250 million farmers in India are taking a stand against the government as part of the biggest protest in history. Here's why the US and the world should pay attention.
- Millions of farmers in India are protesting three agricultural reform bills that were passed in September without their consultation, which they claim threatens their livelihood.
- The implications of the protests reach beyond India and relate to global issues of land inequality: an estimated 70% percent of all farmland around the world is controlled by only 1% of farms — and most Indian farmers only own two to three acres of land.
- In countries like the United States, small farmers have long suffered from government policies of deregulating and privatizing the agricultural sector, especially during the pandemic when most aid went to large farms.
- Global observers should pay attention and support the Indian farmer protests, and US policymakers should pass legislation to support small farms in the US.
- Iris Kim is a writer and recent USC graduate living in Los Angeles.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
We are witnessing what may be the world's largest organized strike in human history. Beginning in August, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers gathered across the states of Punjab and Haryana. The protesters have continued their march to the outskirts of New Delhi, choking off traffic on the major highways leading to the nation's capital. At its peak, an estimated 250 million protesters joined the cause, with many more marching in solidarity from around the world.
The protesters are demanding the repeal of three agricultural reform bills that politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party passed in September without consulting any farmers. Modi's government claims the policies will liberalize the industry and nationalize the agricultural market.
The bills seek to end the system of government-subsidized wholesale markets where farmers are guaranteed sales to the state. The new system cuts the red tape, allowing corporations and private buyers to enter the marketplace and strike deals with farmers directly. In addition, it eliminates previous corporate restrictions on land purchases and the stockpiling of essential commodities. Supporters of the amendments argue that these reforms are necessary for the modernization of the agriculture industry and that farmers will benefit from the newfound policies by being able to set their own prices and interact with multiple buyers.
However, this new system does not mandate contractual obligations and blocks farmers from taking disputes to court, opening up opportunities for rampant abuse by powerful corporate interests. Farmers maintain that this is yet another government ploy to allow corporate behemoths such as Reliance Industries and the Adani Group to enter the sector and expropriate market control.
The protesters' demands relate to global issues of land inequality
The implications of this strike extend far beyond the subcontinent and the Indian agriculture industry. Regardless of the economic arguments for or against the reforms, one thing is clear: Indian farmers are protesting to preserve their land and livelihoods. Their frustrations match those of small farmers in many countries, especially in the United States.
Indian farmers, who make up around half the nation's workforce, are almost all subsistence farmers; the average farmer in India owns only two to three acres of land. The last few decades of rapid urbanization in India have led to government acquisition of land via statutory mandate. Small farmers have been losing their land to government policy that hands over leases to large corporations.
In the US, small farmers have also long suffered from government policies of deregulating and privatizing the agricultural sector. During the 20th century, Black farmers lost over 90% of their farmland to policies that consolidated land and subsidized corporate agribusinesses.
In addition, the Equal Justice Initiative reports that "illegal pressures applied through USDA loan programs created massive transfers of wealth from Black to white farmers in the period just after the 1950s." Federal agencies denied small farmers loans and foreclosed on minority farmers' lands while limiting access to legal protections against predatory corporate practices.
More recently, under the Trump administration's trade wars and COVID-19 pandemic response, government assistance has gone almost exclusively to corporations. Small farmers who rely on direct-to-consumer sales have been shut out of receiving government subsidies. The unequal access to capital means that small farmers continue to go out of business at unprecedented rates during the economic downturn, while large agribusinesses stay afloat with taxpayer-funded aid.
This is a global issue — as corporate farms increase their share of land ownership, an estimated 70% percent of all farmland around the world is controlled by only 1% of farms. The shift in land ownership from smallholders to corporations has mostly taken place in the US and Europe, whose governments have supported agribusiness interests. Countries such as India are now seeing this rapid trend reflected in their own land distribution.
Land inequality and corporate consolidation of the agriculture industry undermine the ability to maintain sustainable economic and environmental systems. As the researchers from the Land Inequality Initiative report, "Smallholders and family farms, indigenous peoples, rural women, youth, and landless rural communities are being squeezed into smaller parcels of land or forced off the land altogether, while more and more land is concentrated in fewer hands, mainly serving the interests of corporate agribusiness and distant investors, utilizing industrial models of production that employ fewer and fewer people."
This has led to detrimental effects. When land is concentrated in the hands of a few industrial farming operations, sustainable farming practices are replaced with destructive monocultures that erode soil quality, overuse resources, and lead to environmental degradation.
Indian farmers are protesting to preserve small farmers' rights.
Industrialized economies such as the United States can take steps to pass bills that support small farmers. These policies should focus on building sustainable agricultural supply chains by redirecting subsidies from large agribusinesses to smaller producers and providing specialized technological support to local farmers. Most importantly, all agricultural reforms must be conducted with the participation of small farmers themselves — a requirement that policymakers have ignored time and time again.
Though the Modi government has introduced the reforms under the guise of market liberalization, it is clear the bills, passed without any farmer input, do little to boost small farmers' productivity or protect their interests. As protesters in India put their lives on the line to keep their farming culture alive and prevent the takeover of corporate interests, global observers would be wise to take note and support their cause.
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