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Farmers in India Lead the Fight Against Corporate Agriculture
Whether from major news outlets or Rihanna’s Twitter [[link removed]], chances are you’ve heard that farmers in India are engaged in epic demonstrations. For nearly three months, hundreds of thousands [[link removed]] of farmers and landless farm workers [[link removed]] have set up temporary communities in the streets outside New Dehli to protest against three new agricultural laws pushed by India’s right-wing government.
The measures would encourage more farmers to sell directly to corporate buyers rather than through government-regulated wholesale markets called mandis. The government created this system of minimum price guarantees and regulated auctions in the 1960’s to encourage farmers – particularly farmers in the regions of Punjab and Haryana – to adopt expensive hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation systems during the “ Green Revolution [[link removed]].” This system helped prevent a price collapse as wheat and rice production nearly tripled [[link removed]] in under three decades.
Now corporations have persuaded India’s government that such protections are no longer needed. But farmers and experts beg to differ. They warn that after the new laws go into effect, corporations will lure farmers away from regulated markets with private contracts that temporarily offer higher prices. Once most farmers are selling grain in unregulated private marketplaces, experts warn [[link removed]] that the mandi system will fold. At that moment, the prices corporations offer farmers are bound to collapse, posing a deep threat to farmers’ income. An estimated 58% [[link removed]] of India’s population relies on farming for their livelihood.
This is not just idle speculation. When the state of Bihar did away with mandis and left farmers to the mercy of private buyers in 2006, farmer incomes in that region plunged [[link removed]] driving many into poverty. “These private companies, once they controlled procurement, they could manipulate prices and force farmers to be at their whim,” says Navyug Gill, an assistant professor of South Asian and global history at William Paterson University. “This new policy is not an experiment. It was tried in Bihar with a disastrous outcome.”
The new laws will also allow corporations to store more crops for longer in order to sell at a higher price. This, warn experts [[link removed]], will promote speculation and lead to more corporate control of the price consumers pay for food [[link removed]]. Anyone in India who relies on government-subsidized food to survive is at risk. Roughly 60% of people in India [[link removed]] are eligible for government-subsidized grains and anywhere from 30% to 50% of the population relies on this food to survive, according to Gill. If mandis disappear and the government stops buying, storing, and distributing grain, the government will either need to buy grain from private companies to distribute to the poor or give the poor cash to buy food on the private market. “In both ways, it is an abdication of government responsibility to the enrichment of private interests,” Gill says.
Conflict over these policies escalated this month as protestors clashed with police [[link removed]] and the government shut down the internet [[link removed]] outside New Dehli, the nation’s capital, where farmers have protested for months. The Indian government also pushed Twitter to block hundreds of critical accounts [[link removed]]. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered to delay implementing the laws [[link removed]] for two years. But farmers demand a full repeal as well as bold agricultural reforms of their own.
Well before Prime Minister Modi introduced these controversial policies, India already had high rates of farmer suicide [[link removed]] as farmers struggled with accessing land and water, indebtedness, soil degradation [[link removed]], and volatile cash crops [[link removed]]. The mandi system also has flaws – minimum prices do not always reflect changing costs of production and local traders have been accused of colluding in mandi auctions [[link removed]]. “People have been demanding reforms for five decades,” says Gill. “[But] these are not agricultural reforms. This is actually just a corporate handover.”
The strength and duration of the protests give true reform a powerful platform. The farmers’ demands include, for example, implementing policies laid out in the Swaminathan Panel Report [[link removed]]. Authored by a long-serving agricultural policy official, M.S. Swaminathan, the report recommends land redistribution, investments in sustainable water sources, incentives for conservation farming and soil improvement, increased credit access for the poor, a universal public food distribution system, more competitive markets, and preservation of biodiversity and indigenous crops [[link removed]] and animals.
The protestors challenge the influential corporate line that unregulated markets will provide farmers and consumers more “freedom,” or that agricultural consolidation is necessary for economic development. “In India, there is a misguided and I think colonized imagination that has led to a political program where the aim seems to be to consolidate landholding and push people out of cultivation,” explains Gill. “Small scale collective cultivation is actually viable. People can earn a livelihood and feed their communities. It takes political imagination and popular determination to bring that into being and maintain it in an equitable way.”
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What We're Reading
Freezing temperatures and blackouts in Texas are driving food shortages by disrupting food storage and processing. The freeze has also threatened regional livestock and vegetable production. (The Texas Tribune [[link removed]])
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) exposes how software embedded in agricultural machinery creates barriers to quick and affordable repair, in a new report. ( U.S. PIRG [[link removed]])
Farmers recently filed an antitrust class action lawsuit against seed and agrichemical manufacturers and retailers, alleging giants such as Bayer conspired with retailers to boycott lower-cost competitors, such as the Farmers Business Network. ( Press Release [[link removed]])
Government e-mails reveal that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) initially declined support and input from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in its response to massive COVID-19 outbreaks among meatpacking workers. ( Public Citizen [[link removed]])
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