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Farmers Protest New Laws That Could Expand Industrial Food Production in India

By: Arjun Iyer

Dilli Chalo! To Delhi We March

As the Covid-19 pandemic strains food security worldwide, news outlets show police forces brutally crushing farmer protests across India. I’ve watched footage of police using tear gas and water cannons, building barricades and barbed wire fences, and destroying roads and highways to impede marching farmers outside of Delhi. As tensions around the capitol city have grown, police requested the construction of makeshift prisons. Urging that the request be denied, a city representative said, “The farmer of our country is neither a criminal nor a terrorist.” As Indians around the world scrutinize these unfolding events, many ask why the government has so ruthlessly suppressed those who put food on their tables.

More than 300,000 farmers marched from Punjab and Haryana in protest of recent agricultural reforms that reduced regulations on food prices, sales, and storage. Across India, an estimated 250 million farmers, laborers, and allies have mobilized in dissent of the growing corporate power in food systems. The magnitude and coordination of the response has established this as one of the largest protests in human history. These recent reforms by the Indian government are likely to have similar consequences to policies that have detrimentally changed food systems in the United States and around the world.

Lessons from Food System Industrialization

Over the past several decades, the United States has shifted to food systems that emphasize overproduction, lower food prices, and economies of scale. These changes have led to growing consolidation, commercialization, and rigidity in supply chains—all of which have resulted in large, industrial operations. The $1.1 trillion American food system, now almost entirely in the hands of a few corporate giants, has enabled ultramodern and intensive farming practices but broken our connections to the food we consume. These policies have, quite literally, dehumanized the American food system.

Well-resourced advertising and marketing campaigns convince consumers that much of the food on market shelves is the product of community farmers. In reality, we are deeply disconnected from our food, which sometimes travels thousands of miles from farm to plate. Farmers who partner with corporate entities may produce more food in less time, but they also experience low wages and poor working conditions with limited access to basic healthcare and benefits. Industrial food animal production (IFAP) operations act as breeding grounds for vector-borne illnesses, produce greenhouse gases and massive volumes of untreated waste, are rife with poor animal welfare practices, and devastate rural communities. What concerns me the most, however, about IFAP operations is that many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), such as India, are transitioning to these agricultural production models.

Current Trends and Challenges for Indian Smallholders

India, currently in the earliest stages of food system consolidation, has half of its workforce employed in the agricultural sector. An estimated 87 percent of Indian farmers are considered smallholders, and these 126 million people maintain an average holding of less than 1.5 acres each. Over one-third are women, who not only work longer hours on average, but also have limited resource rights and credit access.

Even prior to the recent policy reforms, Indian farmers have been experiencing a series of environmental, infrastructural, and policy-related challenges. Income from their small plots of land is neither consistent nor reliable and, as a result, most Indian farmers live in extreme poverty. Issues with decentralized water management, soil degradation, lack of crop diversity, limited access to mental health resources, and policies that focus on credit and loans make smallholder prospects even bleaker.

Despite these challenges, Indian smallholders have proven highly adaptable in the nation’s fragmented and flexible food system. Take, for example, the Indian dairy industry with its nearly 80 million rural farmers. Smallholder dairies support their localities with raw milk and maintain diverse relationships with community-level processors and distributors for products like ghee, paneer, dahi, and lassi. Previous policies, which are now decades old, expanded informal markets, developed self-sustaining village cooperatives, recruited more women, and strengthened price regulations, all of which have helped dairy smallholders thrive.

However, aggressive commercialization in the Indian food sector has advanced significantly in recent years. Many smallholders are concerned by their growing dependence on contract farming arrangements, which are perceived as inequitable, and feel that government policies unfairly favor large-scale producers. Trends toward industrial food systems, like IFAP, could decimate smallholder livelihoods and are likely to deteriorate informal distribution networks, whose built-in redundancies have shown resilience to shocks like Covid-19.

Recent Agricultural Reforms and Implications for Farmers

The Indian government’s new agricultural reforms build upon previous commercialization efforts by dismantling minimum support prices, removing limits on storage, and creating a framework for contract farming between producers and private companies. The national government passed this legislation with no input from farmers, a decision that left many confused and angry.

According to the Indian government, these policies intend to manage the economic uncertainty stemming from Covid-19 and revitalize the agricultural sector through private investment. The pandemic has brought a series of challenges to India, including supply chain failures, income losses, localized price increases, and widening social inequities. These legislative reforms seem to focus on improving food access, availability, and affordability for consumers.

Smallholders, already suffering economically, are predicted to fare much worse than large-scale farmers and corporate entities. Decades of similar policies in the United States and more recent reforms in LMICs readily support this. Market deregulation and disproportionate support for corporations has historically left smallholders behind. Most Indian farmers simply cannot afford to sell food below minimum support prices and do not have the capacity for considerable production and long-term storage. The Indian government is also inadequately equipped to manage the extensive social ramifications of these reforms. Nevertheless, many political officials falsely assert that farmer concerns are blown out of proportion.

Ab Dilli Dur Nahin. Delhi is Not Far Off

As round after round of talks with government officials fail, protestors have made clear that they do not intend to stop until the reforms are revoked. They are not alone, as many around the world stand with them in solidarity. Non-violent protest is core to the spirit of India. This is not the first and most certainly will not be the last time that Indian farmers challenge unsupportive policies. The Indigo Rebellion, one of the earliest revolts against the British Raj, is a shining example of how farmers used non-violent resistance to achieve their policy goals despite military suppression. Perhaps history will repeat itself nearly two centuries later, and the Indian farmers, who are marching hundreds of miles to Delhi during a global pandemic, will receive the support they hope for.

I’m not surprised that communities from every corner of the world, from New York to Sydney, have already rallied behind the protesting farmers. The vibrance and beauty of Indian culture has expanded well beyond national borders. Flowing and energetic movements of folk dances, like bhangra, have captivated the world. Bhangra, literally meaning to be intoxicated with joy, is a reflection of pride in our agrarian history and our connection to the land. Our cultural forms not only share these stories, but also serve as a reminder that the Indian identity is forever intertwined with its smallholder roots. Changes to Indian food policy must stem from those roots rather than destroy them.

Arjun Iyer is a graduate researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. He holds a B.A. in ecology from Cornell University and is pursuing an M.S. at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences with a focus on food systems and environmental policy.

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