Khalid Zaka: A historical perspective on the farmers' movement in India

Because of contemporary neoliberal policies in India, it's becoming increasingly important to examine precolonial agriculture and Indian agriculture during the British Raj

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      (This article is significantly longer than what appears on most media websites.)

      Millions of Indian farmers have been protesting in India's many states since September 2020 against three laws passed by the Indian government. These laws are: 

      • Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020 
      • The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020 
      • The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 

      Before discussing what these laws mean to the Indian government and the farmers, let’s look at some statistics about India’s population and poverty. According to the World Bank figures in 2019, 66 percent is rural and 34 percent is urban of the total population of approximately 1.38 billion.

      Regarding poverty, SOS Children Village Canada has shown some alarming numbers. Per SOS, 68.8 percent of India's total population lives on $2/day, and 80 percent of this poor population lives in India's rural areas. 

      The BJP government believes that the root cause of rural poverty and "farm inefficiency" in India is a batch of policies implemented in the 1950s and the 1960s which, among other things, set minimum prices for a host of crops and obliged farmers to sell their harvest only at designated wholesale markets. These policies also effectively barred private companies from entering into long-term contracts with farmers for the supply of agricultural produce.  

      The Indian government wants to invest in agriculture to modernize it. The purpose of the modernization is to increase production through greater amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, water, and genetically modified seeds (GMS), more use of machinery, and by employing monocropping

      Contrary to the Indian government’s claims, the Indian farmers perceive these laws to be against their economic interests. According to the farmers, implementation of these laws will create conditions whereby farmers will be forced to lose their land. Farmers believe that these laws are being brought in to serve the economic interests of Indian and international corporations. 

      Before proceeding further, here are some numbers indicating the severity of the farmers' challenges. S.M. Hali, and author and columnist with the Lahore-based Daily Times, mentioned in one of his articles that more than 12,000 suicides have been reported in the agricultural sector every year in India since 2013. Farmer-cultivators and agricultural labourers constituted most of the people who committed suicide.

      The Indian seven states that account for 87.5 percent of total suicides are Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.  

      Also in his article, Hali mentioned that ironically, Punjab, which benefited most from the Green Revolution, also presents a depressing picture of India's suicides. According to Indian statistics, from 1995 to 2015, 4,687 farmers' suicides were reported from the state of Punjab, of which 1,334 were from one district, Mansa. 

      This piece focuses on the characterization of the precolonial, colonial, and post-partition agriculture in India. Using available information, it's an attempt to identify key policies responsible for principal changes in India's agriculture, which resulted in the erosion of food sovereignty and the farmers' plight.  

      Questions arising from the farmers' movement are of prime importance because of their relationship with the Indian people's food sovereignty and security. The most important factor is food sovereignty. This aspect is vital to understand and because of contemporary neoliberal policies, it's becoming increasingly important to examine precolonial agriculture and Indian agriculture during the British Raj.

      According to the Nyéléni 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty, "Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations."

      This definition of food sovereignty, unveiled at the first global forum on food sovereignty, has been adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO), U.S. Food sovereignty, Food Secure Canada (FSC), and Berkeley Food Institute (BFI), along with many other organizations. 

      The erosion of food sovereignty leads to food insecurity in a nation. The World Food Summit in 1996 defined food security in this way: "all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life."  

      Writing in The Hindu in 2020, New Delhi food-security researcher Vaishali Bansal revealed that “27.8% of India's population suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2014-16, the proportion rose to 31.6% in 2017-19. The number of food-insecure people grew from 42.65 crores in 2014-16 to 48.86 crore in 2017-19. India accounted for 22% of the global burden of food insecurity, the highest for any country, in 2017-19."

      One can ask the question: does food insecurity have historical roots embedded in India's colonization?

      Did British colonial policies result in the erosion of sovereignty, which ultimately resulted in the Indian people's food insecurity?

      Will the three laws passed by the Indian government help provide food sovereignty and security to Indian people, or will these result in an increase in food insecurity, hunger, and poverty?

      What policies has the current Indian government brought in, and do these relate to the economic policies adopted by Indian governments after partition?

      What role has the “Green Revolution” played concerning food sovereignty and security? 

      There are almost no references relating past farmers' movements in India's various historical periods to the contemporary farmers' movement. This results in a partial analysis, not a holistic perspective.  Objective and dialectical analysis of a recent case warrants digging deeper into this history.  

      This approach can establish a link between various aspects of the problem and their historical development, deepen understanding of the root cause, and help find a progressive way forward. 

      With this background, it's essential to characterize precolonial agriculture and agriculture under the British Raj. Effort will be made to identify the root cause of the plight of Indian farmers by looking at various historical periods. 

      Scottish historian James Mill never visited India before writing a three-volume history praising Britain's impact on the subcontinent.

      Precolonial agriculture in India 

      Among educated people, there's a preconception that the Indian subcontinent (India) was very backward in agriculture, traditions, culture, and education prior to British colonization. There is a picture of India in the mind of these educated people, which magnifies the subcontinent into a barbarian, uncivilized society with its people living in the dark ages.

      Potentially, this imprint is the result of mainstream academics and historians' works. A pertinent reference is Scottish historian James Mill's early 19th-century The History of British India.

      "In India, there was a 'hideous state, of society', much inferior in acquirements to Europe even in its darkest feudal age," Mill wrote.

      So far from any diffidence on account of his entire lack of personal experience of India, Mill prided himself that the severity of his judgment was "all the more justified by its very disinterestedness.”

      Most educated people also claim that it is the age old, unscientific, backward, and primitive character of Indian agriculture that remains the cause of widespread hunger, famine, malnutrition, and poverty in India. However, various historical records strongly refute these concepts, claims, and narratives.

      Several references present a different picture of precolonial India, contrary to the above assertions. These references indicate precolonized India as a self-reliant, sustainable, happy community living almost without famines.   

      There is a pertinent article titled “Changing land ownership, agricultural, and economic systems” published on the Environment & Society Portal.  The Environment & Society Portal is a Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society project, a joint initiative of LMU Munich and the Deutsches Museum.

      Per this article, “before the British colonial period, Indian agriculture was dominated by subsistence farming organized in small village communities. The farmer usually only grew enough food to feed himself and the non-agricultural people of the village community. When his crop production exceeded consumption because of favorable climatic conditions, he stored the surplus for use in lean years. The storage of food grains constituted the only remedy against famines and other crises." 

      This article further indicates: "During the pre-British colonial period, the village community was composed of different groups based on a simple division of labor. Some farmers cultivated land and tended cattle. Other groups of people were weavers, goldsmith, potters, washermen, carpenters, cobblers, oil pressers, barber-surgeons, etc." 

      Another relevant article titled "Indian Economy During the Pre-British Period", shared by Natasha Kwtiah and published at, presents a similar self-reliant picture of pre-colonized India.

      According to this piece, "Indian economy, during the pre-British period, consisted of isolated and self-sustaining villages on the one hand and on the other hand, there were number of towns which were the seats of administration, pilgrimage, commerce, and handicrafts." 

      Several other historical records show that the agriculture in pre-colonized India was not backward. This evidence, including British and European accounts, shows the flourishing state of agriculture in the pre-British period.  

      For example, Captain Thos Halcott was one of the earliest to take note drill husbandry in India in 1795, according to the Chennai-based Centre for Policy Studies.

      "Although, is has been practised under the eyes of everybody in the Guntur Circar, no one that I mentioned to ever observed it before, nor did I observe it myself till lately." (Thos Halcott, On the Drill Husbandry of Southern India; the citation is from the reprint of Halcott’s account in Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteen Century, Delhi 1971, Reprint Hyderabad 1983, p.259-260). 

      According to a 1999 paper by then University of Dundee geographer Raju J Das, traditional Indian farms were "small plots of land protected by windbreaks and tree cover".

      "The farmers employed sound methods of organic husbandry that had been used for centuries," Das wrote. "The practices of crop rotation and leaving fields fallow for long periods allowed the soil to retain nutrients.

      "Thus, the demands on the land were low, allowing farmers to establish a stable relationship with the environment," Das, who's now at York University, continued. "Maintaining a state of equilibrium with the soil enables farms to recover after disastrous events, such as droughts or monsoons”. 

      Nawab Khwaja Salimullah was a zamindar in Bengal with vast land holdings.

      What changes in agriculture were introduced by British colonial power?

      After colonizing India, the British colonial power brought in fundamental changes in the agriculture sector of precolonial India, which resulted in the erosion of the self-reliance and self-sufficiency of the precolonial Indian society. These policies led to huge famines because of which millions of native Indians lost their lives.  

      It's been reported that at the end of the 18th century, village communities began to disband. The permanent land settlement of Lord Cornwallis in 1793 impacted Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, and later extended to North Madras, forming an elite class of zamindars with the right to collect tax.

      The zamindars became landlords in perpetuity and were intermediaries between the colonial rulers and the peasantry. Peasants were required to pay fixed amounts of money to the zamindars.

      In The Economic History of India in the Victorian Age, Bengali historian Romesh Chunder Dutt pointed out that the "frequency of famine showed a disconcerting increase in the nineteenth century".

      However, British economist Angus Maddison maintained in his book, The Economic and Social Impact of Colonial Rule in India, that “there is no evidence to support this statement".

      "In the period of British rule, the population started to increase which must have been due to some degree to a reduction in the impact of crop failure on mortality," Maddison insisted. 

      Another particular reference is Karl Marx's commentary on the British rule of India. Portland State University academic Lauren Sweger-Hollingsworth argued in a 2018 working paper that "Karl Marx offers a penetrating understanding of British colonialism in India. Marx emphasizes that England essentially leveled the entire foundation of Indian society, separating India from its ancient traditions and history, destroying the basis for the region's agriculture, and undermining their manufacturing industries. 

      "The Court of Directors, under the authorization of the Crown, appointed the government of India," Sweger-Hollingsworth continued. "The administration allocated the country to the highest bidder, cost Indian citizens large sums of money each year, and perpetuated its abuses. Furthermore, the taxation system was onerous and more oppressive than any other in the world, causing a state of dejection and unmitigated impoverishment."

      Historical information indicates that in the first half of the 19th century, the exported items included cash crops like indigo, opium, cotton, and silk. Gradually, raw jute, food grains, oilseeds, and tea replaced indigo and opium. Raw cotton remained in demand throughout.

      There was phenomenal growth in the export of agricultural commodities from India: the value of India's exports is estimated to have risen by more than 500 percent from 1859–60 to 1906–1907. 

      The more significant portion of the export trade profits benefitted British business families, big farmers, some Indian traders, and moneylenders. It put rural Indian communities at greater risk of damage due to famine because agriculture, which had previously been used to meet local needs, was now controlled from afar with the goal of profit rather than subsistence. 

      Many scholars argue that there was a close link between food exports and famine in India. The self-sufficiency vanished in the colonial state. It led to various famines, which the colonizers paid no heed to, provided it didn’t affect their profit margins.

      Effectively, the agricultural sector continued to experience deterioration and stagnation, marked particularly by low agrarian productivity levels. The deaths due to starvation alone during British Raj were estimated to be between 15 to 29 million. 

      There was an increase in agricultural exports from Indian farmers during the British colonial time. According to Dutt, “in 1876–77, just before one of the century's most severe famines, exports continued to grow to meet Land Revenue demand. And again, in 1897–98, during widespread famine and starvation in India, the system continued: 17 million sterling of land revenue was collected; cultivators raised the money largely by selling food grains for export."

      Vandana Shiva has decried the loss of biodiversity, including the sharp drop in seed varieties as a result of corporatization of agriculture.

      What changes in agriculture came after independence? 

      Since its inception as an independent country in 1947, India's economy has experienced incredible growth in urban industries such as services and information technology. However, per SOS Children’s Villages Canada, around 800 million people in India are considered poor. Most of them live in the countryside and keep afloat with odd jobs. The lack of employment that provides a livable wage in rural areas drives many Indians into rapidly growing metropolitan areas such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru or Kolkata.   

      After partition, the Indian elite continued practising policies set by the British Empire. Simultaneously, the Indian elite, in a smart move, continued to benefit from the U.S. and the former USSR until the collapse of the socialist camp.

      In the field of agriculture Indian elite opened the door to the Green Revolution.

      The Green Revolution was initiated to address the issue of malnutrition in the developing world. However, the Green Revolution's critical review indicates that it resulted in widening the gap between the social classes.

      The Green Revolution also led to the "ecological breakdown in nature and the political breakdown of society".  

      In 2010, University of Nebraska at Lincoln student Kathryn Sebby wrote a paper examining the impact of the 1960s Green Revolution on small farmers in India.

      "The Green Revolution was initiated in the 1960s to address the issue of malnutrition in the developing world," she stated. "The Green Revolution technology involved bio-engineered seeds that worked in conjunction with chemical fertilizers and heavy irrigation to increase crop yields.

      "The technology was readily adopted in many states in India and was a great success for some. However, many farmers could not afford the inputs necessary to participate in the Green Revolution, and gaps between social classes widened as wealthy farmers got wealthier and poor farmers lagged." 

      She further argued: "Switching from traditional subsistence farming to industrial monocropping had negative effects on small farmers. They found themselves trapped in the cycle of high-interest rates on seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, which they had to buy on credit. Because they were often only working with one dealer, there was no competition, and prices were able to remain very high".

      This resulted in widening the gap between the social classes. 

      Physicist and ecological activist Vandana Shiva has concluded that the Green Revolution led to the “ecological breakdown in nature and the political breakdown of society".  

      The widening of the gap between the social classes is the one key consequence of the Green Revolution, but there is another main consequence of the Green Revolution. It's been reported that the Indigenous seeds were high yielding.

      One can ask then why bioengineered seeds were brought into use? There is an important reference by researcher Bryan Newman in his 2007 report, "A Bitter Harvest: Farmer suicide and the unforeseen social, environmental and economic impacts of the Green Revolution in Punjab, India".  

      Quoting Shiva, he stated that the problem with indigenous seeds was that they were not high yielding; instead, it was their inability to stand up to heavy applications of chemicals.

      New varieties were created in conjunction with the fertilizers to work together with heavy irrigation to produce higher yields. Independent, the seeds and the fertilizers were fairly ineffective but used together, they were promised to double or even triple crop yields. 

      The use of bioengineered seeds, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides is depleting natural soil fertility. The bioengineered seeds cannot produce yields without the input of chemical fertilizer and pesticide and excessive use of water.  

      Historically, Indigenous seeds were used, which were admirably adapted to the ecological conditions of the area. Chemical fertilizer, bioengineered seeds, and pesticides are all products of and owned by foreign multinational corporations. The use of these inputs also created a dependence on foreign corporations. 

      The Green Revolution argument was that India's people were starving, and if they could grow more food, the problem could be solved. However, economic historians like Amartya Sen have pointed out that famine in India was not for the absence of food, but rather people's inability to acquire food.

      During the latter half of the 19th century, several severe famines struck India. A well-known reference from Newman supports Sen's point. 

      "The colonial government initiated the famine Commission in 1880 to investigate the problem and find a solution to change conditions," Newman wrote. "Surprisingly, the commission found that every province was experiencing a surplus of food. The problem was not with underproduction at all; the people were unable to afford the food produced around them. These surpluses mean that India was, in fact, capable of feeding itself before industrial agriculture was introduced." 

      Newman further mentioned: "In 2001, India had an epidemic of deaths due to starvation in more than a dozen states. This was the first time this had happened since the 1960s. In that same year, India had such a surplus of grains the government proposed dumping a significant portion of it into the sea to make room for the next year's harvest." 


      The historical review of records indicates that Indian agriculture was dominated by self-sustaining farming before the British colonial period. The village communities were little republics having nearly everything they wanted within themselves and almost independent of foreign relations.  

      After colonizing India, the British colonial power brought in fundamental changes in the agriculture sector of precolonial India, which resulted in the erosion of the self-reliance and self-sufficiency of the precolonial Indian society.

      It brought a shift from cultivation for home consumption to cultivation for the market. Cash transactions became the basis of exchange and largely replaced the barter system. These changes resulted in massive famines because of which millions of native Indians lost their lives.  

      The British colonial policies of new land rights, commercialization of agriculture, and massive exports of grain for the British Empire’s need were the principal factors for the collapse of sovereign and sustainable Indian agriculture.  

      The erosion of self-reliance in the agriculture sector initiated by the British colonial policies did not stop when they left India, but have continued under the Green Revolution and since 1991 under neoliberal policies.  

      After partition, the Indian elite continued practising policies set by the British Empire. Concurrently, the Indian elite, in a smart move, continued to benefit from the U.S. and the former USSR until the socialist camp collapsed.

      In the field of agriculture Indian elite open its door to the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was initiated to address the issue of malnutrition in the developing world. Many researchers strongly believe that the Green Revolution resulted in widening the gap between the social classes. The Green Revolution also led to the “ecological breakdown in nature and the political breakdown of society".  

      The use of bioengineered seeds, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides has depleted natural soil fertility and resulted in the erosion of food sovereignty and security.

      Because of the Green Revolution, the farmers have to spend hugely to buy genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides, and us pay heavily to buy water to satisfy these seeds' water requirements. The indigenous seeds did not require vast water amounts as they adapted into India's ecological system.  

      Generally, agriculture's reward is insufficient to meet farmers' and their families' needs. Eventually, the farmers are forced to borrow money from banks, corporations, and third-party petty lenders. This borrowing and the related interest rates increase yearly, whereas the farmer's product prices decline.

      The impact of the imbalance in the input cost and the product prices is now affecting even the wealthy farmers. Farmers are under heavy pressure of never-ending debt and fear of losing their land. The growing debt, interest, and farmers' inability to pay it back result in many suicides of the farmers.  

      It seems that the life-threatening debt of farmers, which intensified as a result of British colonial policies, has continued to date with much more severity except during a small Green Revolution period during which rich farmers became more prosperous, and the small ones economically degraded downward.

      During the British colonial period, the farmers' debt resulted from a change in land rights, commercialization of historically sustainable crops, and stringent taxation.  

      Since 1991, after implementing the neoliberal New Economic Policy (NEP), successive governments in New Delhi followed up on the neoliberal agenda. India has liberalized trade and its big capitalists expanded their markets and spheres of influence abroad, even as Indian markets have been opened for foreign capitalists to penetrate.   

      The three laws passed by the Indian government are part of the neoliberal agenda of the Indian elite and international corporations. Under these policies, the Indian elite is cutting subsidies in the agriculture sector and enabling corporations to maximize their profit by getting full control of the agriculture sector. 

      These laws potentially act as a tool in the hands of the Indian elite and international corporations to create such circumstances in the agriculture sector whereby the Indian farmers will be forced to sell their land and come to mega-urban centers to feed the Indian and foreign capitalist machine and multiply consumption.

      Khalid Zaka is a social justice advocate living in Surrey, British Columbia. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.