India’s Farmer Protests Are Also About Climate Change

Protesters fear deregulation will benefit corporations and harm the environment

By Mukta Patil

April 5, 2021


A protest on the outskirts of New Delhi on March 23 | Photo by AP/Mayank Makhija

On March 6, thousands of farmers in India blocked a major six-lane highway bordering the capital city of New Delhi for five hours. The demonstration marked 100 days of one of the largest protest movements in history. Farmers from nearby agricultural regions have been camping out at border points around New Delhi since November to protest three agriculture reform bills enacted in September by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The government claimed that the bills will deregulate the market for agricultural goods, raising farmers’ income and bringing in much-needed development to a sector that contributes 18 percent of India’s GDP. 

But farmers fear that the new rules will eventually eliminate minimum-price guarantees for their crops and, without the government as an intermediary, will grant more power to corporations to drive down prices. A law passed in the state of Bihar that abolished the mandis (state-regulated produce markets) was later shown to have increased the volatility of grain prices, and a 2018–19 study showed that deregulation had not led to improved infrastructure through private investment like the government claimed it would. 

“The government procurement and food-distribution systems are not perfect, but this is worse than throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is throwing out the entire bathtub,” Basav Sen told Sierra. Sen is the climate policy project director at the Institute of Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Washington, DC. Agriculture is the primary livelihood for about 60 percent of India’s population. Sixty-eight percent of farmers own less than 2.5 acres of land. As of 2017, the average monthly income of an agricultural household in India was about $125. With so many farmers trapped in poverty, plans to develop the agricultural sector are desperately needed, but farmers argue that this is not the way forward. 

Protesters want the government to rescind the new laws, and in fact, the laws were suspended by India’s Supreme Court in January 2021. A court-appointed committee has been formed to settle the impasse, but farmers don’t want compromise and are demanding complete repeal. 

Throughout the past four months, the mostly nonviolent protests have at times been met with harsh backlash from the government and Delhi’s police force. In January, a demonstration turned violent during India’s Republic Day celebrations when dissenters stormed a national monument. The ensuing clash with the police resulted in the death of one protester and numerous injuries. To quell further protests, the government shut down internet access for several days in areas surrounding Delhi “in the interest of maintaining public safety and averting public emergency." (In 2020, the internet was shut down over 100 times in India.) Over 150 farmers have been arrested under charges of unlawful assembly, attempt to murder, and criminal conspiracy. Journalists covering the farmers' struggles have also been arrested, and media outlets publishing content about the anti-government protests have had their Twitter accounts blocked. 

“The government procurement and food distribution systems are not perfect, but this is worse than throwing out the baby with the bath water. It is throwing out the entire bathtub.”

The internet shutdowns and police violence brought the farmer protests international attention, including from climate activist Greta Thunberg. On February 3, Thunberg tweeted her support for the farmers and provided an online toolkit for organizers. Soon after, Delhi police charged three young climate activists, Disha Ravi, Shantanu Muluk, and Nikita Jacob, with creating and disseminating the toolkit, accusing them of sedition, criminal conspiracy, intent to cause a riot, and other crimes. Ravi is one of the founding members of Fridays for Future India, the global movement started by Thunberg encouraging students to skip school in order to demand climate action from elected officials. In the wake of the charges, she was arrested and spent nine days in jail before being released on bail. 

India has a long and sordid history of quashing protests that the government deems "anti-development." State repression of protest against extractive industries, especially in Adivasi (tribal) belts is brutal and ongoing. “The government is targeting these protests because any protest against the extractive economy, whether it is represented by oil and gas, mining, timber, or big agriculture, is an existential threat to a state that aligns itself with corporate capital,” Sen said.

What worries activists and civil society worldwide is the Orwellian nature of the recent arrests, with the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government using sedition and anti-nationalism as a means to criminalize dissent. “And nationalism of course is being defined in extremely narrow, casteist, Hindu chauvinist ways. So, if you are standing for equal rights for Dalits, you are seditious; if you are Adivasi and demanding your rights, you are seditious; if you are Muslim, you are by definition seditious,” Sen said. “It has escalated to where literally sharing of information and talking points online has become seditious.”

The furor against Thunberg and the subsequent charges against the three climate activists have brought the connections between agricultural strife and the climate crisis into sharp relief. In a statement, Ravi said that she became a climate activist after watching her grandparents struggle as farmers and seeing how the water crisis had affected their livelihood. 

The Sasan coal ash disaster, the farmers’ protests, and the repression of climate activists are emblematic of a troubling trend in India -- some of the world’s most vulnerable people getting crushed in the country’s rush to industrialize.

Climate change is disrupting weather patterns essential for rain-fed agriculture in India (which contributes 60 percent of the value of agricultural GDP). According to research by Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, farming communities in India are under stress from the rise in average temperatures, shifting planting seasons and rainfall patterns, and extreme weather like severe droughts and floods.

India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the US—about a fifth of these emissions are from its agricultural sector. Since 2000, India’s agricultural production emissions have increased by 14 percent. Pro-farmer advocates say that letting large agribusinesses enter the market will only increase emissions. 

“In addition to the profound economic injustice for farmers, it is also a profound climate injustice, taking India in completely the opposite direction of where it needs to go to address the climate crisis.”

“To maximize profit, these businesses would seek to replicate the ecologically harmful Green Revolution agricultural practices, which produce very high yields in the short term, using massive inputs of water and energy—water that is scarce because of climate change and energy that in the short term will come from fossil fuels,” Sen said. “In addition to the profound economic injustice for farmers, it is also a profound climate injustice, taking India in completely the opposite direction of where it needs to go to address the climate crisis.” The Green Revolution refers to a set of practices popularized in the fertile plains of northern India, which induced farmers to use technologies like fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, and high-yielding seed varieties to increase crop production.  

These practices deplete soil and water resources over time. As the role of soil in sequestering carbon becomes better understood, regenerative and traditional farming practices are becoming desirable alternatives to industrial agriculture. In a letter published in February expressing solidarity with Indian farmers, over 80 agricultural unions across the US blamed Reagan-era deregulatory policies and an erosion of parity prices for the country's current monocropping landscape. In seeking to replicate this failed model, the letter said, the government of India is putting pressure on farmers for the benefit of big corporations. It further urged governments of both countries to support “independent family farmers and localized food systems, ensuring food sovereignty and securing the livelihoods of millions who are the bedrock of its food security.”

To be sure, not all farmers in India practice climate-friendly agriculture, especially among those who grow wheat and rice. But that has less to do with their unwillingness to take on ecologically friendly practices like rotating and diversifying their crops, reducing fertilizer inputs, and tilling less and more to do with what the current agrarian policies and markets tell them to grow and sell. Protesters believe that expanding subsidies to all crops, rather than just a few, could actually reduce harmful practices like monocropping. Broadly applied, price guarantees could “help farmers to diversify into crops that are locally suitable without degradation of natural resources,” Kavitha Kuruganti, who works with the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, told Sierra. Kuruganti is part of the main coalition that has been negotiating with government officials. “It could be the way to take up carbon sequestration,” she added.

However, through the World Trade Organization, developed nations like the US, Australia, and Canada have opposed the minimum-price guarantees that Indian farmers do receive, claiming they distort trade. Expanding these to include even more crops would mean taking on not just these powerful nations but global agribusinesses and the WTO itself. Domestic aid can impact trade in global markets, these countries say, and the government buying at a guaranteed, predetermined rate artificially inflates the entire market. However, because of how subsidy categories are defined by WTO regulations, developed countries continue to provide farm subsidies to their own farmers that are exponentially higher than those in countries from the Global South. For example, India provides a subsidy of about $260 per farmer per annum, compared with subsidies 100 times greater in some countries.

According to Sen, the system of international agricultural trade is set up to be corporate friendly, enacted with zero transparency by government negotiators and corporate lobbyists behind closed doors, while shutting out farmers, workers, and environmentalists from these negotiations. “It is interesting how the government of India rails about nationalism, but when it comes to the real ways in which national sovereignty and self-determination of countries like India are being compromised, on those issues they are silent,” Sen said.

The protests show no signs of slowing down, even as summer approaches, bringing temperatures as high as 100 Fahrenheit. While some farmers install air conditioners in their makeshift accommodations, others are building permanent structures at protest sites, saying they are in it for the long haul. Mega rallies have mobilized hundreds of thousands of farmers across the country, and calls to boycott the BJP and defeat them at the ballot box in upcoming state elections are resounding among India’s largest electoral community—its food growers.