STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We report next on a protest movement in India. It has drawn the interest of pop stars and climate activists and sent people into the streets for a cause.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Hindi).
INSKEEP: What's fascinating about the cause they're fighting for is how unfascinating it initially seems. Farmers are protesting over new rules for wholesale markets. Why do those rules matter so much? The answer reveals something about a giant nation, its past and its possible future. NPR's Lauren Frayer begins at one of the markets in western India.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So this is a wholesale market in sort of a dusty lot between - looks like warehouses here.
CHETAN LODHA: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Farm goods come over here to wholesale agents.
FRAYER: But this is all regulated by the government.
LODHA: Yes, they are appointed by the government. They are paying market fees.
FRAYER: Chetan Lodha is showing me around his local wholesale market, one of thousands run by the government where Indian farmers sell their crops.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: An auctioneer takes bids for eggplants. Trucks disgorge bales of cauliflower, as we weave through waist-high piles of green beans. These markets were set up in the 1960s in India's Green Revolution, when the government started subsidizing pesticides and irrigation. It helped boost yields and made India self-sufficient in food, but it did not lift many farmers themselves out of poverty.
LODHA: My father is not much educated.
FRAYER: Lodha comes from a long line of grain farmers. The average Indian farm is about 2 1/2 acres. These are not big, commercial farms like in the American West. And with climate change, mechanization and rampant development, not to mention the pandemic, Indian farmers are struggling, Lodha says.
LODHA: At our place, water is - not proper supplies. Water - not there.
FRAYER: Not as much water as when your grandfather...
LODHA: Exactly, exactly, exactly - a lot of problems there. The production cost of traditional farming is going higher day by day.
FRAYER: So to help, the Indian government passed three new laws last year. They aim to deregulate the way produce is bought and sold. Wholesalers and grocery chains no longer have to buy at these government-run markets. They can do deals directly with farms. Many farmers are not happy, though.
SEEMA BATHLA: Because, you know, agriculture prices are subject to a lot of volatility.
FRAYER: Economist Seema Bathla says farmers got used to selling at these government-run markets, which guarantee them a minimum price.
BATHLA: So it's a safety net for the farmers when prices go down.
FRAYER: The government says it will still set prices for certain crops. And it's not closing these markets, just adding more options. But Sanjay Gohad is still worried.
SANJAY GOHAD: Ginger, aula (ph), mirchi, green chili...
FRAYER: He's a middleman who buys from farmers here.
GOHAD: (Speaking Marathi).
FRAYER: He says he's worried big corporations will circumvent these markets and obliterate small traders like him. As we chat, another man interrupts.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are proud of Narendra Modi, and he will be the king of world.
GOHAD: Nay, nay, nay.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.
FRAYER: And this is basically what's happened with the farm laws. It's all devolved into political arguments. Agriculture reform has long been the third rail of Indian politics. Successive governments avoided it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to do it now on a national scale. The rules have always varied by state and by crop. Economist Jayati Ghosh says Modi made a mistake by not explaining this well.
JAYATI GHOSH: The amazing thing is that the Modi government passed these laws in the middle of a pandemic. They just quickly passed it without any discussion. You could have gone to people, talked about it, got feedback because these are long-term proposals.
FRAYER: Proposals, now laws, that affect the approximately 800 million Indians who depend on farming for a living. There's been a lot of confusion. Farmers here in western India don't have the same concerns as in the north of the country.
AMBADAS SANAP: (Speaking Marathi).
FRAYER: "Those are the rich farmers from the north you see protesting," says a tomato farmer here named Ambadas Sanap. He's got nine family members to feed. He can't afford to take a day off to protest. The protests have been dominated by farmers from northern India, the country's breadbasket. They grow mostly grain and rely on government markets more than a tomato farmer like Sanap, who can sell out of the back of his truck. Northern farmers see these laws as the first step toward dismantling all the aid they've gotten since the Green Revolution, including price guarantees for wheat, rice and 20 other crops.
SANAP: (Speaking Marathi).
FRAYER: "But not for my tomatoes," Sanap says. He's never been eligible for the price guarantees that wheat growers get. A majority of India's farmers are not. Meanwhile, farmers in several states are already circumventing these government wholesale markets and have been for years.
Wow, these conveyor belts are moving quickly.
This produce-packing collective started more than a decade ago, when eight farmers banded together. Now it has a sprawling campus that's co-owned by more than 10,000 farmers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: These are the banana ripening chambers.
FRAYER: Banana ripening chambers.
This collective bypasses government wholesalers and sells directly to stores. Vilas Shinde is the founder.
VILAS SHINDE: Market is ready to pay me a better price - then I should capture that market instead of depending on government.
FRAYER: He says he got fed up waiting decades for government reforms, so he took matters into his own hands and started this collective. For others, the pandemic has forced them to consider new ways of selling their produce.
So these are your grapes here.
ABHISHEK SHALKE: Yes, yes. First grandfather and then father.
FRAYER: Grape farmer Abhishek Shalke says his harvest came right when government-run wholesale markets closed last year because of COVID.
SHALKE: Actually, lockdown gave us opportunity.
FRAYER: So he and his friends, all farmers in their 20s who've gone to college, started selling on Twitter and got more for their produce. Abhishek says his heart is with his fellow farmers who've been protesting, even if they don't share all the same concerns. His head, he says, is on how to solve some of the inefficiencies he sees in the way his forefathers have long done business. And he doesn't really trust the government to do it.
SHALKE: (Speaking Marathi).
FRAYER: "I think our generation is going to have to try to figure this out," he says. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Nashik, Maharashtra, India.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANOUSHKA SHANKAR'S "LAST CHANCE")
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