NH Exclusive: American farmers inspired by Indian farmers’ protest

A conversation between California based filmmaker Bedabrata Pain and Agriculture Policy expert Devinder Sharma on the impact of market economy on agriculture. Read the teaser text and watch the promo

NH Exclusive: American farmers inspired by Indian farmers’ protest
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Sanjukta Basu

Protesting Indian farmers, who have been camping at the borders of Delhi since November 26, 2020, have support from unexpected quarters. Not just Sikhs and alleged Khalistanis living abroad, as the Government would like people to believe, but even Trump supporting White American farmers seem to believe Indian farmers are right.

The National Herald brought together two Indians, based in California and Chandigarh, to speak about the global impact of big corporates and ‘free market’ on Agriculture and on farmers. Edited transcript of their hour and a half long conversation will be published next week in National Herald on Sunday and on nationalheraldindia.com

While Bedabrata Pain, the California based filmmaker of the national award-winning film Chittagong, is coming out with a documentary on May 1 this year on what American farmers have to say about the Indian farm laws, Agriculture Policy expert Devinder Sharma, based in Chandigarh, informs he too has been receiving calls from American farmers who are anxious to find out what is happening in India. What follows are brief excerpts from the conversation by way of a teaser.

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What we are discussing are not farmers’ issue. Food cannot be farmers’ issue alone. It is everybody’s issue.

Over the last few months as the farmers’ agitation intensified in India, as a concerned Indian I started reading up and doing some research. It struck me that all the talk of opening up Agriculture to free market, ending MSP or price parity as it was called in the US, contract farming, minimum government control and so on were exactly the kind of conversations that took place in America about four decades back.

Even the kind of words used by our Prime Minister Modi ji about how big companies are ‘good citizens’ are similar to what President Reagan used to say in USA. So, the same conversations about free market, less regulation, price parity have happened before and that is why we called the film Déjà vu.

America has gone through these talking points which India is debating now. What happened then? How did the small farmers fared? We thought what better way to portray it than capturing the stories of American farmers and give a comparative view. That is how this documentary came about.

Four of us brown people in the whitest of white America, traveling in the cold months of January and February through Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin, met farmers who shared with us how the big companies have destroyed small farmers. They were all friendly and warm and were really eager to share their stories. It seemed they lack a platform to speak, they feel there is nobody to hear their voices.

One of the things that hit me the most was the accelerating cases of farmers suicide in America. Here we were, thinking America is the land of opportunities, milk and honey, who could have imagined that American farmers too are committing suicide because they cannot pay their debts?

American farmers are fully aware of what is going on in India and are keenly watching how things progress. They sent us messages for the Indian farmers which we would be showcasing in our film, which is still in the editing stage. They regret not being able to organise protests back in their time when big changes were happening, and are immensely inspired by the Indian farmers’ movement. We are learning from Indian farmers they said.

We always had WTO, World Bank, the IMF and other first world institutions telling India what to do, but here was a first world community learning from Indian farmers, that was the most heart-warming experience we had.

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In the mid-80s I started taking interest in the amount of subsidies that rich developed countries were giving to their farmers. We are given to understand that the rich countries are so prosperous and their farmers are in such good shape that we need to copy their model and open up our agriculture to free market.

The reality is that in America and other supposedly rich nations the Free Market economy has not benefited farmers, particularly the small ones. The population of farmers has shrunk severely. Merely one and a half percent of Americans are into farming and even then, it is not a lucrative profession. The agriculture sector is surviving upon massive government subsidies there.

Two years back the chief economist of the US Department of Agriculture said that since the 1960s American farm income has seen a steep decline if you adjust for inflation. Whereas in India we are told that the Free Market agriculture would make farm income go up. If so, I fail to understand why has it not gone up in America? Why did price discovery not happen in first world countries? Why does 40% of the average farm income in America still come from subsidies? It clearly demolishes the argument that markets lead to price discovery.

Take the example of cotton. In 2005 American farmers were getting a subsidy of 4.7 billion dollars to produce crop worth 3.9 billion dollars and because of the subsidies global cotton prices were depressed. As a result, farmers in Africa, India and other countries were priced out. On top of that, America would provide a subsidy of 180 million dollars to the textile industry to buy this subsidized cotton.

EU provides a subsidy support of 100 billion dollars every year and that forms 57% of the farm income of EU farmers imagine if this subsidy was withdrawn what would happen to the EU farmers. And despite the massive subsidies the agriculture sector in Europe gets, every minute one farmer quits agriculture.

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Published: 11 Apr 2021, 3:28 PM