Eighteen-year-old Greta Thunberg knows her stuff as an environmental activist. Recall her speeches at various forums, including United Nations climate events. A teen icon, she is impressively knowledgeable. She is sincere about fighting for what she calls our ‘living planet’. Plus, she’s feisty, taking on the global greybeards who pay lip-service to the green cause.
So, yes, Thunberg can endorse any agitation she wants to, her well-merited global fame having given her a moral voice. But there’s a caveat: her offer of solidarity shouldn’t dent her larger mission. Sadly, by joining the celebrity brigade rushing to back India’s politicised farmers’ agitation, she risks the credibility of her campaign as a green warrior.
For starters, Thunberg seems to conflate two issues. Some protesting farmers ran riot on Republic Day. This provoked an official response, some of it warranted, and some of it ham-handed. But, presumably, she isn’t only defending farmers’ ‘human rights’. Presumably, like them, she believes that agricultural reforms harm their interests or, dare one say, vested interests.
If that’s the case, Thunberg either doesn’t know the sustainability issues that dog Indian agriculture due to political pampering of a small tribe of well-to-do farmers. Or, she thinks India needn’t be held to the same green standards as the West. Either way, she exposes herself to two charges: that she’s uninformed, or she’s patronising.
A milder accusation would be that she hasn’t reflected upon the subject adequately. Countless experts — in and outside India — bemoan the inefficiency and unviability of many Indian agricultural practices. It’s no secret that a privileged section of farmers in a few states wants the costly party to continue. It gains the most from the agricultural produce market committee (APMC) system’s monopoly, minimum support prices (MSP), a culture of freebies and, last but not the least, non-taxed agricultural income.
True, farmers under sarkari protection will resist exposure to market forces. Change is psychologically destabilising, so they need reassuring. But this doesn’t alter certain known facts about the existing system. One, APMCs’ chief beneficiaries are well-connected middlemen at multiple levels, who make farmers sell, and consumers buy, at skewed prices. Two, MSP covers 23 crops, but mainly rice- and wheat-growers see hefty procurement of overproduced food grains that pile up in government godowns.
Three, political opportunism routinely hobbles India’s reforms agenda. Many government-bashers in the Opposition have earlier advocated reforms to boost diversified, greener, less weather-reliant farming. They know farm incomes would rise if farmers were rid of intermediaries, if interstate trade barriers exited and if ecommerce and contract farming took off. For, as a cumulative result, investment inflows would help build assets, logistics and infrastructure.
So, regarding Indian agriculture, just how green is Greta? Some commentators have rightly questioned her unquestioning pro-farmers stance, from Wall Street Journal columnist Sadanand Dhume to economist Shruti Rajagopalan. The latter has tweeted that ‘these farmers are anti everything’ that Thunberg wants.
To repeat a much-flogged point, water-stressed India can’t afford to indefinitely favour water-gobbling paddy cultivation, followed by wheat and sugarcane. Yet, ever-higher MSPs, fertiliser subsidies, and free electricity in a state like Punjab, keep one-too-many farmers from switching to more sustainable crops and activities.
Isn’t Thunberg aware that up to 5,000 litres of water go to produce 1 kg of rice? Or that, courtesy free power for Punjab’s farmers, water is pumped out indiscriminately, as if it’s an imperishable resource? Or that paddy farmers burn around 23 million tonnes of stubble annually? Or that the negative impact of paddy-wheat monoculture on soil quality worsens with overused chemical fertilisers and pesticides?
Any green crusader would lament the environmental costs: groundwater depletion, soil degradation and severe water and air pollution. More, she would remind the coddled elite spearheading the farmers’ stir about the ‘living planet’ she pledges to protect.
One last thing. Thunberg and other celebrities seem to nurse a peculiar idea: that India’s farmers are battered underdogs. A government that browbeats farmers wouldn’t engage in endless talks. It wouldn’t backtrack on penalising stubble-burning. It wouldn’t give daily assurances on MSPs, APMCs, contract farming safeguards or judicial disputes resolution. Nor would it offer to put its newly minted farm laws in abeyance, lock, stock and barrel!
India’s rich farmers, self-anointed messiahs of poor farmers, know exactly the kind of clout they have. Seemingly, their global champions don’t.