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Bitter economics, lofty promises underpin farmers protests in India

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Rebecca Valli

Sarah Besky

Sarah Besky

Associate professor at the ILR School

Protests are spreading in India, where farmers are rallying against new agricultural laws that they say will undermine their livelihood and benefit big corporations.  

Sarah Besky, associate professor in the ILR School at Cornell University, studies labor relations with an emphasis on farming and the tea industry in India. She is available for interviews about the economic dynamics underlying the current protests. 

Bio: https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/news/qa-sarah-besky

Besky says:

 “While farmer protests in India are frequent, these protests are distinct in two ways.  First, they are incredibly large in scale. Second, they have been vigorously suppressed by the police, who actively attempted to prevent the protesters from entering the capital city of New Delhi. The tactics used by police to stop the farmers’ march to the capital are reminiscent of those they used to quell unrest over the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, namely tear gas and water cannons.  

“These protests have been likened on social media to Occupy Wall Street. There is a central symbolism to the protests’ moniker ‘Delhi Chalo’ (Walk to Delhi), in that the rural farmer is walking to the state capital to be visible to the state actors responsible for the passing of laws that fly in the face of their well-being. Smaller protests in solidarity have arisen across India.  

“Farmers are protesting laws that undo guaranteed prices for farm products, most importantly grains. Specifically, the laws dismantle produce auctions, where the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) could guarantee farmers a minimum support price (MSP) for their produce. APMC auctions were set up in 1964, during a period of post-independence nationalist development, a time when British capital was still being excised from industrial agriculture. APMC auctions deal with the reality of scale. Small players make small sales through the auctions, and they are guaranteed prices. The new laws eliminate the ‘intermediary’ grain auctions and open trade up to private capital. Modi stresses that this will increase market competition—as farmers will be ‘free’ to sell their produce in other states to whomever they want—and thus increase prices. But ‘freedom’ in the market is usually only ever a lofty promise. A promise of new opportunities, a promise of access, a promise of elusive ‘modernity.’ This ‘freedom’ is usually good for corporations and not good for farmers and workers.  

“According to farmers, these new laws will drive down prices. The MSP is a guaranteed price. With no regulations in place, farmers feel prices will go down, not up. This is especially bitter, perhaps, since one of Modi’s campaign promises was to double farmer’s income. With 60% of India’s population depending on agriculture for their livelihoods, such promises attract a large voting bloc. Farming in India is increasingly unstable, with mounting debt and farmer suicides. While it is true that change needs to happen to ensure that farmers can plan for their futures and make a living, these laws do not ensure this.  Farmers are rightly concerned that they will not be able to survive the influx of corporate power and private capital.”

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.