Why Americans should stand with Punjabi farmers: our battle with environmental health and farming reform

Over the last several weeks, the largest strike in human history has unfolded in Delhi, India. Millions of Indian farmers, most from the Northern states of Punjab and Haryana, have marched for miles to the Indian capital to protest the recent farming ordinances that the Modi administration has instituted. These include the Essential Commodities Act, the Farmers’ Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services bill, and the Farmers’ Product Trade & Commerce bill. Although the Indian government has marketed these ordinances as legislation that will bolster the Indian economy, many critics fear these bills will prevent farmers from being able to compete with large companies that now have unlimited stockholding power. By threatening minimum support price protections and reducing farmers’ bargaining power, these ordinances will disproportionately impact the financial well-being of small and marginalized farmers by leaving them to the mercy of private players entering the agricultural sector.

Although all farmers across India are impacted by this legislation, Punjab and its nearby states will bear a significant financial, environmental, and health burden from these changes. In fact, the unequal burden of these legislative changes is rooted in significant intergenerational trauma that the Punjabi community still endures, rooted in the consequences of institutional religious persecution, the 1947 India-Pakistan partition, extreme exploitation during the Green Revolution, and more. 

Punjab has historically served as India’s “breadbasket”; however, this fertile region has an untold tale that shows the effects and continued risk of institutional mismanagement and corporate irresponsibility — something American farmers know all too well. The fight for justice for farmers isn’t just about protecting financial well-being and livelihood; it’s a matter of safeguarding Punjab’s health and heritage as well. 

The crisis faced by Punjab is no surprise to the thousands of struggling American farmers who have suffered from similar issues. In fact, in the years after the New Deal, the American government protected its farmers by setting price floors for crops to ensure that farmers receive some sort of minimum support for their livelihood. However, during the Green Revolution, many of these protective policies were rolled back and a somewhat similar farming crisis ensued in the States. These roll-backs allowed for large farming complexes to enter the industry and exploit the land and surrounding communities; in fact, many of these factory farms are the culprits behind mass dumping of dangerous pollutants such as nitrates, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and more into the water stream and air. In addition to wreaking environmental health havoc, according to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the monopolies within the American farming industry have promoted environmental and financial ruin for family farms, causing an estimated 47 small farms to close every single day. 

Since the Green Revolution, many Punjabi farmers were forced to abandon centuries-worth of traditional farming expertise to adopt new agricultural techniques such as excessive groundwater drafting and heavy pesticide usage to significantly increase crop yields to feed the nation’s ever-increasing population. According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University, excessive groundwater drafting in Punjab has caused water tables to drop at an alarming rate; the issue is so severe that water tables are now falling across about 90 percent of the state. By deregulating the agricultural sector through these ordinances, we allow further destruction of Punjabi land and turn a blind eye towards already-struggling farmers. Free-market competition should be encouraged if it allows for innovation and advancement; however, free-market competition historically does not work in the agriculture sector and tends to exploit farming communities, both in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to destroying the livelihoods of farmers, many of these large corporations don’t have a vested interest in the sanctity of the land and will increase already-high pollution rates and disease incidence. 

It’s a well-known fact that most Punjabis like myself are very prideful of their heritage, especially of their ancestral connection to the land. Farming has always been part of the Punjabi identity; however, the forced adoption of “modern” agricultural techniques in Punjab and deregulation of the farming industry continues to lead to profit-driven exploitation of farmers and immense failures to execute safe environmental health standards. In fact, over the last half a century, Punjab has seen an environmental health crisis like none other that can be attributed to governmental mismanagement and unsustainable farming practices, which will only increase due to these bills. Cancer currently ravages throughout Punjab due to chemicals in dangerous pesticides that contaminate farming communities. The incidence of cancer in Punjab’s pesticide-ridden Central Malwa region is the highest in the country at an average of 136 cancer patients per one lakh (one hundred thousand) people. Those affected by this disease travel miles to seek treatment on the “Cancer Express,” a train from the Bhatinda station with more than 60 percent of passengers being cancer patients seeking treatment. In addition to high cancer incidence, the environmental toxins from exploitative farming practices have led to farmers and their children facing other severe conditions such as autism, congenital deformities, and other cognitive and physical disabilities. 

Although the Indian government has known about environmental health threats to Punjabi farming communities, their responses have been, at most, a PR facade. For instance, to deal with the immense cancer incidence in the region from environmental causes, the government established cancer treatment centers; however, getting treatment is near impossible because the centers lack sufficient resources to truly help the citizenry. To deal with water pollution from agriculture, the Punjab government has set up water-purification units; however, many report that these units are dysfunctional, rendering farming communities vulnerable to environmental toxins in their water streams. Recognizing all of its flaws, the American government is still relatively receptive to national pressure; however, in India, this isn’t the case. Media corruption has led to the desperate cries of the farmers to be hidden from the mainstream narrative, and thus, the onus to speak up falls on us as Americans. 

It’s easy to think of this issue as solely one of agricultural policy; however, in reality, this is also an issue of environmental health and social justice. These farmers have been practicing husbandry, known as “kheti bari”, for centuries. Historical precedence has shown us that these new ordinances will contribute to the financial destruction of already debt-ridden farmers, greater environmental injustice in the region, and high disease incidence in farming communities.  

As Americans, we ought to stand with the millions of Indian farmers who are on the verge of destruction from the hands of corporate irresponsibility and mismanagement; we must place international pressure on the Indian government to serve its citizenry. If we deregulate the agricultural sector without protecting marginalized farmers, not only are we continuing to hurt farming communities’ health and environment, but we are also forcing them into a further cycle of poverty and exploitation. And, that is environmental injustice at its peak. 

Rohan Arora is a Punjabi-American activist specializing in environmental justice and health equity. He is the founder and executive director of The Community Check-Up, a national organization working to improve educational outreach and youth engagement in planetary and environmental health. 

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