What the Indian farmers’ protest can teach us all

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Farmers protest in Delhi, sitting on a truck with fists raised in the air.
Indian farmers are taking to the streets in some of the biggest protests the world has ever seen. They are fighting for their rights and livelihoods against new, devastating Farm Laws that the government of India forced through during the pandemic.

The farmers in India are on the frontlines of the global struggle against corporate control of over our food. They have faced violent repression by the Indian government, with police using water cannons and tear gas against peaceful protestors. But they are not going to give in until their demands are met – and we must stand with them.

What are the protests all about?

In September 2020, taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled government – passed three Farm Laws through an Emergency Ordinance, despite the opposition of state governments, many MPs, farmers movements and trade unions.

By the end of November 2020, the Indian farmers movements and trade unions organised a massive national strike called Dilli Chalo (“Let’s go to Delhi”). Reportedly, over 250 million people around the country took part. The protest was initially led by farmers from the North of India (Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), but it immediately found nationwide support. While the protests have gained some traction, they still have been under reported in many Western Media considering the magnitude of the uprising.

The three anti-farmer laws that have provoked such passionate action from the Indian people include reforms that would have a disastrous impact on farmers: they would deregulate the price control of food, liberalise the control of food stocks and trade, and give more freedom to corporations to use contract farming with smallholder farmers. In India, 68% of farmers are smallholders who own less than two hectares of land – they represent the backbone of India’s society, culture and economy.

The main concern from protestors is that the agriculture laws would ruin the livelihoods of millions of people, mainly farmers, increasing their dependency on price fluctuations, and on corporate speculation of stocks and crops. Farmers have clearly demanded that the government fully repeals all three bills. Farmers' movements, trade unions and Indian experts have a set of alternative proposals, focusing on protecting the Minimum Support Price, finding local solutions for both procurement and distribution of crops, and giving more guarantees to peasants. However, until now, the government has refused to listen to them and answered with police repression.

On 12 January, the Supreme Court of India suspended the three laws, proposing to set up a joint committee with the government. But farmers turned down the committee proposal, reiterating their demand for a total repeal of the farm laws. The situation is evolving every day and currently, the organisers have called for a nationwide protest to be held on 26 January 2021.

International solidarity is growing, with farmers movements from all around the world showing their support and the UK labour movement signing a public statement.

An elderly man at the farmers' protests in Delhi.

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Exposing global corporate greed

What is happening in India is just a symptom, mirroring a global trend in the food sector in which corporate interests are taking over food systems, and exerting their influence on food and agriculture policies at all levels.

Those who pay the price for this corporate takeover are the peasant and family farmers all around the world who are also the people who feed the world.

In fact, according a 2014 State of Food and Agriculture report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, family farming produces more than 80 percent of the world’s food in value, in only 25 percent of global agricultural land. Most of this land is exploited by agribusiness companies that produce commodities for export such as soy and maize – these cash crops maintain industrial animal farming, and they are used to produce biofuels as well as for food additives that contribute to the ultra-processed food industry.

Moreover, those who produce the world’s food are the ones who suffer from hunger, and at least half of family farmers and peasants are women. This unequal system, propelled by the greed of corporations, has concentrated power over our food systems into the hands of big business – the whole model is now geared towards overproduction and land inequality.

Contract farming, land grabbing and industrial agriculture with heavy use of deadly pesticides is a model that has been around since the Green Revolution starting in the 1950s, but its unequal impacts have only worsened since the 2008 financial crisis, when land became more of a commodity for speculating on in international stock markets.

Now the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating inequalities and poverty in the food system. With the excuse of states of emergency, governments have shut down local food markets with a massive impact on informal economy workers, while corporate retail chains continue to operate, cashing-in with higher profits.

The corporate capture of the world’s agriculture is not only evident in food supply chains. Large corporations increasingly occupy international public spaces that had  previously platformed the voices of farmers movements and Civil Society Organisations: the 2021 Food Systems Summit organisation process shows a complete lack of transparency and involvement of civil society.  

Everyone has the right to healthy and appropriate food

This is a global trend. In the UK today, we are increasingly aware of this as more families are depending on unhealthy and inadequate school meals, while corporations pocket profits at the expense of the poorest in the country.

We now have an EU deal that enables deregulation on standards. Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss is seeking deals with governments that see our food and farming standards as a barrier to corporate profit. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs authorises the use of damaging pesticides and is taking a possible step towards genetically modified food.

Today more than ever, with an ongoing pandemic, rising unemployment, poverty, and inequalities in the UK and abroad, we are much more aware of how important it is to have the right to healthy and appropriate food.

Only by working towards Food Sovereignty will we be able to resist the corporate capture of the food systems, guarantee the right to food for all, and support millions of smallholder farmers around the world – those who feed the world.

The massive and widespread farmers’ protests in India have much to teach us, but if we take away only one thing, it should be that this global crisis needs to be addressed through an internationalist response and with the solidarity of different sectors of the society. Indian farmers are fighting with strong determination for their food sovereignty through national strikes, working along with trade unions but also reaching out to gather a wider support of India’s population.

We should also show our international solidarity. The crisis is global – our resistance should be too.

An elderly man at the farmers' protests in Delhi.

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