Op-ed: What the Farmers’ Revolution in India Says About Big Ag in the US and Worldwide | Civil Eats

Op-ed: What the Farmers’ Revolution in India Says About Big Ag in the US and Worldwide

Farmers in India are engaged in nearly the same fight U.S. farmers waged 40 years ago—against the same corporate interests. 

Farmers participate in a candlelight vigil on New Year's Eve on a highway leading to Delhi on the Gaziabad border on December 31, 2020 in Delhi, India. (Photo by Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

Farmers participate in a candlelight vigil on New Year’s Eve on a highway leading to Delhi on the Gaziabad border on December 31, 2020 in Delhi, India. (Photo by Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images)

Spring has finally come to Delhi after a harsh winter. Yellow mustard fields are gravid with seed, and adolescent green wheat ears dance to the sound of bird calls. But evening winds bring in hundreds of hungry birds of prey that hover over the highway at Delhi’s eastern border at Ghazipur, patiently nibbling from garbage mountains while thousands of unarmed, sunburned farmers camp nearby. The scavengers hungrily await clashes between farmers and police and paramilitary forces in full riot gear with AK-47s. For any bloodletting on these borders has only one winner—a scavenger.

It’s been almost 90 days since Indian farmers began occupying Delhi’s arterial roads protesting three farm laws passed by India’s Parliament last September. The border regions surrounding the city have hosted millions of farmers over the cold winter months. There, battalions of security forces wait behind barbed wire. The roads are blocked and the air is abuzz with surveillance drones and reconnaissance aircraft. The electricity and water have been turned off and internet connectivity is restricted. And yet, the farmers’ revolution grows stronger every day.

The farmers of Gandhi’s India are answering a call to arms to defend their motherland, their food system, and their dignity against a new wave of corporatization unleashed by Modi’s government.

And why shouldn’t it? Here, land is still sacred and agriculture is Dharm—a religious duty and way of life—not merely an occupation. Half of India’s population (about 700 million people) are directly engaged in agriculture, producing staples such as rice, wheat, lentils, peas, and vegetables. Eighty-six percent are smallholder farmers. Indian farmers also bring in much needed agri-dollars by exporting high-value items such as Basamati rice, spices, tea, and more. Much of that ends up in the U.S., which imported $271 million in spices and another $230 million in rice last year.

The farmers of Gandhi’s India are answering a call to arms to defend their motherland, their food system, and their dignity against a new wave of corporatization unleashed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

The farm laws will for the first time allow for farm-gate sales to corporations, put an end to stocking (i.e., warehouse capacity limits for processors), legally validated corporate contract farming, and introduce tax-free, privately owned Mandis (corporate market yards) for Indian farmers. After 200 years of rule by the British East India Company (EIC), Indian farmers were safeguarded from foreclosures, land grabs, and corporate contracts and exploitation by the nation’s constitution. Agriculture in India is still controlled by state, meaning that each province or state has the right to choose and make laws according to their regional needs.

Yet, in a constitutional breach, the Modi government used COVID-19 as an excuse to pass these laws without any consultations with the state governments or the farmers.

A fundamental constitutional right to legal remedies has also been taken away from the farmers. Meanwhile, Modi is busy inviting private investors from, the U.S., Canada, and other developed nations to pour their agri-dollars into India.

Earlier this month, Ned Price, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, called for observing human rights and rules of fair play in India, but came out in support of the new laws. “In general, the U.S. welcomes steps that would improve the efficiency of India’s markets and attract greater private-sector investment,” he said.

Corporations such as Cargill India, Tyson Food, Adani, and Reliance have welcomed the reforms and in a press statement Cargill India President said “reforms would act as a catalyst in attracting private-sector investment in building supply chains for taking Indian farm produce to national and global markets.”

A number of U.S. politicians and celebrities—from congresswoman Ilhan Omar to Susan Sarandon and Rihanna—have spoken out in support of the farmers and support within the international community is growing. Last week, a group of 87 U.S.-based farm and food advocacy groups including Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Farm Aid, Sierra Club, and Pesticide Action Network sent a letter in support of the farmers in hopes of “connecting the dots between the forces of neoliberalism that stifle farmers, from India to the U.S.” Punjabi farmers in California have also expressed support for the protests.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Delhi police registered a complaint for sedition and later started investigations into a protest toolkit shared by Greta Thunberg. Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old climate activist, was arrested along with two others for their role in helping create that toolkit. The activists were in prison, where they risked being exposed to COVID-19, for 10 days before being released on bail on February 23.

The International Monetary Fund’s chief economist, Gita Gopinath, is optimistic about the new laws and flippantly remarked, “Every time a reform is put in place, there are transition costs.” One such “cost” was Karanveer Singh, 52, a farmer from Jind, Haryana, who committed suicide recently at the Tikri border, at a major protest site stretching 18 miles long. More than 70 farmers had committed suicide between November and mid-January in protest, including a 65-year-old Sikh priest named Baba Ram Singh, in an attempt to prevent this new “transition” and its “costs.” Overall, 194 farmers have died since the farmer revolution began last November.

Inspired by the American agriculture movement’s tractorcade, which brought thousands of farmers to Washington, D.C., in 1979, Indian farmers convened for a tractor rally on January 26th, India’s Republic Day. That first day, Indian farmers drove more than 120,000 tractors to Delhi and most paraded peacefully on three designated routes along the borders. But history has a way of repeating itself: Just as a few miscreants had incited violence during the tractorcade in Washington, D.C., a group of state-backed agents instigated violence in Delhi’s historic capitol, the Red Fort.

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Park tractors near U.S. Capitol demanding 100% parity: 1978

The Indian corporate media has condemned the farmers’ revolution, and called them “terrorists and insurgents.” The Indian government was more than ready to use this excuse to forcefully evict the farmers at the Ghazipur and Chilla borders. But after an emotional plea by farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, which exposed government agents in the Red Fort violence on January 30, thousands more swarmed at protests sites overnight.

Since then, millions of people all over India have participated in people’s assemblies—or Panchayats—from western Uttar Pradesh to Punjab and Rajasthan, deciding the next course of action. Daily, hundreds of tractors carrying rations, water, bedding, vegetables, milk, and farm families join the protests from the nearby villages.

Meanwhile, hundreds of farmers wither in Indian jails without access to trials. The government has also deployed the Intelligence Bureau (India’s version of the FBI) to infiltrate the farmer gatherings and send live updates. Local police at the northern borders have been threatening farmers and their families and intimidating them with legal notices. On the night of January 27, for example, Modi’s Bharitya Janta Party’s “goons” attacked farmers at Ghazipur and Singhu Borders with the security camera turned off and police protection on their side. Journalists have also been beaten and arrested for on-the-ground reporting.

Farming for Food or Dollars

As a colony of the East India Company (EIC), farmers were forced to grow crops such as opium, indigo, and cotton for the British Empire. After it established independence in 1947, India began a fling with American corporations, including American Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the pesticide maker that was liable for the world’s most deadly industrial disaster—the Bhopal gas genocide—in 1984.

With UCC as the vanguard, modern Big Ag corporations such as Monsanto/Bayer, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Tyson, and Cargill are stepping in to live up to this legacy. Beginning in 1999, cooking oil (soybean, cottonseed, and palm oil) and corn prices in India plummeted after U.S. exporters such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) started dumping these commodities in India by strong-arming the government, and undercutting Indian farmers. Apart from this dumping, agribusinesses have also done their best to depress domestic prices.

Situations like these have lead Indian farmers into an ecological crisis, debt, and even suicide.

Three generations of farmers have living memories of indignation and resistance against the “Company”—from the British East India Company and Union Carbide to Monsanto and Cargill. Hence, when the Indian Parliament moved to pass bills that would irrevocably change the nature of farming in India, farmers’ unions pushed back.

They have also targeted Indian billionaires, such as Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani (“Modi’s Rockefeller”), and called for their boycott of all their food products and supermarkets, as well as their corporate gas stations and mobile network services. Ambani’s Reliance Industries has important multinational institutional shareholders such as BlackRock, Fidelity, and Goldman Sachs, which also own major shares in agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto/Bayer, ADM , Tyson foods, and others. Meanwhile, Adani Group is fast becoming a food empire with interests in everything from apples to cooking oil.

Chasing the Agri-Dollar

Did the Modi government act in a hurry to develop the new farm laws? It doesn’t seem like it. In fact, the government advisors appear to have been planning this shift for a very long time. Back in 2017, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), a government think tank, produced a report on doubling farmers’ incomes that seems to be lodestar for these new laws. Despite the purported focus, this report appears aimed at bringing in agri-dollars and its conclusions—such as “shifting cultivars [farmers] to non-cultivar jobs”—echo those in the Committee on Economic Development’s “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture.” The latter document, which was created in the 1960s in the U.S., recommended moving “excess resources [farmers] to be utilized in other sectors of the economy to generate greater return on investment.”

As part of the U.S.’s agri-diplomacy of the 1960s, India was one of many countries that imported wheat as food aid under the Food for Peace plan. But with the carrot came the stick. India had little choice but to embrace industrial agriculture, beginning with the Green Revolution and continuing on to the arrival of genetically engineered seeds in the early 2000s. The Lyndon Johnson papers reveal that the U.S. government closely monitored rainfall and studied agriculture in India for decades. The history of Indian seed laws, Agricultural Produce Market Committees, minimum support price (MSP), and public procurement are mottled with U.S. suggestions.

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Farmers protesting at a toll plaza in Punjab in October 2020. (Image CC-licensed by Kanupriya for Gol Monitor)

Farmers protesting at a toll plaza in Punjab in October 2020. (Image CC-licensed by Kanupriya for Gol Monitor)

Let’s take minimum support price (MSP) for instance. This is the idea that farmers would receive a fair price for their crops, and it’s at heart of the farmers’ revolution. The farmers have asked the government to make MSP a legal right, and ensure by law that no produce is bought below this government mandated price. Farmers also want crop prices to be revised annually and throughout the year. Every year, the Indian government declares MSP for over 20 crops, but only buys a few cereal crops at that price for the public food system. As a result, only 6 percent of Indian farmers currently receive MSP prices.

MSP was first suggested to the Indian government by Dr. Frank Parker, assisting the Indian government as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the late 1950s. The U.S. government gives direct subsidies to farmers instead of MSP style policy. The Indian seed laws—the Seed Act of 1966 and Seed Rules of 1968—were also birthed with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and hence have close similarity to the U.S. seed laws from the era. No wonder the battle is still on between Monsanto/Bayer and Indian farmers and the seed industry over illegal royalties and intellectual property right. India’s anti-trust regulator Competition Commission of India (CCI) is also currently probing Monsanto/Bayer for “unfair business practices.”

The Indian seed laws—the Seed Act of 1966 and Seed Rules of 1968—were also birthed with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and hence have close similarity to U.S. seed laws from the era.

If we study the last 50 years of Indian agricultural policy, it becomes clear that the U.S. has carefully primed India for a corporate takeover. And one only need consider the plight of American farm families—who have been repeatedly told to “get big or get out,” and whose rural communities have been hollowed out—to see why the farmers in India are willing to put their lives and livelihoods on the line.

U.S. farmers are trapped in a system shaped by monopoly. The four top agribusiness corporations control 84 percent of the U.S. food supply and over 80 percent of the world’s grain. Big Ag and its shadow asset management firms owns everything from the seed to farm inputs, credit services, and even the supermarket. While 50 percent of all American produce is wasted, hungers grows, but corporate profits continue to grow.

The American farm dream has earned these companies billions while making millions of farm families’ into expendable commodities. Modi wants Indians to chase the same dream.

But the farmers don’t plan to leave Delhi’s borders until the laws are repealed. They have said they’re prepared to stay for years, but they hope the Modi government will resume talks, repeal the laws, and make a fresh start by creating a new committee that includes farmer representatives. They want to help create new laws for the welfare of farmers—not corporations.

Indra Shekhar Singh writes on agriculture and environment and is also the former Director of the Policy and Outreach for the National Seed Association of India. Read more >

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  1. Sue VanDerzee
    This is so sad. Small farms are the future of a healthy planet.
  2. Incogmachito
    The US Agri-business corporations have been a da disaster for America's farms. I support the Indian farmers' efforts to keep control of their production. Once it is lost, it is difficult to regain. The level of nutrition in the US has steadily declined during the advent of Agri-business, also.
  3. I was one of the MI farmers that went to Washington back in 1977-78 with the American Agricultural Movement. I appreciate the article and understand the Indian's farmers situation, first hand.

    I believe that Agriculture in general does not function properly in a majority commodity based food system. As we gain a better understanding of local/regional food systems and how they support the physical and economic health of populations, along with immune system factors, we will see that the commodities system should have never been giving the focus and subsidies that has artificially giving it a control in our food system that is bringing poor physical and economic health to our communities. Weak immune systems in the US are really the result of the more commodity based food system. Time for change and I appreciate the Indian farmers effort to stand for needed change.

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