoliberal economic policies which were essentially responsible for the huge crisis the farmers face. The movement in the coming days will go in that direction. That is what people like us hope.
The interview is a condensed and edited version of the original conversation.
Cover Photo by Raneesh P.R, Creative Director, Indian Ruminations