Small World: Labor Advocacy in India

Avatar of Kai Teigen

I’ve always found the tactics of political and civil resistance absolutely fascinating. Growing up in Berkeley, I’ve had the privilege of living in a city so renowned for its culture of progressive protest that conservatives deridingly call it “Berserkeley,” so naturally enough when I first heard about the farm strikes in India I wasn’t particularly impressed. But the situation has grown to landmark historical significance, and so I’d like to share the story of the rapidly growing movement which has taken the Indian government by storm. 

Last year India’s Parliament passed a series of widely controversial bills which have become known as the Farm Acts, aimed to cut government regulation of the farming industry. Among other items, India scrapped limits on food stockpiles, public oversight of farming contracts, and agricultural Minimum Support Prices, which set a limit on how cheaply crops can be sold. Indian conservatives claim that this type of government oversight chokes and restrains the free market, and that deregulation is the only real way to grow India’s economy. But the fact of the matter is that there’s a reason why these laws were in place. By limiting crop stockpiles, India’s government could prevent businesses from artificially driving up food prices by hoarding crops and keeping them scarce. By keeping the public sector involved in contract negotiations, the government could prevent farmers from falling prey to abusive business deals. By setting minimum crop prices, India’s government prevented major corporations from flooding the market with cheap goods in order to crush smaller farmers.

Indian farmers know that these laws were created to protect them, so when their government chose to strip them of these economic defences, they refused. Last November, 250 million Indian workers went on strike, and 300,000 farmers marched to New Delhi to speak out against the unpopular new laws in the largest protest in human history. Farmers blocked roads and set up camp in the capital, and they haven’t moved since then, despite daily attacks by Indian police with tear gas and clubs. Indian farmers refused to accept the lie that major corporations must be left unchecked to grow the economy, refused to accept the disastrous neoliberal reforms crushing their lives and their livelihoods, and refused to accept another day of degradation at the hands of an ideology valuing profits over people. 

Their outrage, their resistance, and their solidarity is paying off. Last month, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government opened up talks with the protestors, negotiations over the laws that are still taking place today. The workers of India have come to a realization that continually eludes our fellow Americans; public regulation exists not to give power to the government, not as an attack on freedom, but to protect the people that an unchecked capitalist market would grind into the dirt. India’s workers are taking their future into their own hands, and after decades of conservative politics allowing the rich to stay rich and the poor to stay poor we as Americans must do the same.