India’s Farmer Protests: A Fight for Fair Trade

By: Tomy Mathew Vadakkancheril

Farmers of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala
Farmers of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala assembled in 20 locations across the Malabar hill tracts paying homage to the brave hearts who lost their lives as they laid siege to the national capital in defence of peasant rights. Credit: Tomy Mathew Vadakkancheril

The protests by Indian farmers who have laid siege to the nation’s capital, Delhi, are, in essence, a uniquely Fair Trade moment. For while the immediate provocation for the present agitation are the three new farm bills introduced by the Central government under cover of the COVID restrictions,  the most articulate demand from the farmers cannot be missed: Minimum Support Price for their produce. Minimum Support Price is near akin to the Fair Trade Minimum Price in trade justice parlance.

For this agitation is not so much about what these farm bills contain, as about what is conspicuously absent in them. More than what they [the bills] seek to do, what has agitated farmers most is what they refuse to address. The agrarian crisis and rural indebtedness in India is indeed a narrative in itself. While the vast majority of the Indian people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, policy prescriptions of the last several decades have consciously pursued a policy of rural appropriation to catapult India as a developed, urbanised Industrial nation. In parallel, it sought to unleash the forces of liberalisation and corporatisation of Indian agriculture aimed to make the sector attuned to the neoliberal logic of compete or perish. Agrarian distress is therefore not just a policy fallout but its planned intent.  This is despite farming and farm distress being a hot socio-economic issue that invites deference from the political class; only to make the farming terrain in India a graveyard of broken promises.

Three measures of the present ruling administration in recent times deepened the crisis even further. The totally uncalled for demonetisation, which invalidated 87% of all legal tender in the country, the ill-conceived Goods and Services Tax and the utterly callous lock down of the entire country at a mere four hour notice.  The measures impacted most severely the farming community – unaccustomed as they were to digital payments, unable as they were to negotiate the labyrinth of the new tax code while buying inputs or selling produce and unprepared as they were for the humanitarian crisis created by the reverse migration that the lock down triggered.  The crisis deepened and not even the gigantic propaganda and vote management skills of the ruling administration could contain the disaffection brewing in rural India.

Fair Trade Kerala Assembling
Farmers of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala assembled in 20 locations across the Malabar hill tracts paying homage to the brave hearts who lost their lives as they laid siege to the national capital in defence of peasant rights. Credit: Tomy Mathew Vadakkancheril

Several mass actions by hundreds upon thousands of farmers – some involving marches across hundreds of kilometres preceded this blockade of the national capital now underway. But instead of taking due note and course-correct, the government sought to use the cover of COVID to further institutionalise and sanctify the corporate reign over Indian agriculture. Its logic is that further unleashing of market forces and dismantling of the last vestiges of social security and remaining market intervention mechanisms is the way forward. Not even the fear of COVID now could contain farmers’ fury. They have come and are still coming in droves to the national capital. They are prepared to stay there for months if need be. Their demands: repeal the three new farm laws; make Minimum Support Price legally binding on transactions in agricultural produce.

In effect, the Indian peasantry is telling the government to make Fair Trade the law of the land! The Fair Trade community globally has long tried to impress upon policymakers that a Fair Price is the best farm manure. Hundreds upon thousands of Indian farmers have laid siege to the Indian capital city of Delhi and are determined to stay put until the government accedes to their demands serve as a ringing endorsement of that trade justice truism.


2 thoughts on “India’s Farmer Protests: A Fight for Fair Trade

  1. The ‘official’ response in India to the farmers’ protests there is extremely alarming. Bizarrely vague and authoritarian charges like “promoting communal disharmony” and “making statements prejudicial to national integration” speak to censorship on a mass scale.

    We are starting to see signs of this happening in the U.S., where dissent is being squelched at a much greater rate since the beginning of the new year as voices are being deplatformed (and, no, I am the furthest from an apologist for the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, so don’t get it twisted).

    I passionately believe in free speech for all, within the bounds of what can be reasonably called civil discourse! I do not believe that farmers in India trying to protect their livelihoods have conclusively crossed that line.

  2. When I first became involved in international solidarity work in the late 1970’s I got some great words of wisdom. A local advocate I was working with in India told me “But remember, you can always go home. We have to stay here and incur the consequences of our actions.” I have immense respect for and am humbled by our partners around the world who fight battles against destruction of people and planet, as well as corruption and police brutality with many less resources and institutional options than we have. Thank you all for your commitment, passion and tenacity.

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