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Grains of Wrath: Why Indian Farmers are Fighting for Survival Against Corporate Takeover of Agriculture

Grains of Wrath: Why Indian Farmers are Fighting for Survival Against Corporate Takeover of Agriculture

  • The BJP government is in cahoots with big business to reduce marginal and subsistent farmers into servitude and penury.

Bharat Ek Krishi Pradhan Desh Hai (India is an agriculture dominated economy) – People in my generation grew up reading this in our school textbooks. So what has turned hundreds of thousands of farmers into violent agitators? What made them charge at police with tractors, lathis and swords at the Red Fort on India’s Republic Day on Jan. 26? Without justifying or glorifying violence, we need to better understand the perspectives which are driving such behavior.

The farmers, represented by over 500 groups have been camping outdoors in Delhi, weathering adversities for over two months to date. As many as nine discussions with the government have not succeeded in an acceptable outcome, mainly because of competing interests. The farmers are demanding a total withdrawal of the farm bill, while the government is open to delaying its implementation a bit, but not much more. Is the farmers’ struggle justifiable anyhow? Let’s examine.

The farming community is certainly feeling threatened by the Farm Bill. They are clearly worried about their future livelihoods and for their families. It is not hard to imagine that putting private businesses in the middle of a farming ecosystem (especially the part which influences agriculture) throws a big monkey wrench into agriculture. A private business is solely driven by a need for never-ending profits and that alone. If a business were to choose between making more money in whichever way possible (while even bending the rules to suit their purpose), and doing the right thing for the poor hard-working farmer, the money interest will always win, without a doubt. Let’s call it for what the farm bill is – it is an instrument which introduces new, and not well understood risks to farmers, affecting their well-being, peace of mind and their future, and food securities of Indian’s enormous populations. Why? All to the benefit of big business, no matter what the stated objectives may be.

One can clearly sense the pressures from industry in this instance where the BJP leadership just rammed the bill’s approval based solely on a voice vote. We don’t know what kinds of pressures are being applied on the senior BJP leaders (or if that is the case), but given their high perches in government, what is required is a careful scrutiny of the bill to ensure that nation’s leaders are not putting their self-interests ahead of what is right for the farmer.

Let’s call it for what the farm bill is – it is an instrument which introduces new, and not well understood risks to farmers, affecting their well-being, peace of mind and their future, and food securities of Indian’s enormous populations.

Getting into the essence of the Farm Bill, first the ideas that government supported Mandis will continue to exist and the ‘Minimum Support Price’ will not go away are merely assurances in the bill, and cannot be taken at face value. Such assurances need to be written into laws to address understandable farmer fears. Secondly, what this bill also introduces is the idea of Contract Farming where private businesses come into play influencing and controlling agriculture. If the likes of Ambanis or Adanis want to get into this space, what will they look to do in order to achieve maximum profits from farming under their tutelage?

The following strike as some of the potential fallouts of this bill, which are not just bad for the farmers, but likely not good for India’s consumers either:

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  1. A need by private industry to maximize crop yields over quality. Farmers better cooperate with their big business sponsors as the bill basically promotes an employer-employee relationship between a business and a farmer. In the post Farm-bill world, private enterprises could pit farmer against farmer by tapping into their yield data, altering what is a happy co-existence in the farming community into a dog-eat-dog world. This could drive farmers to the end of their wits and create widespread discontent,  potentially even leading to farmer suicides down the line.
  2. Prioritization of grains and produce which bring more money in international market (where there are greater profits because of a favorable currency rate) over what the local populations needs may be. As a result, the local population could lose out. There seem to be no protections in the bill to guard against a runaway profit-at-any cost farming governed by big business, benefiting their bottom lines over everything else.
  3. It is not very difficult to imagine that private business contracted farms could become similar to glorified iPhone manufacturing facilities like those in China – contracted to do specific work, nothing more nothing less. We know the phones do get made there, but a large majority of those are sent over to the outside world for hefty gains. Why wouldn’t the private business salivate to try the same with farming?
  4. The Bill turns Indian farmers into guinea pigs for a brand new agricultural idea. Has this new model been tried in the world by any other developed country? Did it have success there? If not, why play this dangerous game against the Indian farmers?
  5. Use of GMO seeds where the farmers need to only buy seeds from the private sponsors, as the seeds cannot grow on their own (sort of a model which the U.S. giants such as Monsanto and Cargill have put in place). This will force the farmers to beg/buy seeds, leaving them at the mercy of big business, because there are zero protections for the farmers should that become the case.
  6. Reduction in crop variety – with just a handful of businesses controlling agriculture, hundreds of legacy/heirloom/hard to grow produce varietals will disappear because of a lack of individual farmers acting as the stewards for such produce.
  7. Organic farming will take a back seat because organic produce yields are smaller, and require a holistic care for them to grow. This translates into a widespread public health concern. Many studies in the West have attributed increased use of industrial farming methods behind rises in incidence of cancer, skin, allergic diseases.
  8. High use of glyphosate and other herbicides/pesticides may be banned in the U.S. and EU, but still not under the Indian government radar, could ‘poison the well’ for the resulting crops. For example, round-up is banned in Europe, but does brisk business in many parts of the world today, including India. Not only that, Indian farming could become a petri-dish for future Glyphosate like experiments with other, not-banned-yet, to be formulated chemicals. Who is going to prevent such things? Indian governing controls are too easily corruptible for us to assume no such things will happen.
  9. Since the easiest way to increase crop is done by use of chemical fertilizers, man made herbicides and pesticides, the taste, flavor and health benefits of the grains and produce will suffer the same consequence in India just as it has here in the US. For anyone who has sat and eaten in roadside dhabas in farming communities can tell you — that food beats the taste of any industrially farmed produce grown in the U.S., by a mile. Growing things the traditional, organic like farming methods is the likely reason why I figure that is. We will lose that for sure, if this Farm Bill were to take hold.

Finally, a recent report by the BBC lays out the demerits of the farm bill in succinct terms: “Experience across the world has shown that corporatization of agriculture, contrary to improving farm incomes has often depressed them, says agriculture policy expert Devendra Sharma. ‘Leaving farmers to the tyranny of the markets would be akin to putting the sheep before the wolf,’ Mr Sharma told the BBC. ‘There are leakages in the current system, and it needs to be reformed, but replacing one failed model with another is not the solution. Evidence from states where farmers haven’t benefited even after wholesale markets were dismantled supports this argument. There are no easy answers. But experts agree that in a country where agriculture employs so many millions, leaving farmers’ fates to the vagaries of the market cannot be the only answer.’”

Ansh Sarkari has varied interests which range from gourmet cooking, to foraging for wild-mushrooms, photography to knife sharpening to politics. He researches foods from around the globe and using his nearly four decades of food-centric travels, he has amassed keen insights into food identities of various nations and cultures, and how some even may correlate. He is always tinkering with techniques, spices and uses his deep expertise in all things fire to try to elevate foods of all kinds. Ansh lives in the Midwest with his wife and two grown up children.

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