Vested interests and a celebrity echo chamber stand in the way of revolutionising Indian farming

Pranoy Roy Choudhury | Wednesday 7th April 2021

Farmers in India have been protesting for months over three new laws passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020. Although largely peaceful, these protests have turned violent several times. In December, tens of thousands of farmers congregated in New Delhi, the country’s seat of power, attacking law enforcement and damaging public property. The police responded by firing tear gas and water cannons. And in late January, protestors deviated from a pre-sanctioned route and tried to overcome police barricades with deadly weapons, including swords. The confrontation saw the injury of over 300 police and over a thousand farmers. In what the farmers say was an attempt to “suppress the voice of disagreement”, the government blocked internet access at locations outside the city. After 11 rounds of talks and the Indian Supreme Court’s suspension of the laws, the protests rage on. Why?

The farmers demand a complete repeal of the laws, an unreasonable demand that neglects the need for reform. At present, farmers are only allowed to sell their crops at what’s known as an “Agricultural Produce Market Committee”, where the government guarantees them a minimum price. Farmers have campaigned for an increase in these prices for years, but to no avail. Simply put, the government cannot afford to give a pay rise to such an inefficient sector. India’s agricultural market accounts for just 17% of its GDP but 30% of the Indian budget. The new laws propose allowing farmers to sell their crops outside of government-regulated markets (Mandis) while also providing proper legal mechanisms to ensure farmers are protected. Farmers would be able to sell their produce for a higher price than they currently can at the Mandis. “The farmers should get the advantage of a big comprehensive market that opens our country to global markets”, believes the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi

The protests generate many headlines, but the new laws are not nearly as controversial as they may seem. Only 3 out of 29 Indian states oppose the new laws. Punjab is the most vocal, which is unsurprising when we look at who benefits the most from the Mandis.

While the Indian government established the Mandis to prevent farmers’ exploitation, the government-regulated markets have achieved the opposite. Like most middlemen, the Mandis started cartels, setting prices of goods at their discretion, much to the farmer’s detriment. On the other hand, Punjab has significantly benefited from the Mandis as their farmers cultivate the most significant share of rice and wheat, the two products covered by the enforcement of minimum pricing.

There has been a mixed response from the international community towards the reforms and the resulting protests. The IMF’s chief economist Gita Gopinath highlighted the importance of the reforms in achieving increased incomes for farmers. Meanwhile, pop star Rihanna shared a CNN article supporting the farmers coupled with the tweet “why aren’t we talking about this?”. An immense backlash from the Indian public ensued towards Rhianna, who has also been promoting her brand Savage X Fenty whilst posing semi-nude, sporting a pendant with the Hindu God Ganesh. Reports of alleged child labour in India to mine mica for Rhianna’s beauty line have also emerged. Other international voices who have spoken against the reforms include climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who stands in solidarity with the farmers, despite their emphatic demands to remove fines for stubble burning that has resulted in Delhi having one of the poorest air qualities in the world, a fact which completely counters the environmental philosophy which should underpin contemporary climate activism. 

The message of how vital the need for reform is to the future of Indian farming finds itself lost in an echo chamber that prioritises the convenience of virtue signalling over a self-evident good.

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