Indian farmers are protesting inequality and corporate domination. Why aren’t the rest of us?

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra via Unsplash

History is being made in India. Since the passing of three controversial farming bills in September 2020, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest the actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Critics of these laws argue that they will make Indian farmers, many of whom are already in a precarious position, vulnerable to corporate domination. Opponents of the laws are likely correct in this assertion. 

The three laws change the way farmers sell their crops. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act allows corporations to buy crops directly from farmers rather than going through government-operated markets. Some fear that this law will lead to the elimination of current rules that set a minimum price for crops. By removing this minimum price, the new law would lead to lower revenue for farmers. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act creates a framework for contracts between farmers and buyers, which critics argue would give corporations with greater negotiating power an unfair advantage. Lastly, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act will give corporations the ability to hoard crops and thus gain greater control over the market. 

Indian farmers certainly have the right to be concerned about what the laws may bring. Moreover, Canadians and British Columbians should pay greater attention to this issue and the actions of our own governments. 

At the time of writing, the laws are temporarily suspended but negotiations between farmers unions and the Modi government have not reached a conclusion. While unions demand a full repeal of the laws, the government has not budged from their offer of an 18-month suspension. 

Indian government authorities have attempted to quell the protests: journalists covering the demonstrations have been arrested and, according to Amnesty International, over 100 people have disappeared since a January protest in part of a government crackdown.

This crisis is not just significant for India but also the rest of the world. For one, there is a massive global Indian diaspora with cultural and economic ties to India. In particular, there have been many protests by Indo-Canadians in British Columbia both in support of the farmers’ protests and in opposition to Modi. Activists on Vancouver Island have engaged in demonstrations of solidarity with the farmers.

The farmers’ demonstrations also have relevance for the world as they represent opposition to the expansion of corporate power. 

Indian farmers’ problems and concerns have not just appeared out of the blue with the passage of the farm bills. Debt, for example, has been a massive source of anguish for farmers who require loans to purchase seeds and farming equipment. Debt burdens have contributed to a suicide crisis among farmers which has been going on for the last few decades and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Debt is a symptom of economic inequality, which affects more than just farmers. According to Oxfam, 77 per cent of India’s total wealth is held by 10 per cent of the population and 73 per cent of the newly generated wealth in 2017 went to the one per cent.

These frightening statistics should come as no surprise to neoliberal ideologues who prioritize economic growth over everything else, even if only one per cent of the population is benefiting from most of it.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came out in support of India’s farmers. However this position vastly contradicts Canada’s actions towards India within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Despite many Indian farmers wanting subsidies and regulation in the farming industry, Canada has been extremely critical of any kind of farming subsidies provided by the Indian government, including minimum support prices. Rich Global North countries like Canada often scrutinize Global South countries for offering agricultural subsidies while at the same time offering large agricultural subsidies for their own domestic farmers.

If Trudeau really does sympathize with Indian farmers then perhaps he should change how Canada treats India in the WTO rather than supporting the protesters for optics. 

Modi’s government should acquiesce to the farmers’ demands and prioritize their citizens over profit. More than that, critics of neoliberal economic policy should look to the farmers as a source of inspiration in a world that is often complacent towards the radical economic doctrines that prioritize the free market over all else. 

Hopefully the protests will inspire people to think of possible alternatives to the neoliberal model sweeping the globe.