Farmers, the Free Market, and Manufacturing Consent in India
In times of significant upheaval–for example, during a deadly global pandemic–other social and economic issues are often exacerbated. Towards the end of 2020, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of farmers took to the streets of India to protest the Indian government’s passage of legislation that would open up the nation’s highly protected farmers to the free market. An estimated 250 million people joined what was most likely the largest general strike in history, clashing with police and drawing the ire of the Indian government, which restricted Internet access in an attempt to quell the protests. Government officials eventually entered into negotiations with unions representing the farmers. Still, the two parties have been unable to come to an agreement, leaving India’s farmers in a state of uncertainty.
While farmers comprise only 1.8% of the American workforce, 58% of India’s population relies on farming as their primary source of income. Previously, farmers were required to sell their products at the government-run Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), which guaranteed them a minimum price for each product and limited prices on products deemed essential. The regional committees were composed of large farmers and commission agents who transported, stored, and sold goods to other entities. In September 2020, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi passed a series of laws that dismantled the APMC. While Modi’s government argues that the laws will raise farmers’ incomes by removing the “middleman” and allowing farmers to charge more on the free market than they could make in the APMC, farmers believe that their incomes will decrease during times of low demand or high supply. Gurnam Singh Charuni, one of the protest leaders, worries that “we will lose our lands, we will lose our income if you let big business decide prices and buy crops. We don't trust big business. Free markets work in countries with less corruption and more regulation. It can't work for us here."
Protests soon followed the passage of these three laws, with farmers establishing camps outside New Delhi, the nation’s capital. On November 26, 2020, labor unions across India called for a general strike, and protesters broke through police barriers to march in New Delhi, the nation’s capital. Police met the protesters with tear gas, water cannons, and batons. Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over forty farmers unions, has estimated that at least 147 farmers have died due to the ongoing protests. In January 2021, the Indian supreme court temporarily placed the controversial laws on hold, and the government offered to suspend the laws for up to 18 months to allow for negotiations. However, the unions continue to reject anything but a full repeal of the laws, which would reinstate the APMC. In the meantime, India’s farmers wonder whether the protections which have afforded them a guaranteed and reliable income will endure.
Despite the magnitude of the protests and the significant impact India’s agricultural sector has on global trade, American media did not widely cover these protests. While American news often neglects events that occur outside the country, the protests’ omission from breaking news likely also stems from its opposition to free-market principles. In their book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky pose a propaganda model that underlies the editorial decisions of American media organizations. The authors identify five components of this model, one of which is anticommunism. Whether consciously or unconsciously, for-profit media corporations will not publish news that threatens the systems that enrich them. The largest protest in history–especially one which occurs in a developing nation outside the western world–will not receive the news coverage it may deserve. Coupled with the Indian government’s removal of Internet access around New Delhi, the reticence of many media organizations serves to suppress the displays of solidarity exhibited between workers in India.
As protests and negotiations continue, India’s farmers await a decision that will dramatically alter their personal livelihoods as well as global food supplies. Greater foreign investment in the country could usher in newfound wealth for the struggling farmers, or it could cause them to struggle further. Nonetheless, the multitude of protesters have shown that they have immense power and influence in numbers, even in difficult times such as these, and it is up to the rest of the world to pay attention.