Long Read | Why aren’t we talking about farmers in India?

They are fighting in a global war over the future of agriculture and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is choking the debate.

When Shashank Yadav took to Twitter in April to plead for oxygen to save his dying grandfather, the Indian government swept into action. They arrested Yadav and charged him under Section 269 of the Indian Penal Code for acting “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public”. 

Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has yet to take action to tackle the horrors of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, the administration has been exceptionally diligent in managing the circulation of information regarding politics and the pandemic. 

Such competence has been long in the making. In a 2002 interview, after he had overseen brutal pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat where he was then chief minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that his only regret was not better managing the media. When #ResignModi trended on Facebook, where Modi has 47 million followers, posts containing the hashtag were blocked.

Banished from the headlines

Since then, the horrors of the Indian healthcare system have been too obvious to censor. The front pages carry stories describing bodies floating in the Ganges and the disaster of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturing country’s inability to vaccinate its own population. The Indian government can’t lock up every journalist, no matter how much they’d like to. Media attention has shamed the Modi administration, though not enough for the administration to admit that its electoral campaigning was partly to blame for super spreader events associated with regional elections. Despite vast rallies and significant investments, the BJP didn’t win the gains it had sought. This is in part because of farmers, a constituency banished from the headlines – within and outside India – but whose issues rallied the country last year.

Today, the farmer protests continue in Delhi’s blistering heat and raging Covid-19 outbreak. Protesters have declared that they will remain either until Modi repeals his agricultural reforms or until he loses his 2024 re-election bid, whichever comes first. And this isn’t just talk, inside the protest camps there is infrastructure for the long haul. Farmers camped on the city’s outskirts have built community kitchens, clinics, foot-massage parlours and a fixture of many farmer protests, libraries. Farmers understand their fates have always turned on what they know and what they’ve been allowed to plant. They exchange knowledge from books and seeds freely.

India is a frontline battleground for a global war around agricultural knowledge. From Rwanda to the United States, farmers and anti-hunger advocates are pitched against philanthropists, agro-chemical giants and food multinationals around the future role of government, technology and food systems in ending hunger. The fate of Indian farmers matters for the entire planet.

7 January 2021: Farmers ride in a procession of tractors during a rally from Tikri to the Singhu border. (Photograph by Vipin Kumar/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Textbook disaster capitalism

The 2020 Covid-19 lockdown was extended through April, and then until the end of May. Migrant workers were stranded. Unable to find public transport home, and criminalised for remaining where the lockdown had left them, some walked hundreds of kilometres, dying along the way. Images of migrant workers being beaten by police circulated widely.

With each lockdown extension, the government came under pressure to do more. It failed to invest in healthcare or prepare for the coming disaster. On Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, the BJP took a beating. On 12 May, Modi responded by announcing a call for a “Self-Reliant” India (Atmanirbhar Bharat), funded with a $263 billion stimulus package. The following week, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman held a series of press conferences detailing the package.

The stimulus staples of food aid, loans to small businesses and rent relief amounted to one of the lowest rates of fiscal stimulus anywhere in the world. The Covid-19 relief package was a beard for radical structural reforms to the coal, energy, civil aviation and agriculture sectors which, Sitharaman suggested, would help India’s economy out of its slump. India would prepare for its bold post-pandemic future by opening up its fossil fuel sector and selling off mineral rights and airspace. It was textbook disaster capitalism.

Moreover, the BJP announced, India’s largest source of employment would also enjoy the fruits of deregulation; farmers would be unshackled from government purchasing arrangements dating back to the early years of Indian independence. Although agriculture, forestry and fishing only account for 16z% of India’s gross domestic product, about half the population depends on them in one way or another.

The laws passed through the BJP-majority Indian parliament swiftly; on 5 June they became part of the emergency ordinances at the government’s disposal to manage the pandemic. By the end of June, the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service had analysed the proposals, and lauded them as “ordinances that will liberate existing market restrictions, eliminate free trade barriers in agricultural production, and empower farmers”. Farmers themselves created study groups to analyse the proposed reforms and came to a rather different conclusion: the laws, farmers said, were the beginning of the end for small-scale farming. To cast India’s 146 million farms to the free market would inevitably lead to a more consolidated, monopolised, ecologically destructive and, ultimately, American agricultural model.

Prior to the three new acts – the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 – farmers primarily in Punjab and Haryana sold their harvest through licensed commission agents. These agents, at least in theory, helped farmers find the highest prices from licensed purchasers in state-level agricultural produce marketing committees.

Monopsony worries

The first of these new acts limits the zone of state oversight to these committees, while allowing new actors to create new markets. The second allows farmers to contract with anyone they’d like. The third allows corporations to stockpile food and engage in the warehouse and supply management systems that characterise retail giant Walmart’s daily operations in the US.

“Farmers saw the consequences before everyone else,” said Sudha Narayanan, a Delhi-based economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute. As Narayanan has said, the laws seemed designed to help two well-connected allies, Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani – both from Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Adani, a coal billionaire, runs an agro-logistics empire which in 2016 landed a 30-year contract to warehouse grain for the government. Ambani, with a net worth of $75.7 billion, has just started a foray into e-retail. With the ability to set up private markets free of state oversight, farmers worry that they will get locked into the kinds of monopsony that characterise US agriculture.

Nobody believes that the current system is perfect. For instance, the reliance on intermediaries opens opportunities for trading agents to trap farmers in debt. Proponents for reform contend that doing away with the variations in state-administered grain trading will produce a national market with reduced bureaucracy and more transparency in pricing. There is, however, little reason to think that preventing state governments from regulating markets, and preventing farming contracts from being governed by state laws, will lead to a utopian free market exchange. Indeed, the language around private contracts suggests that it’ll become harder, not easier, for farmers to know what a fair price for their harvests actually is.

15 May 2021: A relative sits with a patient being treated for the coronavirus at the Government BDM District Hospital in Kotputli, Rajasthan. (Photograph by Rebecca Conway/ Getty Images)

Authoritarian approach to agriculture

Some of these reforms have already been tried outside Punjab. Grain trade liberalisation in the Indian state of Bihar supports farmers’ worries. Bihari wheat farmers get $16 for 100kg, while Punjabi farmers sell the same weight for $25. Modi’s government insists that it knows the best way to direct the infrastructure to feed the country. Meanwhile, in the camps outside Delhi, you’ll hearSarkar ki Majboori – Adani, Ambani, Jamakhori (The government is beholden to the hoarders, Adani and Ambani).”

The laws are an authoritarian approach to agriculture. Passed without debate or transparency, they also forbid dissent; they include provisions making it impossible for anyone to take the government to court as a result of actions consonant with these new agricultural acts.

Initial farmer protests in June, July and August, mainly in Punjab, were largely ineffective; the farm ordinances passed into law in September. After the acts passed, farmer groups proposed to relocate, with the call “Dilli chalo (let’s go to Delhi)”. They never quite arrived.

Delhi sits in the Northern Capital Region, a “union territory” similar to Washington, DC in the US with its own central police force. When the protesters arrived from Punjab in October, they met blockades and force. Farmers pitched camps. Word spread and farmers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan arrived at border posts. Soon thousands of farmers encircled Delhi. Media portraying police riots spread and, with it, sympathy with the protesters.

Government suspends the internet

This convergence of people in Delhi broke the record for the world’s largest single protest. In December, more than 250 million people joined a national strike and the government detained pro-farmer opposition leaders. On 26 January, the 72nd anniversary of India’s constitution, thousands of farmers drove their tractors through New Delhi, where police and a handful of protesters soon clashed. These scenes went viral and the Indian government reacted by suspending the internet for several days around Delhi. The world had already begun to see what was happening, though. “Why aren’t we talking about this!?” asked Rihanna, tweeting a CNN story about India’s protests to her 100 million followers.

Greta Thunberg soon voiced her support for the farmers and reposted a toolkit for activists, a three-page document comprising a short history of the global persecution of farmers, a few hashtags, links to petitions and information about the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina. Internet trolls soon seethed in Rihanna and Thunberg’s feeds, posting misogynistic and nationalistic chauvinism echoing Donald Trump’s infamous social media commentary.

In real life, the Indian police wasted no time. Soon after Thunberg tweeted, Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old climate activist, was arrested on suspicion of authoring the toolkit. The government scoured Twitter, Google and Facebook’s products for her accomplices in humiliating the nation. As Naomi Klein reported, Silicon Valley obliged, handing over correspondences between the young activists quickly.

This brings us to one answer to Rihanna’s question: we aren’t talking about this because the Indian government and its cronies are targeting those who are speaking out about the protests on and offline. And by one measure, they’ve succeeded. For example, Prabir Purkayastha, the editor of the online website NewsClick, was raided by the government earlier this year for alleged financial crimes. It may be just a coincidence that his site has covered the protests in depth and that he has accused Adani and Modi of crony capitalism, but that is unlikely. I have been researching and writing about Indian agriculture for several decades and have never seen so much reluctance to go on record with a comment.

Targeting those who speak out

The space allowing for dissent in India is shrinking. In September 2020, Amnesty International suspended its operations supposedly because its bank accounts were frozen as part of an Indian government investigation for irregular transfers from Amnesty’s United Kingdom office. The more likely reason for the organisation’s suspension in India is that Modi’s government did not like Amnesty’s findings of human rights violations by Delhi police earlier that year.

I’ve recently heard it said that Modi is behaving like a fascist. This is unkind to fascists. The Shiv Sena is an ultranationalist Hindu supremacist party in Maharashtra that thrives in congruences of organised crime, religion and politics. Yet, despite its political alliance with the BJP, even Shiv Sena has distanced itself from the farm laws. Parties of blood and soil have always lauded the yeoman farmer against the city slicker, but it’s a telling split in the Hindu Right when the BJP can’t bring along its saffron-clad goons.

While the Indian government frowns on the meddling of pesky foreigners, it has long sought to ingratiate itself with its allies. The Indian government’s official news source compared the farmer protests against the government to the white supremacist attacks on the Capitol. The US State Department issued an unattributed, gentle rebuke, noting that “We recognise that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same.”

There are two reasons why the US State Department hasn’t been more forceful in its condemnations of the Indian government. First, it can’t. Second, it doesn’t want to. The US government’s China strategy means it must keep India close in the Quad. Even if it were freer to criticise the Indian government, the US government approves of Modi’s policies. In the same statement offering unsound support to the protesters, the US State Department offered that “In general, the United States welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private-sector investment.” The US approves of Modi’s policies because it helped write them.

31 December 2020: Farmers at a vigil on New Year’s Eve remember the 40 farmers who died during the protest on a highway at the Ghaziabad border in Delhi. (Photograph by Anindito Mukherjee/ Getty Images)

Penned in the US

Like too many countries in the Global South, the first draft of India’s agricultural policy was penned in the US. The laws that Modi is seeking to supplant are vestiges of the Green Revolution, brought to India by the US State Department in the 1950s. The 2020 replacement for those laws was written in a 1991 World Bank memorandum, conceived when the Washington consensus was destiny and its detractors could only end up as intellectual roadkill, pancaked by the inevitable juggernaut of free enterprise.

More recently, the Indian and US governments teamed up to create the US-India Agricultural Knowledge Initiative, a 2005 project that attempts to influence the contours of agricultural knowledge. The initiative was a $100 million fund intended to bankroll the collaboration between scientists from India and the US to improve farming technology, in order to bring about “a second Green Revolution”. If you believe that agricultural policy is just seed technology, then it’s easy to treat the accompanying legal and administrative architecture as epiphenomenal, as something that needs to work so that seeds can do their thing. It’s a sophisticated bait-and-switch, and one that the architects of the knowledge initiative appreciate. Despite their claims to transparent cross-border scientific collaboration, open records requests revealed that the initiative pushed regulatory change in favour of US vendors of genetically modified crops and those looking to push contract farming.

There’s nothing new about foreign powers messing with Indian agricultural markets. European colonists did it for centuries, and India’s current legal framework for agriculture is the result of a subtle series of historic forces. India’s post-independence government was acutely aware of how domestic and international agricultural markets worked. After all, they’d seen the British export grain and local hoarders keep it off the market while three million people died in the Bengal famine of 1943-1944. The 1955 Essential Commodities Act prevented farmers from being scalped in the market by unscrupulous middlemen and prevented hoarding.

A subtle series of historic forces

The Green Revolution wove itself into this history. Though a potent cocktail of knowledge, technology and subsidy, the Green Revolution is often misremembered. From the New Yorker to NPR, the Green Revolution is presented as a miracle of agricultural technology owing to the fact that India doubled its wheat production in the seven years between 1965 and 1972. That fact is true, but it’s important to understand why that occurred, where it did and at what cost.

It’s no accident that many of the farmers surrounding Delhi are from Punjab and Haryana. Those states were key sources of India’s wheat crop, and the epicentre of the Green Revolution almost 60 years ago. Their farming system came from the US government and philanthropists at the Rockefeller Foundation. Unified in a Cold War effort to prevent hunger and communism by raising levels of wheat production, the Green Revolution was a foreign policy tactic designed to forestall a Soviet Red Revolution.

Although US plant breeder Norman Borlaug won a Nobel Peace Prize for the Green Revolution, it wasn’t driven by new seeds. In 1968, the then administrator of the US Agency for International Development and the man who coined the term “Green Revolution”, William Gaud, was grilled by the Senate. Borlaug’s seeds were too expensive and crop prices were too low for the technology to work. Gaud affirmed that it was subsidies, not the seeds themselves, that should be given the “primary credit for providing the incentive” to grow more.

Punjabi farmers grew more grain because the government promised to pay them more. The technology worked only if there was also support for irrigation and fertiliser, expensive inputs that worked best with the economics of larger farms growing just one crop. (Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that India’s burst of wheat production was made possible by thousands of small tube wells.) Government support also came in the shape of The Patents Act 1970, which waived patent rights on things such as fertilisers and pharmaceuticals, stating that the same product could be patented by different people if produced by different methods (it is from this act that the Indian pharmaceutical industry sprang, and which the Knowledge Initiative sought to correct).

No direct improvement in hunger

Wheat output increased, but at the expense of dietary and biological diversity. The other staples and proteins farmers grew to eat at home were squeezed out to make way for monocultures; while some peasants profited, the poorest often did not. Though more wheat grew, it didn’t translate into a direct improvement in hunger in the early course of the Green Revolution. Today, India ranks 94 out of 107 in the Global Hunger Index.

Daily per person calorie and protein intake estimates in India 1961-1980 (FAOSTAT

Today, Indian farmers are living the endgame of industrial agriculture. Like their counterparts in the declining US grain belt, farmers in the Green Revolution belt of northern India have higher rates of suicide, debt, ecological destruction and endemic drug abuse among the young. The soil is dying, the water’s running out and climate change is rendering the future even more uncertain. Farmers are ready for a different system, because they know what this one has wrought. But the Indian government has only offered them a set of laws to make the death spiral of industrial agriculture profitable for the private sector. In so doing, the government has denied farmers the space to discuss and debate a different system altogether. Indeed, Modi is managing the media landscape around this debate very well.

An augur for elsewhere

Indian farmers are an augur for their brethren elsewhere. Later this year, the United Nations will host a Food Systems Summit. Convened by the UN secretary general, it will be helmed by Agnes Kalibata, Rwanda’s minister of agriculture and animal resources from 2008 to 2014 and current president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The Gates Foundation and the World Economic Forum champion an approach that has increased yield and done little for hunger in Rwanda, akin to the Green Revolution in India.

Unlike the original Green Revolution, active state support for farmers is off the table. (Support for farm workers has never been on the table.) Instead, the summit will draw on carbon-intensive chemical fertiliser, a privatised supply chain and “value-chain partnerships” driven by partners convened by the World Economic Forum. Such ideas, already in circulation leading up to the summit, exclude the poorest from being allowed to know how they might feed themselves through different economic policy. 

Recently, a collection of 500 groups linked to the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism announced that they would not participate in the process, concerned that it is beholden to a corporate vision for how to end hunger. These groups, representing more than 300 million constituents, point out that Green Revolution-style agriculture is neither inevitable nor the best option for reducing hunger.

Peasant farmers have invested in organising peer-to-peer education networks to develop alternatives. The Amrita Bhoomi centre in Karnataka, an agroecological research and advocacy centre founded by MD Nanjundaswamy, one of India’s most vociferous critics of US economic policy, uses “natural farming” methods to build soil fertility and biological diversity. These practices have increased incomes and soil fertility, and combatted hunger in ways that the Green Revolution has yet to do.

Such knowledge networks are the norm, not the exception. A research team led by British academic Jules Pretty concluded that there are currently more than eight million groups of farmers studying such agroecological techniques. Many of these demonstrate, at scale, both higher food outputs and better hunger metrics than the package of technology, subsidy and knowledge at the World Food Systems Summit.

Which returns us to the libraries and discussion spaces that persist in Delhi despite the wave of Covid-19 infections. Farmers there have been successful in creating space for debate. They have forged unlikely, if temporary, alliances around the opposition to the farm laws. Hindu farmers who have traditionally been BJP stalwarts have allied with Sikh farmers in Punjab. Farm labourers have joined their bosses. They’ve peeled off support in urban areas, and in southern India. Modi’s electoral defeats tracked high levels of disapproval for the farm laws.

The question now is whether there is the space to know, discuss and propose an alternative to industrial agriculture where government support is directed toward workers, farmers and the poor. Farming differently, using technology differently and figuring out more democratic ways to use government support will touch every eater on the planet. In international organisations such as La Via Campesina, the 200 million-member peasant movement, these conversations are happening and that knowledge circulates freely. It is vital that we make sure that the Modi administration doesn’t choke this conversation in India. So, why aren’t we talking about this?

This article was first published in Boston Review.

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