Greta Thunberg and the aftermath of Farm Laws' Politics in India
In which I narrate a tale from Hindu mythology to make sense of Climate change, Farm Laws, and the activism of Greta Thunberg.
Deep love and gratitude to Charles Eisenstein for inspiring me to write this essay and relook at Climate Change with a fresh pair of eyes. Do check out his book, Climate, a new story, if you are feeling very tired about the entire Climate Change narrative.
Deep love and gratitude to Raghu Ananthanarayanan for inspiring me to delve deeper into the cornucopia of Hindu mythology. I cannot thank him enough for the treasures I have discovered in this never-ending journey of discovering stories and the mirrors they hold to discover the multitudes of my being.
A Health Warning for those who insist that politics be kept away from agriculture:
Not talking about politics is injurious to your health in the post-truth age when digital networks play seesaw in our minds with facts and delusions. If you still insist and find it comforting to keep work and life separate, you can close this window. I would completely understand.
Hindu Mythologies have a strange onion peeling effect. At first, your eyes find it hard to tolerate them. You can apportion some blame on the poor English translations that were made by enthusiastic Indologists during the 18th century who made sure that the stories sounded like cut-and-dried moral science lessons of "good" devas winning over "bad" asuras.
However, if you bravely peel further, you will be amazed by what you could discover about yourself.
The story of Prahlada, a staple childhood diet for most who grew up in India, is the best proof of the pudding. Allow me to savor it once more with you.
If you were raised in India, you may have heard it in your childhood. It is a very powerful story that has been retold countless times since millennia. (No wonder they are called "Puranas" - "Pura api navam" - That which is ancient and nascent). It is a story that never ceases to fascinate me.
Once upon a time, there were two doorkeepers - Jaya and Vijaya in Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu. One day, they were cursed for not letting the great sages (four kumaras) enter the abode while the Lord was asleep.
Thanks to their curse, they were reborn on the Earth as asuras.
(Before you mentally equate "Asuras = Devil", please understand that asuras were considered divine beings in the Vedas, and, as per the Hindu Mythology, they were the first beings to descend on Earth.)
They grew up in Satya Yug to become Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha.
They realized that the quickest way to return back to the abode of the Lord was through terrorizing the world so much that they could get killed at the hands of the Lord himself. They were adept at “viparit-bhakti” (perverse devotion).
Hiranyaksha dragged Bhu-Devi, the earth goddess, to the sea and got killed by the Varaha avatar, the wild boar, of Lord Vishnu.
It was now, Hiranyakashipu's turn. He wanted the adventure to be more challenging.
Hiranyakashipu performed intense penance and secured a boon from the heavens involving multiple neither-if loops. Imagine designing a "Try to Kill Me If You Can" immortality game (something similar to what transhumanists are attempting today to arrest aging) in which you cannot kill the protagonist neither inside a dwelling nor outside; neither at day nor at night; neither by a man nor an animal; neither above nor below; neither by tool or weapon; by a creature born neither of womb nor egg.
Hiranyakashipu's wife gave birth to a young son named Prahlada. Prahlada grew up in an environment where it was a crime to even utter the name of Lord Vishnu. Naturally, the kid became more and more curious about Lord Vishnu and eventually fell in love with the Lord.
This was extremely frustrating for Hiranyakashipu and one day, out of sheer frustration, called the little boy to his royal court and tied him to a pillar.
"Why do you spread rumors that the Lord Vishnu exists everywhere? Does he exist in this pillar?
"Of course, he does", the child quickly responded in the affirming faith of his devotion that every cell of the Universe vibrates with the Lord's name
Seeing the child's unperturbed faith made him furious with rage and he dealt a strong blow to the pillar with his sword.
Lord Vishnu emerged from the pillar as Narasimha - Man-Lion avatar and killed him in the perfect counter-if loop conditional environment. Hiranyakashipu returned to serve the Lord in Vaikuntha.
In an age of information abundance, how did we end up in this strange place where we cannot dialogue with each other on anything?
Take the case of the controversial Farm Laws.
In an ideal world (read as democracy), the two sides could argue the question of whether farm laws are beneficial to farmers or not by drawing evidence from mutually acceptable sources of fact.
Today no such source exists.
The media has fragmented into archipelagos of hateful beliefs and mutually exclusive ideologies, each drawing its sustenance by hating vehemently each other, making it impossible to have a debate. All that’s left, as you may have experienced in the cesspools of Twitter or in the gated walls of hate inside Facebook, is a shouting match that is in all possibility, a war that has been unleashed on our collective ability to make sense of the world we live in.
In the absence of debate, anything is possible: propaganda, emotional manipulation, blatant or unconscious lies.
Suppose I wanted to convince a fervent advocate of farm laws that they have been sloppily architected and in few places sound like an RFP document that IT companies love to write with grandiose promises, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(I actually made this argument in Part-3 of my analysis on Farm Bills for the subscribers of my newsletter)
Even if the advocate wasn't willing to trust my argument, I could cite painstaking analysis put together by economists who have been studying agricultural markets for decades and are far more attuned to ground-realities, but none of those is going to sound credible to that true believer of farm laws, who assumes, with quite some justification, that anyone writing against farm laws is necessarily against the ruling Government.
The same is true if you are a true anti-farm laws believer and I try to persuade you that the farm laws, for all their flaws, are remarkably accurate in nailing down the central problem ailing the fragmented agricultural markets of this country.
(I actually made this argument too in Part-3 of my analysis on Farm Bills for subscribers of my newsletter).
No matter how reasonable I might sound, you will dismiss my argument straight away when you take one hasty look at what I do. You will dismiss me as a Proustian evil agritech consultant who wants to sell the divine soul of agriculture to some corporate giant dreaming about the corporatization of Indian agriculture.
Ever since the farm bills first came out in the public domain around June 2020, I have written more than 10K words on it, in the vain hope that I convince at least a handful of people (those rare beings who can stare at a screen for a long time and do the magical act of reading) that the issues are complex.
My analysis on Farm Laws so far:
Part-1: Setting the Context 🔒 | Part-2: No Country for Middle-Men | Part-3: In Defense of the Government 🔒 | Part-4: Samudra Manthan in the World of Agriculture: | Part-5: "Annadata" Conundrum" And Mapping the Cultural Wars of Agriculture 🔒
I went on to offer a grey pill on the farm laws that goes beyond selecting red pill ("Farm Laws are a blessing for the Indian farmer") or blue pill ("Farm Bills are a sinister crony capitalist scheme devised to advance the interests of traders and corporations over farmers").
I also tried my best to leverage the global scale of TED platform to talk about the complexity of farm laws, far beyond the binary of Good Farm Laws Vs Bad Farm Laws.
I had convinced myself that I needn't write anything more on Farm Laws. Enough has been said. And yet, today, I find myself writing this piece, with all this hand-wringing, for one simple reason: I have come to a stoic conclusion.
Almost all my efforts amount to nothing! They have gone with the wind!
It doesn't matter how much more effort I am willing to put in to demonstrate the wickedness of agriculture (“wicked”, not because it is immoral; “wicked” because it defies straight, generalizable solutions)
If a wicked-by-default domain like agriculture could be monstrously chopped into a zero-sum political battle between pro-farmer socialist forces vs anti-farmer capitalist forces, then any attempt to write objectively on the merits and demerits of the farm laws in India seems tantamount to reason a madman out of his madness.
Now I am not writing this out of any insane belief that I am the only sane person in a world gone mad. I am writing this to get in touch and hopefully get rid of the futility that I sense in my bones, as I witness the political chaos unfolding currently around farm laws, offering no glimmer of hope in the farthest end of the tunnel.
How else can I make sense of this collective outpouring of anger towards an 18-year-old teenager who has been pointing to an obvious fact that we are not willing to stomach: Our house is on fire and we are pretending as if nothing is happening and it is business as usual.
"If our house was falling apart, you wouldn’t hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and the environment.” - Greta Thunberg [From her speech to EU Leaders]
Is it our ostrich-level discomfort to face the grim reality of climate crisis that is driving this visceral outpouring of hate and anger our inner Hiranyakashipus are unleashing on this eighteen-year-old girl and her Indian counterpart, the twenty-two-year-old Climate activist Disha Ravi who was arrested for sedition during farmer protests?
Yes, we could choose to be a good Indian ostrich and ignore stray accidents such as the recent glacier outburst in Uttarakhand, while climate change continues to express itself in newer ways.
In such times, it beats me how almost every other wise being is busy lecturing this eighteen-year-old girl, this Prahlada in the fount of her youthful idealism, to go back to school and stop blaming others for the climate crisis and focus on, well, solutions.
What brilliant solutions have we humans come up with so far to deal with the inescapable climate crisis?
We are busy trading carbon and creating a new "climate money" investment racket that could further worsen the limited time span we have to save us (and not planet Earth) and our food systems from the rude shock of climate change.
Yes, it is necessary to stop complaining and do something constructive. I don't challenge that. However, the precursor to a constructive and meaningful action is a clear and complete understanding of the gravity of the climate crisis that is hanging its Damocles' sword over our collective fates.
Let's be honest. Are we really serious about climate change?
Here is the best proof to show how serious we are. We are busy creating schisms of "Us Vs Them" in social media that hark back to the B-grade Bollywood masala films of the sixties and seventies which loved to tell stories of evil urban citizens vis-a-vis innocent rural folk.
What crime did this 18-year-old Swedish environmental campaigner and this 22-year-old Climate activist commit to earn such visceral hate in India? She highlighted Punjab farmer protests internationally, and going by the response it triggered, one thing became extremely clear.
We are ultra-sensitive to outsiders' opinions. Why else would Rihanna's tweet cause so much more consternation than the collective angst of several Punjab farmers who braved the merciless Delhi winter for more than 80 days, camping in Singhu Border?
Let me save the indignant reader some time and write the scathing critique for what I wrote above.
"So you are showing your stripes. aren't you? How can you endorse this clueless activist and support Punjab farmers? Do you know how many people are suffering due to these, and I quote, "farmers who not only are responsible for some of the worst annual carbon emissions anywhere on earth through their crop burning but also for significant health problems, including asthma and cancer?",
These quoted words btw, full of compassion and grace, I must admit, come from one Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, who squarely blamed Punjab's farmers for the ecocide in Punjab.
At the heart of this question of supporting Punjab's farmers protesting against the farm laws, lies a pertinent question.
Do you want to see the farmers from the state of Punjab and Haryana as “heroes” of an erstwhile “green revolution” paradigm that was necessitated by the scarring traumas of the 1943 Bengal famine?
Were they really beneficiaries of the erstwhile farming paradigm which made sure that their incomes raised sufficiently during the 1960s to 1990s, before it went down south?
Or were they plain victims of a Ponzi scheme that gave them huge windfall incomes by depleting the capital of soil fertility?
See this Punjab’s data of groundwater assessment units from ICRIER report (as on March 2011) and you will know what I am talking about.
The agony of the protesters was neatly summed up by agricultural economist Sudha Narayanan in one of her interviews.
“In the green revolution, it was almost like we had a social contract with farmers because at that stage we were food scarce and we needed to ramp up supplies of rice and wheat. They did that very efficiently, so in some sense, there is this idea of fairness – about when you wanted us, you gave us all the support and we got the country to a position that we are now able to export grain and now that we are not needed, you are going to dismantle that structure”
And so the moot question the Punjabi farmers are asking the Government is this.
Is it worthwhile to believe in “free markets” that you are now willing to pay the price of breaking this social contract with farmers?
I am very sorry. I don't have straight Yes/No answers to tough questions like these.
In his open letter to Greta Thunberg, Mohinder Gulati, Former Chief Operating Officer, United Nations Sustainable Energy for All, raised three pertinent questions that deserve deeper engagement. I want to briefly address one of his questions. Not on behalf of Greta Thunberg obviously. But based on my understanding of this domain. I will write a separate open letter to Mohinder later, time permitting.
"Do you support farmers demand to let them continue to burn crop residue and add to emissions?"
While it may seem reasonable enough to blame Punjabi farmers for the smog in Delhi, it cannot be denied that these actions owe a lot to government policies that have spent double the amount on subsidies where it should have ideally spent on asset formation in agriculture.
In their research paper, Siraj Hussain and Dr. Seema Bathla clearly show from government data that while government expenditure on asset formation in agriculture was INR 517 billion (INR 107 Billion in agriculture-forestry-fishing plus INR 410 Billion in Irrigation), the amount spent on subsidy in this sector is almost double at INR 964 billion.
And so if the central government were really serious about Delhi smog, why haven't they cut down the input subsidy yet? Whom do you blame for the Delhi smog? Do you blame the farmers for being addicted to fertilizers and other unsustainable cropping practices or do you blame the governments which are hesitant to remove the crutches supporting such addictive habits?
I am very sorry. I don't have straight Yes/No answers to tough questions like these.
Perhaps, you could rightfully argue that these young climate activists arguing in favor of farmers are misguided. It is yet another form of pedophrasty and they perhaps don't fully understand the complex role played by agriculture in ensuring food security and contributing significantly to climate change. Perhaps, the girl is paying a price too. I don't know.
One thing is for sure. When you tie these Prahladas to a pillar, what you are going to hear is definitely not going to please you.
"If highlighting farmers’ protest globally is sedition, I am better [off] in jail" - Disha Ravi
I have gone through this phase during my early 20's. There was a time, almost a decade ago, when I was extremely angry as an environmental activist after doing a course on Science, Technology, and Ecology. I wrote angry book reviews of authors who flippantly talked about transforming capitalism. Today, when I revisit my old blogs, I shudder at the amount of anger I had during those times.
However, as I reflect on my behavior and where I am today, I can only thank my mentors who channeled those energies, instead of smothering them. Mind you, such energies are extremely precious if you are serious about climate change.
But how do we make sense of our peculiar predicament when have to be serious about climate change and at the same time agriculture, now that reports emerge that COVID-19 could push the number of people living in extreme poverty to over one billion by 2030?
If you closely examine the situation at hand we have in India in the wake of the farmer protests, this double bind is evident:
"I am damned if I support those protesting Punjab's farmers, for it would ensure that they continue their old, unsustainable ways of doing farming that will further exacerbate our battle to save us (not earth) from the rude shock of Climate Change.
I am damned If I don't support those protesting Punjab's farmers, for it would ensure that the voice of small landholding farmers would never matter, which would directly impact the world's (and therefore our) ability to face environmental crises and climate change, affecting their sovereignty to pursue their economic well being and adapt with the changing times."
I talked about my definition of sovereignty and why smallholder farmers matter in our survival battle against climate change in this newsletter edition
It's only when we confront this double bind, look straight into its eyes, there is a possibility of Lord Narasimha (Man-Lion God) to emerge and transcend this futile battle between these Prahladas and Hiyanyakashipus Inside Us.
Let's not forget that such voices of protests aren't new in this country. They have been integral part of Indian ethos.
Do study the work of Historial Dharampal's 'Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition', if you want to understand how protests have always been part of Indian tradition since time immemorial.
It's only when we find a way to work through these double-binds, we could hear the real voice that is beneath these Prahlada's angry voices of protests
“I do not want to participate in a system that is destroying life on Earth. Why should I be schooled in participation in this system. It doesn’t make sense, so I’m not going to do it.”
These words are not mine, but Charles Eisenstein's, and it seems appropriate to end this long article with a message Charles had shared to Greta, Disha Ravi, and several other Youth Climate Strikers who feel called to action.
A Message to Greta Thunberg and Youth Climate Strikers.
Transcript of a talk by Charles Eisenstein
What I love about the Youth Climate Strike is that people are taking a stand and saying, “I do not want to participate in a system that is destroying life on Earth. Why should I be schooled in participation in this system? It doesn’t make sense, so I’m not going to do it.”
That kind of refusal to comply; that kind of trust in values that embrace and serve life - that’s what we need on a mass level. And I’m really that happy young people are putting that ahead of the bribes and threats that keep them in the system, and that says that school is more important than taking a stand for Earth. So that energy is very...it’s like a fresh breeze for me and so many other people.
And I would caution that there are powerful forces that would like to co-opt that energy and divert it onto things that actually don’t disrupt the status quo too much. This is not just some technical matter of finding alternative energy sources to keep civilization-as-it-is running to maintain business as usual. We live on a planet that is alive.
We could cut emissions to zero and if we continue to degrade the organs of this living being - the forests, the wetlands, the whales, the elephants, the fish, all of the beings on Earth, all of the ecosystems - then the Earth will still die a death of a million cuts. Even if we cut emissions to zero.
So be careful about getting diverted onto these, and used, to promote these technical solutions such as geoengineering, such as bleaching the sky a paler shade of blue with sulphur aerosols that reflect sunlight. Problem solved! If you’re going to keep the issue to a narrow matter of global warming, problem solved. Business as usual can continue and we’ve saved the world.
Or carbon capture, giant machines in every city.
But what we want, and what is stirring us to this rebellion, is much bigger than ‘find some way to switch fuel sources.’ And I really want people to stay in touch with that and to go deeper and deeper.
Where does the addiction to fossil fuels come from? Can we just control that addiction? Like this civilizational addiction. Is it just something that we control? Or do we look at the source of it? What is the crisis underneath the addiction to fossil fuels? Why are we, collectively we, pursuing a world of more and more and more that doesn’t even make us happier. Yeah, no wonder you don’t want to comply with that! And I would say, even if climate change weren’t a thing, still don’t comply with that! That’s not what you’re here for.
So hold that energy precious. Hold that impulse to serve life, to refuse the bribes and the threats; hold that precious. Don’t let it get co-opted towards something more superficial than where it really wants to go.
And thank you for being brave.
Hi Venky. Glad to read your take on this matter. I'm barely getting started on this content corpus you've been passionately building upon for many years now. Wish to help assuage the lacking acknowledgment for your heartfelt investment in creating content on challenging and contentious topics such as these. I appreciate your work!
Chiming in to highlight my observation that the metaphorical equivalence you're drawing between the Prahlada-Hiranykashipu versus the people involved here, suffers the same drawback that you so eloquently mention while defining what's "wicked" about agriculture as a domain itself.
Moreover, I totally agree with your usage of wicked in that sense and would go further on to contend that it's applicable to almost all practical domains of human endeavour.