In September 2020, India’s Narendra Modi government circumvented parliamentary procedures to push through three bills that eased restrictions on private players in agricultural markets. The move enraged farmers—especially in the northwestern state of Punjab, an epicenter of the Green Revolution since the 1950s. After protesting in vain for two months, tens of thousands of Punjab farmers began a march to New Delhi in late November. The Modi government responded by deploying paramilitary troops armed with water cannons and tear gas shells, and protected by barricades, concertina wires and deep trenches dug into freeways at the borders of the capital city.
The demonstrations have since spread across the country and represent the largest-ever mobilization of farmers in independent India. They have already claimed over 70 lives; many have died of the cold and some have committed suicide as a political statement. The standoff is not just about the repeal of the three laws, but also includes the demand that the state guarantee minimum support prices (MSPs) for all public and private purchases of produce. In a broader perspective, however, this agitation is writing the obituary of the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution—essentially the promotion of capital-intensive industrial agriculture—was more of a Cold War stratagem than a humanitarian initiative, as recent histories have forcefully argued. After independence in 1947, peasant movements led by communists had mounted fierce pressure on the Indian National Congress, the ruling political party, to redistribute land from landlords to peasants.
But the Congress, beholden to landlords for electoral support in rural areas, was unwilling to implement comprehensive land reforms. In this context, the U.S. government promoted the Green Revolution to preempt a Soviet-style “Red Revolution,” as U.S. Agency for International Development administrator William Gaud stated in a speech in 1968. It comprised subsidized fertilizers and irrigation, rice and wheat varieties bred to absorb high fertilizer doses, and state-led training programs to assist farmers in transitioning to new practices. Given the expense, it was rolled out only in a few, well-endowed districts of Punjab and a few other states. Because bumper productions inevitably depress prices, farmers were guaranteed procurement through state-run mandis or market yards at MSPs declared in advance. State procurement was therefore crucial to transforming Punjab into India’s breadbasket.
In sum, the Indian government held out the promise of provisioning the hungry with subsidized cereals and pumped massive investments to win over the well-off segments of landowning farmers. Alternative ideas for science-backed agricultural development, such as relying on locally available varieties and agroecological adaptations, were never seriously considered.
But as many argued, the Green Revolution package created more problems than it solved. By the 1980s, even the geographically limited package proved fiscally onerous. As state support declined, the problem of unremunerative prices and debt escalated. So did ecological crises such as falling groundwater tables, saline and degraded soils, biodiversity loss and health disorders from pesticide use—culminating in a full-blown agrarian crisis by the 1990s and an epidemic of suicides by farmers.
Modi hails the laws as watershed reforms that will usher in a new era of prosperity for farmers backed by corporate investments. On the face of it, they allow private buyers to purchase farm produce outside of the supervision of and without the payment of taxes and fees to mandis; limit state intervention in retail prices; and provide a framework for farming on contract to corporations.
In their details, however, the farm laws intrude upon the regulatory powers of state governments and intensify the already severe power asymmetry between corporate houses and the mass of Indian farmers, nearly 86 percent of whom cultivate less than two hectares. Clauses like one that bars farmers—or anyone else—from seeking legal recourse over contractual disputes cement the fear that the laws stack the deck against farmers. In an incisive analysis, economist Sudha Narayanan concludes that the putative benefits for farmers have little empirical justification and, in fact, the three laws “collectively invisibilize trade area transactions, contract farming and stocking in a way that makes them unregulatable.”
Farmers fear that the laws portend a total hollowing out of the state-regulated procurement at mandis. To this day, mandis signal prices with regular announcements of MSPs, and if they are weakened any further than they already have been, farmers will be fully exposed to debilitating price pressures. As Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union(Indian Farmers’ Union) explains, farmers are protesting not because the existing system is fair, but because it is being replaced with an even more inscrutable system that will further disadvantage them. The real agenda behind the laws, farmers allege, is to facilitate corporate control over agriculture and food, and Reliance and Adani Group, two of India’s largest business houses, perceived to be close to the Modi government, have especially incurred the farmers’ wrath.
The agitation has also garnered some support from unions of agricultural laborers, most of whom own little or no land, belong to Dalit (or oppressed) castes and come from families that have endured centuries of violence and exploitation from landed farmers, who are typically higher in the caste hierarchy. Women farmers hailing from landowning and Dalit castes are also in the forefront of the present agitation, an achievement of decades of struggle for recognition as prime movers of the agrarian economy and against caste-based sexual violence. And farmers’ groups have made common cause with other protests in India, demanding that jailed political prisoners, student agitators, human rights activists and revolutionaries be released.
Underlying this broad base of discontent is the failure of the Green Revolution. Even a celebratory review in 2003 was forced to concede that the principal benefit of the package was lower food grain prices, whereas the vast majority of farmers and agricultural laborers had suffered declines in incomes. In short, the Green Revolution secured cheap cereals in exchange for justice and ecological sustainability. More recent scholarship calls for a total revision of the Green Revolution success narrative, even questioning whether there was an overall food scarcity plaguing 1950s India—the purported reason for its introduction.
In his lecture on winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Norman Borlaug, one of the “fathers” of the Green Revolution, provided an obtuse defense of the program: “Some critics have said that the green revolution has created more problems than it has solved. This I cannot accept, for I believe it is far better for mankind to be struggling with new problems caused by abundance rather than with the old problem of famine.” Five decades since, we have come full circle, and it is evident that new problems of industrial agriculture have added to the old problems of hunger and malnutrition.
No amount of tinkering on the marketing end will fix a fundamentally warped and unsustainable production model, and therefore the government must concede the immediate demand to withdraw the three laws. But to actually secure a viable future for farmers, we must abandon the Green Revolution paradigm and adopt agroecological, diverse, decentralized and just agrarian and food systems.