Why Environment Activists Like Greta Thunberg Should Support India’s Farm Reforms

Aravind C

Mar 16, 2021, 06:08 PM | Updated 06:07 PM IST

Greta Thunberg is misled over farm protests in India.
Greta Thunberg is misled over farm protests in India.
  • The first fact about farmers’ protests is most farmers in India welcome these reforms as it improves their livelihood by increasing their market access.
  • India is doing nothing different from what most developed countries have already done in market reforms.
  • Recently, young leaders like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and Indian climate activist Disha Ravi gave support to the farmer protests happening in Delhi, India. They are people of considerable influence, and their tweets had considerable impact.

    I respect their work in fighting climate change, and their activism is appreciable. But they are wrong about supporting farmer protests in India. In fact, they are lending support to one of the worst climate change and environmental crisis in the world.

    Greta Thunberg.
    Greta Thunberg.

    Activists like Greta and Disha are being misled, and they seem to understand little about why some farmers in India are protesting. Their misunderstanding probably comes from fake news and propaganda being spread by vested interests, who are hijacking the farmers’ protests for their own cause.

    Fake news like ‘250 million farmers’ are protesting and India is doing a ‘genocide’ against farmers. Or that ‘Indian Government is destroying their livelihoods’ and is ‘treating them brutally’ as they protest. These are utter falsehoods being spread by geopolitical and political vested interests.

    No party in India can ever do anything against farmer interests. It would be political suicide for a few terms at least. And acting against the interest of ‘250 million farmers’ as the fake news claims? That is political suicide forever. The party will cease to exist. The fake news that the Indian government is against millions of farmers simply doesn’t pass the commonsense test.

    So what are the facts? The first fact about farmers’ protests is most farmers in India welcome these reforms as it improves their livelihood by increasing their market access. India is doing nothing different from what most developed countries have already done in market reforms.

    And the world over, these reforms have benefited farmers. If they benefit farmers in Sweden, from where Greta comes from, they will benefit farmers in India, where Disha comes from too. And the majority of Indian farmers already knows this and welcomes the reforms.

    That’s why we don’t see protests in some 23 states of India. The farmers who are protesting mostly come from three states near Delhi — Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

    Of these, Punjab farmers are the most, with Haryana and UP coming next. So why are these farmers protesting? What’s making them protest for so long in chilly winters and risking the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic?

    Farmers protest.
    Farmers protest.

    They have some valid reasons. The most important is they fear these farm reforms will deprive them of their minimum support price (MSP) by the government for their produce. They mainly produce paddy and wheat using free electricity, subsidised fertilizers and pesticides.

    Free electricity, but for what? They need it to pump out ground water for the farming of paddy and wheat. To produce 1 kg of rice, we need about 1,000 litres or more of water. The free electricity helps pump this out. And why is electricity free, and the fertilisers subsidised? They help politicians win elections by bribing these farmers with freebies like this.

    Now rice and wheat are essential foodgrains in India. But India produces much more than what it can consume and export. Right now, every year, nearly tens of thousands of tonnes of rice is going to waste in India because the government has no choice but to buy them from farmers at the guaranteed MSP.

    Over 50 per cent of India’s paddy and wheat is procured by the government from just these three states. The subsidies for fertilisers and pesticides further help farmers indiscriminately use them on their fields to increase their crop production — a crop that India doesn’t need more. A crop that degenerate the soil and degrades it with the use of chemicals.

    So rampant is the pesticide and fertiliser use that India runs a cancer train from Punjab to Rajasthan via Haryana, so the extraordinary number of cancer patients can get treatment in Rajasthan. Punjab is in fact called the cancer capital of India. It is probably of the world.

    Cancer patients travelling for treatment.
    Cancer patients travelling for treatment.

    What we are seeing here is a simple problem brought about by local politics, of which these protesting farmers have become prisoners. Political parties that have governed these states have kept giving free electricity, and subsidies to produce a crop in far excess. This is then bought by the government at a guaranteed price.

    If you are a farmer from these states, you will love this scheme. All you need is a piece of land. You can pump out precious ground water, fill the lifeless land with fertilisers, and grow paddy at negligible cost. Then sell it to the government at a good fixed price. It is a money spinner.

    No wonder Punjab and Haryana farmers are much richer than their counterparts from other states. And no wonder they are now protesting, as politicised rumours have been let loose that their comfortable livelihoods dependent on this unsustainable farming is at threat. This is false.

    Now, let’s look at the costs of such policies and farming. For one, the indiscriminate pumping of groundwater for producing a crop that is wasted in thousands of tonnes is causing a severe water crisis. Scientists predict hundreds of millions may face a water crisis soon in these regions.

    Second, the indiscriminate fertiliser and pesticide used to produce a crop that’s not native to this region like paddy is causing a severe health crisis in the region. Thousands of cancer patients turn up each year, increasing the health burden of the country. They have degraded the soil quality with mono-culture. And the streams and rivers are full of chemicals taking a heavy toll on the environment, flora and fauna.

    And last, the farmers from these regions resort to another cheap practice to maximise their profits — farm burning. Wheat and especially paddy leave a lot of stubble. And this is indiscriminately burned, causing a South Asia wide pollution and environmental crisis. The capital city of Delhi is worst affected with the pollution taking the lives of thousands.

    Many governments have tried to help these farmers with machines and processes to reduce this method of disposing of farm waste. But they have got accustomed to the cheap and convenient practice of burning stubble. Moving to cash crops and much needed nutritional food plants that don’t leave such stubble can drastically control this crisis.

    What we are seeing out of the current farming culture in Punjab, Haryana, and Western UP is a multifaceted environmental crisis. So any activist, especially environmental activists, supporting the protests for the sake of it, because they see ‘poor farmers’ against big nationalist government, need to set (geo) politics aside and learn about these issues first.

    Here’s where the new farm reforms can help. They can reform not just the market, freeing up poor farmers across the country from the clutches of corrupt officials running ‘mandis’ giving them dismal prices, but also reform the farming practices in these states — slowly but surely.

    Slowly because the Indian government has not, like the fake propaganda makes it up, take away the MSP. And the government has not taken away any subsidies for these farmers. The Indian government has only freed up the farmers to sell their produce anywhere in the country. This was not possible for them before. And for the private sector to take part in procurement of the farm produce — a norm in every developed and advanced country.

    The idea is, across the vast country of India, most farmers will benefit from these reforms increasing their profits. Wider market reach, ability to export, and private participation will uplift millions out of poverty. These reforms have been welcomed internationally. So most of the farmers, almost 94 per cent, who do not rely on MSP by the government, would benefit. And they are not protesting.

    The rest 6 per cent in the states mentioned above, instigated and misled by fake news and political propaganda that their MSP will go away or that private companies will loot them, are the ones protesting. Their concerns are valid, but they are based on misinformation. These farmers will be the one to benefit the most, long term.

    The reforms will let market forces incentivise them to better crops and farming methods that are sustainable. It will increase their profits much more than what the MSP led regime with corrupt middlemen gave them selling paddy and wheat. And save their future generations from disease, pollution, and health crises. It will save south Asia and the world too from an environmental, climate, and an existential crisis.

    If Greta and Disha read this, I think they would understand and appreciate the Indian farm reforms much more. And won’t add fuel and fire to an already hot, politically and geopolitically hijacked issue, which is not in their realms.\

    This article was first published on Medium and has been republished here with permission.

    Aravind is an entrepreneur with varied interests. He likes to contribute his thoughts on geopolitics, policy, science, and technology in particular.

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