Why is Narendra Modi behaving like Duryodhana?” This is what a group of activists visiting a village near Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, this March heard the local farmers say while interacting with them on how to fight land grab in the name of development. Farmers in this agrarian belt had voted en masse for Modi expecting achhe din. But they were furious when he pushed for amendments in the land acquisition law enacted by the UPA . They feared it would make it easier for big business to grab land for their projects by making their consent irrelevant. After all, the right to say no to land grab was the key feature of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, which was the result of years of agitation by farmers and Adivasi movements.
In Dhalgadhi, the activists of the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan, an umbrella organisation of farmers and workers movements that spearheaded the struggle against Modi’s land Bill, told farmers that the Prime Minister is adamant and farmers should prepare for a modern-day version of the Mahabharata to save their land. The epic battle was triggered by the Kaurava prince’s refusal to part even with “five needlepoints” of land during negotiations with the exiled Pandavas. Duryodhana’s arrogance was too much to accept the face-saver he was offered. The Pandavas would have given up their claim to the kingdom if only Duryodhana agreed to give them five villages.
Indeed, an agrarian Mahabharata seems to be playing out already in 21st century India. Fearing dispossession, farmers across the country mobilised against the land Bill and managed to halt it. However, the triumphal mood was short-lived. Fears of dispossession were revived by news that agriculture, plantation and animal husbandry were among the 15 sectors that had been thrown open to 100 percent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). The Centre made the announcement soon after the BJP lost the Bihar election. Reiterating his commitment to the philosophy of “minimum government, maximum governance”, Modi tweeted that his government’s commitment to FDI reforms is “unequivocal and unwavering”.
Cutting across regions and ideological affiliations, farmers organisations are wary of the potential consequences of what activists call the “institutionalised penetration of multinational capital”, with its penchant for profit, into an agrarian economy overwhelmed by “policy-induced crisis”. “We will fight tooth and nail against FDI in agriculture if it is used as a shortcut to grab farmers’ land,” says Prabhakar Kelkar, general secretary of the RSS affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS).
It seems unlikely, though, that the regime would opt for violent land acquisition as similar attempts in the recent past have extracted from ruling parties a huge political cost. “So far the government has revealed little about how FDI in agriculture would operate on the ground,” points out P Krishnaprasad of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). “But given the track record of this government as well as experiences of other Third World countries, it is clear that FDI would favour big business and destroy the livelihood of small and marginal farmers.”
Does this contradict Modi’s claim that FDI in general would create more jobs and raise incomes across the board? “FDI would drastically accelerate the pace of ongoing corporatisation of Indian agriculture. A significant development would be the institutionalisation of contract farming,” says York University academic Ritika Shrimali, whose doctoral thesis was on corporate farming in Punjab. “Contract farming is more than just the market contract between farmers and agribusiness corporations. Corporations dealing in agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilisers, pesticides etc) make their profit by selling to farmers engaged in contract farming. Similarly, a contract farming corporation makes its profit by buying what the farmers produce. It’s always the corporation that fixes the price, whether as seller or as buyer, without getting directly involved in farming. This saves them risk and brings them ‘windfall’ profits on a regular basis.”