You may have seen signs of support for the cotton farmers protesting in India in the last several months but not gained access to much more information. Today we dive into the world of cotton farming in India and the hardships that come along with it. It is clear some changes need to be made to protect and improve the lives of farmers, but what those changes are have yet to be discovered.
India's Cotton Industry
The US Department of Agriculture says "Although yields in India are well below the global average, cotton area in India dwarfs that of any other country, accounting for approximately 40 percent of the world total," (CNN). However cotton farming is a lot of work for not a lot of pay, some making as little as $512/yr according to an interview conducted by The New Fashion Initiative. These conditions correlate with a high suicide rate between the illnesses brought on by heavy chemical use (Cotton uses 25% of the world's pesticides) or accruing massive amount of debt to keep going. According to the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Smiti farmers advocacy group about 2,900 farmers committed suicide between 2013 and 2015 (CNN).
Historically, the Indian government has guaranteed prices for select crops to farmers, including cotton. This meant the farmers had to sell their goods at a state auction called the Agricultural Produce Market Committee where a government minimum price was set along with restrictions on who could buy. In September, new laws were passed taking out the middle man.
India's New Laws for Farmers
1 | The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 allows farmers to bypass the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) and sell the produce directly to a big company, warehouses, cold storage chains, or even set up shop to sell directly to consumers.
2 | The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 allows for contract farming, for a farmer to get into a contract with a buyer to cultivate specific products for a specific price. This ensures that farmers know the price they will get even before cultivation starts.
3 | The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 allows buyers to purchase and stock commodities without getting called a hoarder and being vulnerable to penal action.
(Source: National Herald India)
Modi's New Farmer Law: Pros & Cons
+ Prime Minister Modi's new law is taking out the middle man in an effort to allow farmers to set their own prices and sell to whom they choose such as private businesses.
+ This means, when demand is high, cotton prices can go up and farmers can be more selective. As of March, Indian cotton prices increased 5% in one month (Economic Times India Times)
- Farmers fear Prime Minister Modi's new law will help big companies drive down prices when left to the free market. Essentially in seasons when supply is high, farmers could struggle to meet the minimum price being demanded by companies.
- Corporate entities are motivated by maximizing profit and will not hesitate to do so. In a developing country as big as India this could be a huge risk to farmer's livelihoods.
India's Cotton Farmers Strike
According to CNN more than half of India's working population is working on a farm to provide for their family. Some farmers have began burning fields in protests of unfair treatment and low wages. The waste from burning fields has increased the pollution in many parts of Northern India. Farmers have also began protesting in the streets due to lack of attention. Many hope that the Prime Minister will feel the pressure from the farmers and put minimum prices for crops back into law.
We also thought this example from Mumbai journalist Sujata Anandan sums up the risks well: “For those who wonder why farmers are protesting - here's a live example from Kerala. A friend's uncle was ecstatic when the Modi govt abolished the coconut board, akin to the APMC. The Coconut Board, a government outfit, offered Rs 10 per coconut. After abolition of the Coconut Board, price offered by private traders was Rs 40 per coconut. But the Coconut Board would bring their own men to scale up trees, cut the outer green shell of coconuts & transport them to the market. Now this man has to hire people to climb the trees, and since it is risky, pay for their insurance. He has to pay more for peeling the green skin and then transport the coconuts to the market and return. After meeting all the expenses, he gained Rupees four per coconut.” The consumer was earlier paying Rs 20 to 40 per coconut. Now prices begin at Rs 50. Now you know why the farmers are protesting (National Herald India).
What's Happening Now
As farmers have protested and demanded a repeal to these laws for months now, it seems to be at a stalemate. The government insists the new policy will benefit farmers, farmers insist this will decimate their already difficult circumstances, and both refuse to withdraw. Multiple rounds of talks and a Supreme Court order have temporarily suspended the laws that could delay implementation for 18 months but farmers and the government don't see to be finding a compromise. Perhaps the compromise can be found in assisting farmers to form cooperatives (like in the US) to protect pricing demands and government funded debt forgiveness as outlined by The New Fashion Initiative.
As with ay big issue, the Indian Cotton Farmer protest has many moving parts that we hope will get sorted out soon as parties continue to talk. Similar agreements have been found in Bangladesh to improve garment workers' well-being and we hope the same can be accomplished here. If you are interested in finding an ethical factory to manufacture your clothing you are in luck. THR3EFOLD's Ethical Manufacturing Platform is launching into beta in June and only those on the waitlist will get in the door first. Join the waitlist now and do not miss out.