What Can India’s Farmer Protests Teach The Fashion Industry About Accountability?

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Beatrice Murray-Nag investigates how three new agricultural reforms approved by the Indian government have divided farmers across the country, and why, if there are benefits to be had, the fashion industry must play its part in ensuring its cotton growers aren’t left vulnerable at the hands of private corporations.

Over the past months, it is likely that you have seen, read or heard something about the farmer protests underway in India. The growing unrest is a response to three new agricultural bills approved by the government in September last year, set to change the way crops are grown, priced, sold and stored. And with India home to 25% of the land used for cotton cultivation globally, the fashion industry certainly has a stake in the situation.

Since the reforms were passed, farmers have taken to the streets of Delhi in their millions. What started out as a peaceful protest has given way to increasing government violence in and around the country’s capital, augmenting the international coverage of the events. As eye-catching graphics make their way around social media, high-profile figures including Greta Thunberg and Rihanna have recently weighed in to show their support for the movement. Yet there are many nuances to both the laws themselves and the consequent sentiment in India that defy simplification into a single social media post.

Beyond advocating for the safety of the farmers, if we are to understand more about the impacts of the reforms on cotton we must recognise and respect the differences in opinion across the country. While the protests are among the largest in human history, the farmers involved represent a fraction of India’s agricultural workers, concentrated around key states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Opinions vary widely not only between states, but between larger and smaller-scale farmers too. Many marginal farmers in other states, for example, are happy with the reforms. As Madhu Vaishnav, founder of the Institute for Philanthropy and Humanitarian Development in Rajasthan eloquently explains: “We cannot measure the problems of all farmers in the same way because there is so much diversity in our country, which makes it hard for them all to agree upon the same thing.”

For fashion, the protests are an invitation to take accountability, rather than take sides. By observing both positive and negative sentiment in the sector, coupled with recognising the key loopholes in the legislation, private apparel and textile companies can better understand the support systems that cotton farmers most need. This, in turn, could be applied to their own practices to create a better system going forward.

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So, what exactly does the legislation mean for farmers on the ground, and why is it so controversial? The bills cover aspects of the agricultural industry including the trade and commerce of produce, the price assurance for different crops, and the storing of essential commodities. The most widely spoken about reform is the transition of agricultural produce from a government-controlled market towards a free one. In the past, many farmers have largely sold their crops through state Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) for a set Minimum Support Price (MSP). Instead, the new reforms propose cutting out the ‘middleman’ by increasing direct sales from farms to private companies. They also provide a framework for contract farming, where produce is grown specifically for a private buyer.

The proposals are divisive because the systems work differently in each state, meaning some farmers will be affected more than others. According to a representative in India from the Cotton Diaries Community – a global network of cotton experts and researchers created to share knowledge and guide change – the states where the protests are strongest are home to a lot of larger farms, and ones where the government markets or mandis are most prominent. “The maximum benefit of the government procurement has gone to these three states [Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh], and the crops with which this mostly takes place are rice and wheat,” he explains, choosing to remain anonymous. “If you look at the numbers in other states, most of the farmers either already sell in the open market or they consume themselves, with only 10 to 15 percent of their produce sold through government procurement.”

While rice and wheat agriculture sound a far cry from cotton, the two are actually deeply intertwined. Many of the country’s cotton farmers rely on rotating the fibre crop with rice to ensure a year-round income, meaning that if the laws affect one, the other faces setbacks too. Yet the complexities don’t stop there. Both rice and cotton farming are water-intensive, and Punjab and Haryana are water scarce states. “Because [the farmers] have guaranteed purchase from the government, they keep growing rice paddy,’ explains the same source, touching on how the laws could potentially address ecological concerns. “It’s taking a lot of toll on the groundwater levels in these states.”

A similar sentiment is shared by Nishanth Chopra, founder of the Oshadi Collective regenerative cotton farm in the state of Tamil Nadu, and fellow member of the Cotton Diaries community. For Chopra, the reforms have positives; however, gaps in the legislation limit the efficacy of their implementation. “I personally think the farm bills are really progressive – they include things like criminalising residue burning, for example,” he explains, highlighting part of the legislation that would address air pollution in agricultural areas. “The issue is that these bills haven’t been backed up by a proper support system – for example, residue burning is criminalised, but the government does not have an alternative solution readily available for farmers that can easily be adopted.”

The same applies to the proposed transition away from the state-controlled market. “There is a lack of foundation by the government to bring about progressive change, hence why the farmers are not happy,” Chopra continues. “Trying to create a free market is great, but they haven’t set minimum rates which might lead huge companies to exploit them.”

Image: Oshadi Collective

Fully understanding these complexities in terms of cotton means looking back at the industry’s past. In the 1960s, agricultural practices in the country were industrialised with modern technology, starting in Punjab. Many cotton farmers were coerced into switching to Bt cotton – a genetically engineered high-yielding seed variety (HYV) that was allegedly pest resistant, sold by private company Monsanto. Yet the use of the GM crop created a monopoly; Monsanto sold the seeds, and also pushed agricultural chemicals which had short term benefits and drove down the quality of the land over time. Many farmers took loans to finance both the switch and the consequent cycle of increased chemical use, which drove them into debt.

Bt cotton has been blamed for causing a spike in debt-related suicides that particularly swayed the state of Punjab, as well as for deteriorating farmers’ health through chemical exposure. In an interview with Aditi Mayer, Indian environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva details how the variety not only required more water to grow, but how Monsanto itself is also responsible for encouraging farmers to burn the ‘stubble’ that was left over when harvesting the GM variety. The new legislation could actually address key some of these ethical and environmental problems in the cotton farming states that have been most affected by the Green Revolution by removing the guarantee from the state to buy crops grown in this way. But breaking a toxic cycle takes time. Even beginning to reconsider the effects of the past on India’s agricultural system won’t be an easy feat, and the financial burden should not fall on the individual. Instead, the state must recognise its own role in causing the problems it is now trying to solve.

If the reforms contain positives, for many of these large-scale farmers these have been marred by a lack of accountability from the government to support them in the transition, in turn leaving them vulnerable and open to exploitation. One key financial concern is the lack of clarity on the future of the Minimum Support Price that farmers receive for their crops. For standard variety cotton, this currently equates to 5515 rupees per 100kg – enough to make around 150 pairs of jeans. When selling to private buyers, farmers often receive less than the MSP. This already applies to many farmers who sell in the open market, highting why they are less affected by the reforms, and consequently able to see some of the positives. But protesters worry that in the short term, private entities could offer higher prices for produce, gaining a monopoly of the market and completely phasing out state-controlled buying. Over time, farmers will become answerable to private buyers, who would then have the potential to drive down the price of their crops beyond any ethical standard.

It’s a concern that particularly resonates in the context of the fashion industry’s global race-to-the-bottom, in which brands scramble to source suppliers at the lowest possible costs to the sacrifice of workers’ welfare. Fears over the MSP also clearly speak to the complex power dynamics interwoven in the history of cotton farming in the country. “I think the laws are a step in the right direction, but we need to have certain safeguards in place, so that people are not suffering,” explains the Cotton Diaries expert on the ground. “There is definitely a power imbalance between the farmer and the private company. So, there should be sufficient support in place for them.”

A resulting demand, and one that seems to resonate even with those who remain neutral on the reforms, is the continued assurance of a Minimum Support Price by the Indian government. For some, this means committing to maintaining the state buyers too. “Although the government system has been bad, and has not benefited the farmer, it does not mean that you can completely eliminate it, because it also creates competition for the private sector to pay the right price,” explains the same source. “You need to build Agricultural Produce Market Committees in other states and keep strengthening the marketing infrastructure too.” He also recommends that the state legally assure all contracts be in the language of the farmer, as opposed to in English.

But due to the government’s lack of clear communication with the protesters, coupled with the violent measures used to control them, these asks may not be met anytime soon. “What the government has done is basically try to suppress [their demands] and not engage in a dialogue,” he adds. “They are now using different warlike means to control the protests – they are barricading, they are putting spikes on the road, they are cutting their water supply, they are cutting their food supply. Though they’re doing a lot of consultation, they are also in attack mode.”

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So as tensions rise, private fashion and textile companies must recognise their own role in ensuring the welfare of the farmers themselves. Such accountability is often missing from supply chains, hidden behind a collective disconnect between apparel and agriculture that allows exploitation to go unnoticed. Years of putting trends and aesthetics at the centre of fashion storytelling have deliberately excluded the many pairs of hands behind the clothes from the narrative, and in turn removed any sense of responsibility towards them. But today, we need to urgently unravel this infamously opaque supply chain and reconnect the dots.

In practice, accountability could mean brands ensuring that the farmers in their supply chains have been paid a set bottom-line ethical price for their raw materials in a given country such as India. But in the same vein as research by The Circle NGO to guarantee a living wage for garment workers, the initiative would likely need to be underpinned by legal framework to level the playing field. Without legislation or a collective commitment from multiple companies to pay a minimum price, individual brands who commit to higher costs will struggle to stay ahead.

While common standards are a good starting point, truly reconciling the industry’s relationship with its farmers in India can only be done by directly addressing the power dynamics that have characterised cotton farming in the country for decades – and most importantly, the fashion industry’s direct role in upholding them. In the words of the Cotton Diaries Community’s own manifesto: “Brands need to go one step further and move from standards that provide a positive proof point but address generic problems only, to meaningful due diligence that proactively seeks out problems to solve.”

The answers won’t be easy, but perhaps the most important thing that the fashion industry can learn from the protests is seeing the human side of their farmers. Because ultimately, it will be this connection, based on empathy and understanding, that can provoke a genuine desire to do better – resulting in a long-term commitment to the hands, and lands, where cotton is grown.