The Indian Farmer Protests

Tuesday, March 9, 2021
REUTERS / Danish Siddiqui

Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations, Indiana University

Professor, William Paterson University


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Sumit Ganguly, the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations and distinguished professor of political science at Indiana University, and Navyug Gill, history professor at William Paterson University, discuss the farm bills proposed by the Indian government, the protests, and how the United States might respond.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Social Justice and Foreign Policy webinar series. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on our website, CFR.org, as well as on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. We're delighted to have with us Dr. Sumit Ganguly and Dr. Navyug Gill with us to talk about the Indian farmer protests. We've shared their bios with you, so I will just give you a few highlights. Dr. Sumit Ganguly is a distinguished professor of political science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University-Bloomington. He has previously taught at a number of institutions, such as James Madison College of Michigan State University, Hunter College, Northwestern University, the U.S. Army War College, just to name a few. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars, a visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, and at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. He is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Navyug Gill is a professor of history at William Paterson University in New Jersey. He's a historian of modern South Asia and global capitalism, and his current research explores questions of labor, caste, and agrarian politics in colonial Punjab. He also teaches on global capitalism, post-colonial theory, and subaltern studies.


So, Dr. Ganguly and Dr. Gill, thank you very much for being with us today. I think we should begin with you Dr. Ganguly to give us the political context for the protests that are taking place now in India, the government farm bills, and how the United States might respond to these.


GANGULY: Thank you very much for this opportunity, Irina, and I'm delighted to be on this panel with Dr. Gill. There are five points that I'm going to make very quickly. First, the current set of laws that have just been promulgated since last fall, since last September, and have occasioned all these protests primarily around the capital city of New Delhi, mostly from farmers from Haryana and Punjab to adjoining states and sort of the agricultural breadbasket of India. But they have been joined also by farmers from other parts of the country. Much of this protest has been directed against three laws that have been passed. But before I talk about the three laws, these laws have been based upon an earlier law, which was promulgated in 2003. And actually, implemented in the state of Bihar, which is a fairly poor state, and with clearly bad social indicators, and with a rather uneven effect: some of the wealthier farmers profited from the law, but a number of poor farmers really found themselves marginalized. Nevertheless, last September, the government in its wisdom decided to pass these three laws, which seek to fundamentally transform Indian agriculture and push Indian agriculture much more towards the market. Now, it depends upon your political and economic views. Those who are oriented towards market-friendly policies will argue that these are entirely desirable and Indian agriculture does need this kind of boost, and this will actually benefit Indian agriculture in the long run, and agriculture is stagnating, agriculture is no longer profitable. And this will create a national market, these three laws will create a national market and enable farmers to sell their products at will and decide on the prices that they can get for their crops.


So on the face of it, these three laws, which is my second point, do sound fairly attractive as long as you believe in market-oriented policies. But a number of smaller farmers feel that with the agricultural price support that will be removed, and marts, where they were guaranteed a floor price for say wheat, or for corn, or for soybean, that these will be withdrawn. And because of this, they are afraid that their bargaining power, vis-a-vis large corporate entities, will be completely asymmetric. And consequently, they will get wiped out. And there is—and their fears are not chimerical, those fears have some real basis, that large corporations, of which there are several in India, can come to the farmers and say, "Look, this is the price I'm prepared to offer you for your soybean crop this week, take it or leave it. And if you don't offer it to me for that price, I'll go somewhere else, to someone who will agree to my terms." And with the removal of these agricultural price supports, and the removal of the government marts, which would guarantee a floor price for a product, for agricultural produce, you are going to be left essentially to the vagaries of the market. Again, market-friendly economists would argue this is desirable. And over the long run, this will give farmers an incentive to produce crops that are saleable, that will benefit the farmers and also create a food chain in India, involving cold storage and the like. It'll generate new jobs. And this is precisely the kind of exogenous shock that the Indian agricultural sector needs. So, there's clearly a debate that has been demarcated, and people have very strong feelings.

The third point I would make, and underscore, that this is driven by a vision of the government to move India away increasingly, from state intervention, which it has been doing for some time, particularly from 1991 onwards, when it gradually adopted both business-friendly and market-friendly policies. And again, by the way, there is a debate about to what extent these policies have been business-friendly, as opposed to market-friendly. And several of my political science colleagues who work on India's political economy have vigorously taken part in this debate about whether or not these policies have benefited particular business houses, as opposed to a more, creating a more open field for a number of entrants to thrive. But that's a discussion for another day. These policies clearly are market-friendly, even though certain firms are poised to benefit disproportionately because of already their share in food processing and the like.

The fourth point I will make, is that the decision that was made to pass these laws, in many ways, while technically meeting the standards of India's parliament, because ultimately, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power as an overwhelming majority, and technically, it had the right to pass these laws using its majority. But that's in a purely technical sense. There was no consultation with the opposition. The opposition, basically, was marginalized. And I, in part, I also blame the opposition for not coming up with a coherent alternative that they vigorously pressed and held the government's feet to the fire. The opposition was anemic, mostly leaderless, and unimaginative. But there is little or no question that this was done practically, by fiat on the part of the government. There was little or no consultation with the stakeholders, the farmers, who are going to be affected, and some people would argue, afflicted by these laws. So, but this is also characteristic of the decision-making style of this government. On major decisions, I can think of demonetization of the Indian economy, which affected over 80 percent of the currency in circulation, which was done virtually overnight, with disastrous consequences for especially poorer people in India. The wealthy always found ways to go to their preferred banks and change the high denomination notes, which were withdrawn overnight. Same thing happened when it came to the shutdown after the lockdown in the wake of COVID-19, where barely eight hours’ notice was given to millions of migrant workers who barely eke out a living, and they were told that they had to go home. And no arrangements were made to transport them several hundred miles. Many died of dehydration in the process, as they walked across India's plains and highways, with little or no [inaudible] available to them along the way, except from efforts by Indian civil society. The same sort of decision making characterized the goods and services tax, which is sensible. India needed a goods and services tax, to unify the economy and to provide a floor for goods and services and to integrate the national economy. But once again, it was done without any preparation. So essentially, this is characteristic of this government in terms of its decision-making style.

And the fifth and final point I will make is that while these laws were passed with haste, without consultation, and there is a genuine debate about who is going to benefit—and Navyug, in due course, I'm sure will talk about this at length, so I leave that for him—but I will say, embedded in these laws are one or two things which are not bereft of merit. For example, for far too long, India has subsidized farming in a way that benefits large farmers. For example, the provision of electricity at virtually no cost, which is practically bankrupting the Exchequer, and that's unsustainable, that has to be modified or reformed. Similarly, the provision of water, which is not metered at rates, which are really remunerative. And as a consequence, I've actually seen this in the Punjab, and I'm sure Navyug can talk about this, where I've seen farmers let their diesel pumps run long after they've irrigated their fields. Why? Because they're not paying the real price of water. Now, these are not poor marginal sharecroppers, we are talking about relatively wealthy farmers who can afford those diesel pumps in the first place. So there are certain perverse elements that do exist in Indian agriculture, which call for reform, but the manner in which the government has gone about this, and the disregard for the consequences for those who are already at the margins of Indian agriculture, I think deserves considerable criticism. Let me end on that note and let Navyug pick up.


FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. Okay, so let's go over to you, Dr. Gill, to give us your understanding of all this and analysis.


GILL: Wonderful. So thank you, Irina, and everyone else at the Council on Foreign Relations for organizing this event, Audrey, Rivka, Grace, and Will, I'm glad to be in conversation with my co-panelist, Dr. Ganguly. And it's wonderful to see, albeit virtually, so many participants interested in the historic farmer and labor protests in India. I trust you're there; I can't see. So I'm going to, as Irina said, speak briefly about the wider historical and social context of this protest. And I'm going to focus on three areas. The first is the Green Revolution. The second is the politics of reform, and the third is contingent solidarity.


So first to the Green Revolution. In order to understand this current protest, we need to look at the transformation of agriculture in post-colonial India. After 1947, India was an impoverished country, experiencing severe food shortages to the point of having to import grain. At the same time, there were waves of leftist-inspired armed uprisings across the decolonizing world, including within India. Thus, in order to prevent both famine and communism, the government decided to rapidly increase food production. To do so, it partnered with the U.S. State Department, along with the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in the 1960s. Together, they developed a set of technologies and strategies that became known as the Green Revolution. So this entailed hybrid, high yield seed varieties, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and mechanization through tractors and tubewells. Now the government chose Punjab as the site to deploy this program, because it had exceptionally fertile soil and abundant groundwater, as well as self-cultivating, small-holding farmers. Now, in order to get farmers to adopt these capital-intensive technologies, the government introduced two key mechanisms. One, the minimum support prices, MSP, and the second, government procurement markets or mandis. The result was the dramatic increase in crop output, yields doubled and tripled year after year. So that Punjab as 1.5 percent of the territory of India, produced something like 60 to 70 percent of the wheat and rice that fed the entire country for decades. And that is how India became food self-sufficient. Now, at the same time, the Green Revolution had severely detrimental effects in terms of inequality, ecology, and caste. People raised objections at the time in civil society organizations, politicians, economists, religious leaders, they made several suggestions and even demands, but they were largely ignored and even maligned by the government. So that is the sort of prehistory of this crisis.


Now to the politics of reform. As Professor Ganguly mentioned, these three laws are designed to deregulate and privatize agriculture. Specifically, they allow corporations to buy crops directly from farmers at market prices. They allow corporations to engage in the stockpiling of commodities in unlimited quantities. And they allow corporations to enter into lopsided contracts with farmers without due legal recourse. So here, these laws use the language of choice and freedom to create a parallel private system that will lead to the collapse of the public system of MSP and mandi, as well as the dismantling of the public distribution system upon which something like 40 to 60 percent of Indians depend. Together, this will throw tens of millions of people into volatility, destabilize the livelihoods of hundreds of millions more, and jeopardize the food supply of 1.3 billion. The key point is that these are not agricultural reforms. They are little more than a corporate handle. They will not address any of the outstanding issues in the agricultural sector. So water depletion, mono-cropping patterns of rice and paddy, chemical dependence, farmer suicides, land inequality. As I just said, people have been demanding reforms that would be both sustainable and equitable for decades with little response. Now, at the same time, the protests against these laws are not an endorsement of the status quo. And I think this is the kind of old trick of neoliberalism: denigrate a certain policy is inefficient, and then claim a radically conservative option as the only possible solution. So if one pretends to be a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And I think we need to develop the creativity to go beyond this sort of bad faith myopia.


Now, to the last point, contingent solidarity. This protest began over the summer with farmer and labor unions led by sects in Punjab, but it has since grown in both scope and scale. It's actually traversed many of the usual divides of Indian society. And I'll just quickly name six areas. First, caste. There's a long history of tensions between farmers and laborers, which are Dalits and Jats. This is a tension that is both economic and cultural. But nonetheless, these two groups—Jats being farmers and Dalits being laborers —have managed to come together in the face of a common threat. Second, class. Far from just rich farmers, this protest is made up of a majority who own less than five acres of land. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy are actually most threatened by the prospect of landlessness. And the protest has been joined by urban workers, by transporters, by students, government employees, professionals, it has crossed society. Third, gender. Salute to International Women's Day yesterday, there's been something like thirty to forty to fifty thousand women protesting at the barricades. Very often these women have had to fight against their conservative households. They've had to fight against the patriarchal society, just to have the chance to fight against this government. So we are witnessing a feminist moment. Fourth is region. We saw the historic coming together of Punjab and Haryana. This was one state until 1966. They've had tensions over language and water resources in the past. Nonetheless, they are fighting shoulder to shoulder in this struggle, and they have been joined by states like Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, as well as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and elsewhere. Fifth, is the global dimension. This protest has been paralleled by an unprecedented mobilization in the diaspora. The months of agitations in front of Indian consulates and embassies in dozens of cities across the world. Now, the last area, and perhaps the most important for this conversation, has been the role of religion. This protest is informed and inspired by the Sikh tradition. And we can see that I think in three main ways. First, the Sikh concept of radical equality for all has welcomed everyone to the protest without any distinction. So Sikh are joined by Hindus, by Muslims, by atheists, by agnostics, you see [inaudible], you see Pooja, you see Namaz, all are welcome. Second, Sikh institutions like Langar, which is the collective cooking and eating of food, and Seva, which is the self-driven yet selfless activity for the common good, have created an incredible atmosphere at the barricades. They've established schools, and medical clinics, and created their own newspaper. The poor living on the outskirts of [inaudible] have actually had three meals a day for the first time because of this protest. And third, the Sikh philosophy and history has empowered people to confront their adversaries. It has instilled with them, within them, a sort of bravery to fight back against an authoritarian government. Now, this doesn't mean that tensions have disappeared. There are still fissures and frictions in this protest. We don't have to exaggerate. And we don't have to be romantic. Solidarity is not the resolution of difference. But nor is it merely a fiction. Instead, I see this as the forging of new connections, and with that, a new energy and outlook for politics in India. And I think we need to invest in that possibility. So in this sense, the farmers protest has become a broad-based popular movement. It presents the largest and most sustained challenge to the BJP's agenda [inaudible]. And it is also one of the most remarkable exercises in the making of democratic culture in the world. And I think it offers us a way to rethink the assumptions of economic progress, as well as religious politics. So with that, I'll stop. Thank you for listening. I look forward to the conversation.


FASKIANOS: Thank you both very much for that. And now we're going to go to all of you for your questions. You can raise your hand at the bottom of your screen. If you're on a tablet, click on the "more" button to raise your hand there, or else you can type your question in the Q&A box. If you could also identify yourself in the Q&A box, or when you, when I call upon you and I ask you to unmute, please say who you are to give us context, that would be most appreciated. And let's see, I'm going now, the first question—and people don't be shy—I'm going to Bawa Jain.


JAIN: Hello. Hello Irina, good to see you again.


FASKIANOS: Likewise.


JAIN: And Dr. Ganguly and Mr. Gill, I mean, I should say Dr. Gill, thank you both. I, by the way, I'm originally from Punjab. Okay, even though for the last thirty years, I've been here in the U.S. And one thing which I just wonder, I wish there had been somebody from the government side to counter this discussion. This seems one-sided. I mean, I know the laws quite well. Of the years of independence since 1947, fifty-five plus years has been the rule of the Congress Party. Dr. Ganguly mentioned in 2003, the farming laws. The international community has been asking India to reform its farm laws. Both of you have just not mentioned the middleman, which has been gouging these poor farmers for all these centuries. They were like the charlots. I've been a farmer. We've had farms since we were young. I know what happens in the mandis, they're called the mandis, [inaudible], who were the biggest beneficiaries? Today we are just faulting the government, whereas if you look since the BJP has taken power, what has been India’s standing internationally? On the transparency index, India's corruption has deeply receded. The trust in the Indian government has vastly increased. The Prime Minister today is one of the most credible people on the planet. On the vaccine diplomacy, India is leading the charge. Dr. Ganguly mentioned about farmers, look at the number of deaths per million in India as compared to the other, even the United States of America. Can we not just be fair and give credit where it is due? Nothing is perfect. Yes, I can acknowledge but we in the spirit of discussion, at least we can raise the policies, factually from both sides.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Sumit do you want to take that first?


GANGULY: Well, there really wasn't a question there. It was mostly a statement. So there are a number of responses that I could have. But much of it doesn't have to do with today's discussion. India's standing in the world is not the subject of today's discussion. It's very well focused on the farmers protests. And that's where Professor Gill I directed our remarks. In a separate seminar, I'll be happy to address the issue of transparency, and India's standing in the world about which I've written ad nauseum. So I'm not really sure that I can really respond to because there was no question attached. And I don't speak for the government of India.


GILL: Yeah, I share Sumit's perspective. I mean, if pressed, I could maybe just sort of find a couple of points to say. One is that there is no doubt that the Congress Party, when it was in power, created the infrastructure of the Green Revolution and set us on this path. That was what I was trying to explain with the Green Revolution. And the Congress is not at all free from some sort of blame. I actually believe that had the Congress been in power, they would do exactly the same thing. So there's a kind of larger, if you will, bipartisan support for these kinds of neoliberal changes that is shared by the Congress and the BJP. And so the critique extends to both of them. As far as the international community demanding changes, it is precisely those changes that the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the IMF, are kind of insisting that countries in the Global South remove subsidies and supports for their citizens, while countries in the Global North maintain theirs. And that hypocrisy, I think, is at the center of actually rethinking foreign policy. How can the U.S. continue to subsidize large agribusinesses here while demanding everybody else in the Global South end their subsidy regimes? The last thing is the claim that this will cut up the middlemen. It's not true that it will cut out middlemen. In fact, if the middlemen are cut out, but you hand agriculture to giant corporations, you're putting people in a much worse situation. And I think the best way to maybe see evidence for that is listen to the farmer and labor groups. Listen to the people that are actually cultivating, listen to what they say. And they're absolutely clear in the effect of these laws on their livelihoods.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to take the next question from Simran Jeet Singh.


SINGH: Hi, this is Simran. Nice to hear from both of you, incredibly insightful, and meaningful. So thanks for taking your time to share with us all. My question is less to do with the actual economics of what's inspired the protests and more towards what you what you were saying near the end, Dr. Gill around the government's response. And I'd love to hear a bit of your perspective around what the global community has really been focusing on over the last few weeks, has been the undemocratic response, the silencing of speech, the detention of journalists, climate justice activists without real charge claiming sedition for editing Google docs and supporting protests. And I'd love to hear your perspective on how this fits or squares with our understanding of the current Indian government's approach, and also what we might learn from historical examples in situations like this, of what might be around the corner for India going forward. Thank you both.


GILL: Thank you for the question Simran, and it has been really, I think, eye opening. Oh, I'm still muted? No.


FASKIANOS: No, you are fine. We can hear you.


GILL: Okay, good. It's, I think, been eye opening for the global community to witness how the Indian government has dealt with this protest. The severe and wide-ranging crackdown on dissent is there for everyone to see, from throwing people in jail, from harassing newspapers and shutting down publications, and suspending internet at the protest sites, and a whole host of things that they've done. I think it shows the insecurity and thin skin of this government, that it's not able to kind of handle dissent within its own country in sort of equitable ways. And that insecurity causes it to kind of lash out and respond to statements by civil society or even celebrities across the world. That is, I think, the greatest sort of disservice and kind of almost embarrassment to the government, its response. I do think, though, that the shift to the way in which the government has handled the protest, needs to kind of be put alongside the content of the protest, because the government sort of bungled handling of it, calling these people all sorts of slurs, from separatists, to terrorists, to Maoists, and the rest of it is condemnable, and all of that. But even if the government had handled this perfectly well, and allowed people to protest and not interfered, what they're actually trying to do, is actually the problem. And the fact that tens and hundreds of millions of people have risen up in opposition to that is what I think we have to confront. To the last part of your question, I agree with you, it does not portend well. And I think that the path that India is on, there's a lively debate, actually, about India being an authoritarian fascist state. There is a debate in this country about, is America fascist? There are debates that happen in all sorts of places in the world, in Brazil, in Hungary, Philippines and elsewhere, in Turkey. So, and I think, what does it mean to have a country that claims to be the world's largest democracy, now entering into the discourse of how authoritarian and how fascist is it? I think that gives us all something to kind of think about.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to take the written question from Father Joseph Varghese. Why is this—is this protest connected to the Khalistan movement? Is it a ploy by the government to undermine the real cause?


GILL: Yes, to the second part, largely, in that the government was very quick to declare these protesting farmers and laborers "separatists," it was one of the many slurs they use to try to discredit this movement and sort of have kind of denounced people for people that are Sikh, for demanding kind of a separate state. That has kind of led others to kind of insist that this is a completely secular movement, and that religion has no part of it, and that separatists have nothing to say to this struggle. Which has also led others to say, just because an accusation comes doesn't mean one has to sort of get so anxious and kind of insist on a kind of secularism, that is not actually playing out on the ground. So there's a religious dimension to it. I've tried to explain the role that religion sort of plays in politics, it's not hermetically sealed. There might be some people that have different aspirations for states' rights, for federalism, for rethinking sort of political arrangements. There's nothing wrong with thinking those things. But if you listen to people on the ground, in terms of the farmer and laborer unions, they are adamant that this is a struggle about these three farm laws and their appeal, and that it is not a religious struggle. So we can kind of sit back and look at larger sort of entanglements, we can be aware of the government propaganda, and then we ought to kind of take the word of the people engaged in the struggle on the frontlines.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to take the next question from Dr. Lavanya Vemsani, who also wrote a question so I'll let you just ask it if you can unmute yourself and identify yourself, that would be great.


VEMSANI: Thank you so much, Irina, for taking my question. And thank you, Dr. Ganguly and Dr. Gill, for both of your presentations. I have a small question. I typed it out, but I'll actually shorten it now. My question is—I actually come from southern India. South India also produces a lot of rice, I come from a rice-farming family. I have seen my family struggles with rice farming and then finding the markets for it. We were never allowed to sell in the open markets, we had to take it to the mandis and we had to pay the fee for the mandis and everything, and wait for the mercy for them to give the minimum price. The minimum price whatever the government declared. That was it. But if we can take it to the outside of the state, outside of the market, we can actually get a larger price. Actually, my uncles got arrested for taking the rice to the open markets to sell it for higher price. So in the southern states, especially in the rice farming communities, this is a welcome change. So my question is, why do you disagree with the economics of this bill? Why do you oppose farmers entering open market? Do you think government meddling in the business is good? You won't want this for any other sector, why do you need this for agriculture sector? You don't want government to declare a minimum price for any business community, business sector. Agricultural business, agricultural sector is also a business. Why do you want government to be in this business? And why do you want government to declare minimum support price? And minimum support price is never on the books anywhere. It's not a lot. Government is doing it for a long time. But it is not in the law books anywhere. So why do you want it to be the issue now?


GANGULY: Well, I'll take a crack at it.


FASKIANOS: Great, thank you. Go ahead. We can hear you.


GANGULY: Well, okay, good. It's a fair question. There's little or no question in my mind, and Navyug may disagree with me on this, that a certain segment of the farming community will benefit from the possibilities of entering the open market, because they have the wherewithal to negotiate a fair price for their agricultural produce. But given that a very substantial number, I forget the precise percentage, but it's quite high, that a very substantial percentage of India's farmers own barely two hectares of land. It's they who will feel the brunt of these policies if they are actually implemented. Just like in the Green Revolution, as Navyug correctly pointed out. And here I would bring up the book of Francine Frankel, who is a colleague of mine, who wrote a major book called India's Green Revolution: Economic Gains and Political Costs. And in that she pointed out that the Green Revolution disproportionately benefited a certain segment of the farmers and essentially, marginalized smaller farmers. And this, these sets of bills, if they are actually implemented, will no doubt lead to a segment of the farming community, who are already somewhat well off, to be able to profit from a national market, the ability to negotiate prices for their produce, and the like. But, a very substantial portion of the farming community, which is not so well-endowed, will find themselves even marginalized further.


GILL: Yeah, I would agree and sort of just add a couple of points. One, is that the MSP and mandi regimes, and they work hand-in-hand, exists in Punjab and Haryana, and to an extent Rajasthan, and [inaudible], because that was where the kind of focal point of these technologies were being deployed. So I'm not quite sure where the person asking the question what state they're from and what the dynamics are in that state. But if they're, if a person wants to kind of—so the MSP systems don't actually sort of exist in the rest of India in the same way. And there aren't those procurement markets and farmers are at the kind of mercy of private buyers. The best example of this is 2006 in Bihar, when there was a government mandi system that was dismantled, and farmers were sort of given access to sell privately. And what we saw in Bihar in 2006, was farmers becoming more impoverished. Prices actually plummeted. A [inaudible] of rice in Bihar get something like 900 or 950 rupees, and in Punjab, it's like 1800. And so Bihari farmers have been actually becoming landless, and working as migrant laborers in other states, or trying to find ways to sell their produce in Bihar. So open markets, the volatility of the market, does not actually result in upward mobility and security and prosperity for all. I think this is one of the things we might have internalized. But markets don't function in that same way, Bihar is the example. I mean, we can look at this country, why do we have a minimum wage? Why is there so much debate actually, in U.S. politics about a minimum wage? Because left to the market, they might pay people 2 dollars an hour. Right? So we actually have to put in place certain safeguards and protections because everything doesn't function in the kind of abstractions that economists are used to dealing with.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go to Razi Hashmi, raised hand. And please unmute yourself, Razi.


HASHMI: Thanks, Irina. Hi, Sumit, good to see you.


GANGULY: Hi, there.


HASHMI: It's a pleasure, Dr. Gill, pleasure to meet you. My name is Razi Hashmi, I am a term member with the Council on Foreign Relations. I also cover South Asia in the Department of State's International Religious Freedom office. I had some technical issues at the beginning, so I may have missed it. But I wanted to ask, how do you see the farm protests in the broader trends of issues that have been facing Indians, from the revocation of Article 370, CAA, NRC, the Bhima Koregaon case, anti-conversion laws, which have included many marriage restrictions. I'm curious to know what your thoughts are on this, but also what recommendations you have for U.S. policymakers, technology companies, such as social media, and the U.S. diaspora community, which is as diverse as that of India. Thank you.




GILL: Go ahead, yeah.


GANGULY: A terrific question. And I'll take an initial crack at it. Many of the issues that you have outlined quite correctly, basically deal with the constriction of personal liberties and political choices. And I think these are all deeply disturbing developments. And the government's response to any form of protest against these policies has led to further efforts to constrict free speech and dissent. And the manner in which the government, as Navyug has correctly pointed out, has sought to squelch the farmers' movement, is part of a piece that has manifested itself in a number of other different areas. The government seems to have a view that Indian citizens are really their subjects, rather than citizens. Citizens speak out, citizens criticize, citizens have a right to dissent. Instead, how the government is treating its population is that you have to accept the strictures that we are passing simply because we have an elected legislature, and we have a majority in parliament, and the majority will prevail. And dissent is increasingly being constrained. Journalists are being systematically harassed. Members of civil society find themselves besieged. Amnesty International has been forced to shut down its operations on the basis of utterly dubious claims. Institutions are being used in a fashion, for example, the Enforcement Directorate, which looks at economic crimes, is being directed mostly to harass individuals who dissent from the government, members of the political opposition, members of civil society that have criticized the government. And the response, as Navyug very correctly pointed out, the attempt to tar and feather the farmers movement, because it's primarily based in the Punjab, that these people are really separatists, terrorists, and Khalistanis seeking to split up the Indian state. It's all part of a piece.


So finally, your question about policy response. Well, much as India is important to the United States for a whole variety of reasons, given the links with the diaspora, the economic relationship, the security relationship, all of these things are vitally important. But we should not be afraid of criticizing our friends. Friends should point out to friends when friends are in error. And so I leave it to you, as a member of the State Department, to forthrightly raise these issues, without being unpleasant in any fashion. One does not have to be obnoxious about it, but quietly, but firmly, one has to raise this with one's Indian counterparts, because the very future of India's democracy is at risk.


GILL: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with Sumit on all those points, actually. I would add a couple of thoughts. Razi sort of mentioned the connections across these different struggles. So I will say that there are connections being made between people fighting against the CAA protest, people engaged in the Bhima Koregaon case, and the farmers protests. People at the frontlines of a barricade have a lot on their hands, and we can't expect them to kind of cover and address every single issue all at once. But they have made those alliances, they have spoken out against targeting of political prisoners and things like that. Again, it's a bit akin to here in the U.S., we have the Black Lives Matter movement, the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, people fighting for a 15 dollar minimum wage, people fighting for migrant justice. So these are all distinct struggles, there are some overlap, they're confronting a kind of common opponent, but they're not exactly the same thing, either. Right? So we should maybe pay attention to those differences, as well as appreciate the connections that are made.


To your second question, yes, absolutely, U.S. should be concerned. And the U.S., I think, as Sumit explained, the claim of the U.S. to be, its position and standing in the world, and to kind of uphold a certain set of values when they're being undermined in countries that we're supposed to be allies with, we absolutely have an obligation to speak up and do something. And I think it should occur on two fronts, I think there should be the kind of pressure through all sorts of diplomatic civil society channels to address these kinds of things. But at the same time, I think that there should also be a reexamination of U.S. foreign policy that demands countries in the Global South and their subsidies and supports. It has to go both ways. And we have to kind of insist on that two-pronged strategy, and perhaps extend the generosity that when civil society organizations in places like India, comment upon violations of rights and freedoms in the U.S., we can also bear that too. Right? In a sense, if we're taking seriously that we're part of a global community, maybe then we should be able to kind of hold world leaders accountable wherever they are.


The last point, I think, is I think that big tech companies have shown that they are not able to handle these serious and deep questions. They are actually perhaps obsolete. They are arbitrary in their means of kind of deciding which account gets shut and which hashtag gets blocked. And I think they need an overhaul and oversight by external forces because it doesn't seem like they are able to deal with the new world that we're in.


FASKIANOS: Thank you, I'm going to take the next written question from Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta, from Duta Wacana Christian University, who thanks you both for your perspectives. How do you describe the transformation of agricultural law to sustainable development goals that need to be applied by all countries including India?


GANGULY: This is a really tall order. And, in part, Navyug has touched upon this at various moments. And I would argue that yes, Indian agriculture is in need of reform. But so is agriculture in the advanced, industrialized world. For heaven's sake, we subsidize tobacco farmers, while the FDA, and the Center for Disease Control are telling us to cut back on smoking. And I live in a state where any number of people who are obese, and in addition to that are smokers, and are contributing to the healthcare crisis in this country, and yet we continue to subsidize tobacco farming in this country. There's the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe, which subsidizes highly inefficient farmers. But that's how also we get extraordinary brie. And at a price that is sustainable. In France, I have personally witnessed vines being pulled out of the ground by a tractor while on vacation in Provence. Why? Because you want to keep the price of wine in Paris at a price that the consumer in Paris finds happy. So while we can talk about the reform of agriculture, which India desperately needs, and I alluded to it by saying that there are certain agricultural subsidies which have produced perverse outcomes. Environmental degradation through the use of chemical fertilizers, through the excessive reliance on diesel pumps, cheap electricity, which does not give farmers an incentive to conserve, these are all things that need to be tackled. But it can't be done without addressing this on a global scale, and recognizing the complicity of advanced industrial states, which happily subsidize their own farmers, but are always hectoring poorer countries in the Global South to reform their agriculture. And the bargaining power, the structural bargaining power that exists in organizations like the WTO, is lopsided. And we need to forthrightly talk about this.


GILL: Yeah, I agree. Those are excellent points. And I think, specifically in India, I think this is why I was trying to emphasize that these are not agricultural reforms, just because of the way the narrative is kind of spun is that agriculture was stagnant, something needed to be done, nobody was doing anything, so the government had to make this bold move. In fact, there were lots of options on the table. Lots of different people had put forward suggestions and arguments, and like I said, demands even, and they were largely ignored and maligned. So I think we have to kind of do the patient work of reading through all of those proposals and bills, and initiatives, to see the kind of landscape of possibilities. One example I can give is the Swaminathan Commission. Far from some radical fringe activist document, this is a government-sanctioned body that produced a report in the early 2000s, that laid out all sorts of suggestions. Very sort of detailed policy recommendations, if you will, in terms of how to address water depletion, how to distribute land, how to get out of monocropping. And it was received by the government and shelved. Right? So something like that is on the table. And it can and needs to be brought back. The last thing I'll say is, we ought to maybe rethink, what is an expert? How do we use this word "expert," who gets to be an expert? And I think this struggle has maybe revealed that the people that are insisting that the free market is a solution to this problem, are actually reproducing an ideological argument. And it's not just some technocratic evaluation of the facts, a neutral position. That is ideological. The commitment and demand for MSP and mandi systems across India, that's also ideological. There's also kind of different commitments and affiliations people have. But when we start seeing that, perhaps we can get out of, "just trust the experts," and actually then think about, as Sumit was saying, the different stakeholders and who is involved in bringing other people to the table and maybe rethink the model along the lines that the questioner is asking.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Kavneet Singh. I think you might have written your question, but why don't you just ask it since we only have four minutes left?


SINGH: Can you hear me?




SINGH: Okay. So my question is, Dr. Ganguly was mentioning about the wastage of water, and I agree with him that water cannot be wasted because it is very precious, but on the flip side, Punjab being your [inaudible] state, and water actually flowed, not from the old Punjab, it had all the water and the [inaudible] states have full control of the water as per international treaties. But for Punjab in particular, the center usurped all the water, all the surface water, and used it to supply water to other states. So technically, Punjab is owed over one billion dollars in water royalty, while Punjab currently is in approximately the same amount of debt. So if the water royalty was paid, Punjab would be debt free today. So my question is, how do you resolve this, collecting water, the [inaudible] water is fine and dandy, but the existing water which is already there, which should be used by the people who have very intensive agriculture, that's not being allowed?


GANGULY: There are two issues involved here. It's a fair question. One is the issue of federalism in India, that India is a federal polity. And so rivers flow from one state to others, and you have to work out equitable mechanisms for the distribution of water. And there is no simple solution to this issue. This is not only an issue in the Punjab. It's an issue in my native state of West Bengal, it's an issue with the Kaveri river waters in southern India. And there is no magical formula by which one can allocate this water. And this is, of course, subject to political negotiations between states and stakeholders. So there is no easy answer to that part of the question. The part that you weren't addressing, and which is what I was focusing on, and this is not just true of the Punjab, but elsewhere, that electricity and water for farmers across India is subsidized by the state, largely because farmers, especially more powerful farmers, constitute an important lobby. And entire state electricity boards, which are state-run companies across India, are basically going bankrupt, because they cannot charge a reasonable price for electricity, largely because farmers will punish you at the ballot box. And this is an unsustainable strategy for the long-term future. So while you do raise an important question about Indian federalism, and questions of equity, it's not simply that alone. There are other structural problems that need to be addressed, which is draining aquifers, especially in the Punjab.


GILL: And let me just quickly add, I think the problem of the water usage in Punjab is also a question of which crops are planted. So that paddy is actually an alien crop. It doesn't belong in this region, because Punjab doesn't get the kind of monsoons that in the east, in the south, those regions get. Now, the reason why people are growing paddy is because this is what the government wanted Punjab to grow and provided those subsidies to get them hooked on it, it requires twelve inches of standing water for five months, which is absurd in Punjab. So crop diversification, if we move away from paddy, we will actually greatly alleviate the problem of groundwater depletion. And that, I know people, everyone I know that grows paddy in Punjab doesn't want to grow it. Everybody I know that has moved away from it, have twenty-five or thirty or fifty acres, and they can afford to do it. So if we want crop diversification, it has to actually come from a state support for alternative crops. And that would I think, get towards some of the concerns of the questioner.


FASKIANOS: Well, thank you both. We are out of time. But we really appreciate your taking this hour to be with us. And to all of you, I'm sorry that we couldn't get to your written questions and raised hands. We will just have to continue exploring this topic. We encourage you to keep up with Dr. Ganguly's work. He just authored a piece in Foreign Affairs entitled "India's Farmers Will Benefit From Reforms." And you can follow Dr. Gill on Twitter @NavyugGill. We also encourage you to follow CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter @CFR_Religion. And obviously, please, as always, reach out to us at [email protected] with any suggestions on future webinars or topics that you would like us to cover. So thank you all again for being with us today.

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