America loves family farmers and ranchers. Over generations, the status of small business farming endures indelibly within our identity. Most Americans who live in major metropolitan centers and the bucolic heartland alike celebrate agriculture with a profound sense of national pride.
Images of Norman Rockwell’s iconic Saturday Evening Post covers immortalize a bygone era, which agronomists and sustainable farmers yearn to preserve. Our farmers emigrated to America during colonial times and through frontier culture eventually becoming modern, rural growers and urban producers who regularly pay homage to their roots elsewhere.
However, Sikh Americans bear witness to the plight of India’s family farmers who agonize today under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s draconian, anti-farm laws. Indian Americans’ deference to the rights of farmers has inspired recent rallies of solidarity, traversing California, New Jersey, Michigan and elsewhere. Across the Indian subcontinent, they endure widespread human rights abuses, for which Modi has been responsible. Government-imposed agricultural reform laws jeopardize Indian farmers’ livelihoods and ostensibly authorize starvation for millions. The escalating situation imperils peaceful protesters who have been attacked by Modi government forces, which could spark a geopolitical civil war.
So, how did this happen? Agribusiness and its people in Parliament railroaded small and midsize agricultural producers. Their scheme resulted in manipulating predetermined outcomes by preventing farmers from earning consistent profits. Masquerading laws with seemingly innocuous labels, the so-called “Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act,” “Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act” and the “Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act,” farm-reform advocates and the Indian government alienated farmers from the legislative process by enacting deceptive reforms posing as enhancements.
Who believes Modi acted nobly to stop future threats of globalization and corporate farming? His free-market policies would undo economic norms. They burden family farmers with unnecessary risk or market uncertainty. Clearly, preserving India’s Minimum Support Price (MSP) system would ensure price stability for local family farms. Purely ideological, the prime minister's deregulation unduly rewards agribusiness while laissez faire industry interests run amok. On the contrary, agribusiness credits the reforms as promising greater upward mobility for farmers.
These reform laws confirm that Modi’s government favors agribusiness. By dissolving India’s Mandi system, or farmers' auction, the reform laws could dismantle supply chains and yield farmers reduced incomes, blocking producers from earning guaranteed minimum prices at market, which eventually could allow coercive, private buyers to exercise complete discretion. Regulations previously safeguarded farms but now small producers and operators fear losing their businesses and lands to large, private investors. Some growers and fewer investigative journalists warned the Indian people against rising Hindu nationalism and corporations controlling the food industry.
Curiously, at a time of supposed deregulating agriculture policy, Modi’s harsh reform laws spawned a domino effect that jeopardizes both the farmers’ earnings and intimidates arhtiyas — the commissioned agents subsidizing farm loans and supporting adequate prices for crops. Small and large producers have enjoyed symbiotic dealings with these agents for decades. Yet, farmers are fighting to repeal austere reform laws and against returning India to its former, grim agrarian crisis. Meanwhile, farmers believe price assurances can protect them from exploitation at the hands of government-sponsored privatization. The new laws will ultimately force farmers to liquidate their products and lands to predator investors. Family farmers anticipate greedy, corporate interests waiting to easily seize control.
Indian farmers know prosperity starts with repealing biased laws to guarantee the MSP for crops and enacting more even-handed regulations. But the timing of the three anti-farmer reform laws is deceptive. COVID-19 helped the prime minister to endanger and coerce the Indian people, emboldening the government and Bharatiya Janata Party to force through reforms and render family farmers powerless to organize and resist them. Gone unchallenged, India’s government insists its three new farm laws are vital to strengthen the agricultural industry. Modi’s top economist obediently acquiesced.
Indian farmers’ protest of agricultural reforms that became law in September is estimated to be one of the largest demonstrations in history. And Modi’s government countered by using water cannons and tear gas on supporters peacefully and lawfully marching against the new reform laws. Adding insult to injury, India negated democratic norms and violated citizens’ basic rights while farmers marched towards Delhi. Rather than strengthening fairness for farmers, India’s farmer protests expose Modi’s anti-democratic values, anti-humanitarian policies and human rights violations intended to suppress the will of the people
Worse, India’s news media operates like an arm of the government. Instead of acting as a watchdog and reporting impartially, the press rarely holds officials liable or exposes improprieties. On the UN’s International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2020, when Sikhs demanded activists and academics detained at protests be released, reflexively, Indian reporting branded peaceful protests as a plot by terrorists, and called farmers “leftist intellectuals” and “extremists” infiltrating “to derail farm law improvements.”
India’s democracy should not wreak havoc on human rights in the name of capitalism. No farmer should tolerate the government subjugating their livelihoods for profit.
Jagdeep Singh is executive director of UNITED SIKHS a 501(c)(3) non-profit and nonpartisan organization championing civil and human rights for all. They recognize the human race as one.