Pop star Rhianna and climate activist Greta Thunberg have waded into a months-long protest by tens of thousands of farmers in India, against new laws that threaten the country’s food system.
Via Twitter posts by both women in support of the farmers, and India’s heavy-handed government response to them, the issue has been catapulted into the mainstream global consciousness.
- Dr Ramdas explains what is behind the government’s new laws, which farmers are protesting against?
- And how, rather than exports, India has been focussed to feeding itself
- Human rights advocate Vinay Sreenivasa explains what farmers want
- And how farmers are threatened under the laws they are protesting against.
Delhi police triggered criminal action that apparently includes Greta Thunberg, which, while considered laughable in its audacity by some outside the country, has chilled those on the ground, for its potential to warrant widespread arrests on spurious grounds. The protests have led to a shutdown of the internet across parts of the country, in a startling clampdown on freedoms. Over the last months, at least one protestor has been shot and hundreds have been arrested.
Under threat is a system that feeds almost 1.4 billion mouths and employs around two thirds of the country, as well as Indians’ right to dissent.
Human rights advocate Vinay Sreenivasa says the support of Rhianna and Greta Thunberg is welcome. “When this kind of violence is occurring it’s natural that other people on the planet will be concerned and raise these issues,” he says.
“Should people have not commented when Tiananmen Square happened or on the recent storming of the Capitol in Washington?
“We’re a huge market. There are profits to be controlled if you can get rid of the small farmers. It’s hugely worrying”
“Indian farmers are glad that human beings elsewhere are talking about these things as human rights.”
The legislation being challenged threatens the right to food for most Indians; around 85 per cent of people are dependent on subsidised food deliveries.
The current food system is so all-encompassing that its appeal to the private market is clear. Veterinarian and food activist Dr Sagari Ramdas of the Food Sovereignty Alliance says, “We’re a huge market. There are profits to be controlled if you can get rid of the small farmers. It’s hugely worrying.”
She says those outside India need to know three things, “One, it’s been projected as though it’s a small group of farmers protesting. It’s not localised. It’s widespread. There’s a large number of farmers across the country who are angry.
“Two, we are democracy, we have a right to express our resistance. Every citizen has a right to engage with the policies which affect our future. This is part of keeping democracy alive.
“And three, it is not just a farmers’ issue. It concerns every citizen in this country because it’s a question of the future of our food, where it comes from, who will control it.
At stake are the livelihoods of the majority of Indians, 60 to 70 per cent are employed in agriculture
“Farmers rights are not just about being provided food. It’s about having a right to shape your future.
“In India every citizen has a right to livelihood, to food, to life. It’s not about being a passive recipient.”
At stake are the livelihoods of the majority of Indians, with between 60 and 70 per cent employed in agriculture, and dependant on the state through a series of mechanisms that support produce prices and access to food.
It’s long been imperfect, and farmers have been asking the government to deal with corruption and cartelisation at points in the system. The system requires trust in the state, particularly by illiterate and remote populations.
Under fire are three key laws that undermine protective mechanisms and open agrifood to large Indian corporations – a sweeping change in a country where almost 90% of farmers own two hectares or less.
Vinay Sreenivasa says, “Under the new laws farmers won’t be able to sustain themselves and they’ll have to become workers, or slaves to large corporations.
“In Europe and the United States small farmers don’t exist anymore. They don’t want that and that’s why they are fighting”
“The farmers are very clear that they are committed to these protests as their future and their children’s future. This is something future generations are going to be impacted by.
“In Europe and the United States small farmers don’t exist anymore. They don’t want that and that’s why they are fighting.
“At stake is the food system and the very system of agriculture. Once large companies come in the fear is that they won’t be interested in food crops but they will be more interested in cash crops.
“We don’t consume gherkins, for example, but we are growing gherkins for the Western market. The fear is that once corporates enter the market the push will be towards gherkins and whatever is needed for the export market rather than food crops which are needed for us.
“The state-run food system has been a lifeline in the Covid pandemic, and now it’s under threat.”
Dr Sagari Ramdas says self-sufficiency in food production is essential, “in a country with such inequality, with growing rates of malnourishment. The state has to keep to its commitments, its own food provision laws.
“You have to frame policies for farming and agriculture around nutrition and your public food distribution system”
“In the last five years the growth and nutritional parameters for children have slipped back. Eighty per cent of women are anaemic.
“You have to frame policies for farming and agriculture around nutrition and your public [food] distribution system.”
The right to food is enshrined in India’s constitution, translated into subsidies of some food to 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population.
Under the National Food Security Act, the state-run Food Corporation of India (FCI) buys rice and wheat from farmers and distributes it at a subsidised cost through a public distribution system.
The laws under attack impact the food system by:
- Contract farming, allowing no access to the courts if farmers believe they have been wronged. Most farmers will not have the skills to manage contracts effectively.
- Opening the market, removing restrictions on traders. This could lead to the government procuring food from large corporations rather small farmers, in its massive nation-wide food distribution scheme.
- Amending the Essential Commodities Act which protects against hoarding – and controlling prices this way. Limits on hoarding have been removed.
Dr Sagari Ramdas says, “In this system farmers have no space to negotiate.
“They’re de-regulating the agriculture markets and facilitating direct procurement of produce through private markets and also through contract agreements.
“This positions a couple of huge Indian corporations to monopolise the agriculture food system.”
Farmers are angry that, rather than the reform laws they have been demanding, these unwanted laws have been passed.
Vinay Sreenivasa says, “Food Corporation of India procures the food that it sends to the public distribution system.
“They’ve been giving large contracts to a big Indian conglomerate called Adani Enterprises. And Adani Enterprises has been setting up large silos to store food grains.
“So, the Food Corporation of India has outsourced a large amount of its storage and transport to Adani. While at the same time the Food Corporation of India is saying it doesn’t have enough money to continue the food subsidised programme through the National Food Security Act.”
“Since the dairy market was liberalised 5.5 million farmers were thrown into the street. Where are they supposed to go?”
He says it’s the kind of reform suggested at the World Economic Forum summit in Davos last year by large agriculture companies and which the Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised as foreign interference, saying India should resist such pressure.
Improved production through de-regulation in India has a history of impoverishing landowners and rural workers, further skewing the disparity in nourishment, while making relatively cheap produce available for export.
Dr Sagari Ramdas points to the dairy market, liberalised in 1991. “Since then 5.5 million marginal farmers were thrown out of dairying, thrown into the street. Where are they supposed to go?” she asks.
“Thirty years ago those marginal farmers owning one or two animals produced 80 per cent of our milk and sold it into the markets.
“When you own animals, some of the food is also consumed at home. Part of your food security is met by the sheer fact that you have an animal at home or grow rice or pulses. And you also get an income.
“The statistics show that ever since the corporatisation of the market in India, land is going to fewer but larger hands. It’s throwing people out of livelihoods – when still nearly 70 per cent of Indians are depending on farming for their livelihood.
“While it might seem audacious and ridiculous that Greta Thunberg has been charged there is a concern”
“Since India embarked on policies of liberalisation, structural adjustment and economic reforms in the early 1990s, it formulated a vision to reduce farming communities from 70 per cent to 30 or 40 per cent. The reality is that we are seeing a collapsing capitalist economy across the world. Where are you going to absorb people?
“We are number one in the world in global milk production. But if you look at consumption and our nutritional challenges, there is a high inequity. Those at the top are consuming 14 times more milk than the poorest.
“300 grams per capita is the nutritional requirement per citizen for milk. We produce enough milk for 400 grams per capita in terms of the availability of milk. But only a small percentage of the populations is consuming the required proportion.
“And yet the plan is to capture 10 per cent of the global export market of milk. If this happens how are we going to meet nutritional requirements?”
And on the wider question of the right to dissent, Advocate Vinay Sreenivasa says, “While it might seem quite audacious and ridiculous that Greta Thunberg has been charged there is a concern.”
The First Information Report (FIR) has been lodged under Indian penal code sections regarding the serious charges of sedition, promoting enmity, and criminal conspiracy.
Vinay Sreenivasa says, “This kind of FIR which appears to be large in its scope might also be used to say that other people in India are in a conspiracy with Greta Thunberg to defame the government or indulge in acts which threaten the government.
“It’s a concern over here because this has been done in the past where one incident was used to make an omnibus FIR in which several people were charged.”