Why you should care about India’s farmers protest

A large crowd of people waving flags in protest. Wikipedia Commons

What does it mean in the long run for us all?

by hammad ali, contributor

By now, it has been in the news for nearly two months. Farmers in India are protesting. Late last year, they marched towards New Delhi, the capital of India. Since then, many of us have probably seen our social media news feed heavily dominated by mention of the protests.

In cities across Canada, the Indian-Canadian community has organized demonstrations of solidarity with the farmers, often joined by Canadians in general. But what exactly is happening in India?

Farming remains a very common occupation in India. Yet, according to statistics, the average Indian farmer makes around $140 in a month. This is not exactly stellar, even accounting for currency conversion rates.

For decades, these farmers have sold their crops to the Indian government, particularly to the Agricultural Produce Market Committees in their states. This is highly regulated, with the government ensuring strict restrictions on minimum prices for certain crops, who was allowed to buy how much, and price caps on essential crops.

Under a recently passed law, the incumbent Indian government wants to cut out the middleman, the Agricultural Produce Market Committee. Instead, farmers are expected to sell directly to private businesses.

The farmers are rightly concerned that this will lead to the big private corporations driving down prices, especially since the government is no longer regulating minimum prices. Furthermore, such elimination of price protection may eventually lead to loss of land assets for many farmers. The resulting effect on Indian culture will be an irreparable loss. As history has often shown, such drastic changes in economic conditions never end well for the overall standard of living for the nation where it happens.

In the past, farmers protesting for fair prices or better working conditions have been silenced by a problematic track record of violent crackdowns and serious human rights abuse by the government. The world needs to be exceptionally vigilant that the current round of protests do not meet a similar end.

While just the moral burden of how people who grow food for a nation – in fact the whole world – are facing potential loss of livelihood should be enough of an argument for why Canada should care, today I propose to do something a little more utilitarian. Former US Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger is often attributed as proclaiming that when asking another party – nation or individual – for help, one should not appeal to abstract principles of morality but rather real benefits they stand to gain by helping.

Again, while I believe that morality and empathy for one’s fellow man is supremely important, let me try to explain why even from a cold, hard realpolitik approach, we need to care what is happening to farmers in India.

India is the world’s largest producer and exporter of a variety of spices, such as pepper, cardamom, chilli, ginger, garlic, among others. In fact, 68 per cent of the world’s spice comes from India. The next time you are at Superstore or Walmart, take a look at the spice aisles. If the farmer’s bill is not amended to protect farmers, that aisle will start looking a lot more sparse.

India is the second largest exporter of rice, wheat, and other grains. Once you are done browsing the spice aisle, stop by the bread, rice and pasta sections. If the situation in India is not resolved, prepare to see either empty shelves, or higher price tags, or a combination of both. What is happening in a land thousands of kilometers away, suddenly seems to affect your dinner table and your wallet now, doesn’t it? Do you still think that what the Indian government does to Indian farmers is none of your concern?

But, farmers do not just grow grains and spices. India is the world’s leading producer of cotton. What will the clothing markets begin to look like if farmers lose their land and livelihood? Capitalism will drive down prices for a while, sure. But people who are dying from starvation are not going to be producing cotton for you much longer. If farmers in India are not guaranteed a minimum standard of living, your closet will feel the hit too.

I saved one argument for the very end. An argument that affects us, as students of a Canadian University. Excuse the sheer cynicism and pettiness of what I am about to say next, and remember that I am merely trying to show how even the most amoral, apathetic person should care about Indian farmers, just because of the material implications.

For myself, the reason that hard-working farmers stand to be exploited by a private corporation is reason enough to feel outraged.

How many students do you know from India? How many of them have been wonderful friends to you, brought you coffee when meeting up at the library? How many have you called on Zoom in the past few months to help get through the stresses of life together?

All of these students, before being allowed to come study in Canada, had to demonstrate the ability to pay for all associated expenses. No small number of these students are able to do so because of the farming communities they come from, the families that are sacrificing a lot to have their children get a world class education.

Imagine an India where farmers no longer have any protection. Where many farmers end up losing their land and resorting to other professions, maybe moving to bigger cities to try and eke out a living. With the substantial drop in income, many will have to withdraw children from colleges, maybe even have them return to India.

To me, that could mean saying farewell to my friend who always offers me tea when I run into him at the line at Tim’s. To me, that means people who have stuck with me through some of the hardest times of my life, will no longer be around for a chat. But let me return to the cold, hard facts. What will that do to Canadian economy? How will schools in Canada compensate for the loss of revenue?

I try to avoid doom and gloom whenever possible, and resorting to arguments of financial bottom line is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. But in this instance, we should care even if only for the cold, hard bottom line. The bell that tolls for farmers in India today might soon toll for you and me.

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