Biden’s Trade Policy With India Could Accelerate Global Climate Catastrophe

The new Biden administration’s centering of the climate crisis — including through the cabinet appointment of Indigenous leader Deb Haaland, the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and the creation of a nation-wide climate policy task force — is a significant victory for the environmental movement.

At the same time, there are also aspects of Biden’s climate plan, his international agenda in particular, which are far from progressive. This has been reflected in the administration’s approach to India, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The developing country, which is rapidly expanding its investment in coal, is expected to double its energy consumption by 2040 — making it thus an essential partner in international climate change mitigation.

While the partnership between Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to spur India’s “Green Transition” is likely to prioritize “green finance” and “knowledge transfers,” no clear effort has been made to address the well-documented ways in which the Indian state has exploited the “green energy” label to recklessly expand ecologically hazardous projects, to the detriment of marginalized people.

Moreover, the Biden administration’s recent expression of support for the three contentious agricultural laws passed by the Modi government, which have been met by a three-month-long protest involving hundreds of millions of farmers and workers, is anathema to a serious vision of global climate justice. These laws, in short, are expected to have the effect of deepening India’s dependence on a fossil fuel-intensive agricultural regime, putting a downward pressure on agricultural prices through market deregulation, and diminishing other food security initiatives which are key to the survival of 67 percent of the country. The reforms come at a time when the country is emerging from its worst economic recession in a century.

The White House has also been passive about the farmers’ struggle and the ruthless repression the Modi-led government has wielded against it. In fact, just days after Biden met with the Indian prime minister, Delhi police arrested and illegally detained 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, along with 30-year-old Nikita Jacob and 31-year-old Shantanu Muluk, invoking a colonial-era sedition law for helping create and share a toolkit which suggested ideas to support the farmers’ protests, originally tweeted by Greta Thunberg. Aside from Ravi, Jacob and Muluk, all of whom are members of the Extinction Rebellion chapter in India (XR India), the Modi regime has targeted dozens of the farmers’ supporters over the preceding months. Many of them have been severely deprived of their rights and, as in the cases of youth labor union leaders 24-year-old Shiv Kumar and 23-year-old Naudeep Kaur, brutally tortured at the hands of the police. The Biden administration has not said a word about these transgressions.

Contemporary India is, thus, a prime example of why an internationalist approach to climate justice is more crucial now than ever. The alarming growth of far right proto-fascist politics in India (as in much of the world) adds urgency to this task, as the ecological crisis both feeds into and is intensified by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) agenda. A robust vision of climate justice for the U.S.-India partnership must therefore include an explicit rejection of ethnonationalist politics and focus on building policies that strengthen rather than marginalize communities that are most vulnerable to the changing climate.

India’s Farm Laws Are Disaster Capitalism

The fundamental contradiction that lies therein is the incompatibility of climate justice with the profit motives of capital and the trade agenda of the U.S. government. From the perspective of the U.S., India is an “emerging market,” ripe for foreign direct investment. And while India is already the U.S.’s 13th-largest agricultural export market, the U.S. has a history of retaliating against the developing country for its “excessively high tariffs” and investment barriers; for example, in 2019 President Trump terminated India’s special developing country status in the World Trade Organization after alleging that India failed to offer the US equitable and reasonable access to its markets in numerous sectors including dairy and agricultural products.

India’s domestic agribusiness investors like Adani and Reliance — owned by two of India’s richest and most politically influential men — also have much to gain from the removal of “inefficient” government price supports to farmers, which will drive down prices of agricultural produce and facilitate greater corporate control over markets. The Biden administration’s congratulatory tone thus reflected the interests of large capital rather than the scores of environmental and farmers organizations, lawyers and labor unions in the U.S. and globally who have called on the administration to take decisive measures to protect Indian farmers.

The protesting farmers who have vowed to remain put at the border of Delhi for “six months or six years” — however long it takes to repeal the three agricultural laws — have in essence created a microcosm of democracy within a country which has grown increasingly authoritarian since Modi’s rise to power in 2014. Crafting their own newspaper to counter the jingoistic, pro-corporate mainstream media, erecting shelters and communal kitchens through small donations, and at times engaging in a kind of mass therapy to heal divisions between religious communities that were stoked by the BJP government. These acts — while mostly concentrated in India’s wheat-growing states of Punjab and Haryana — have been received with enormous solidarity from all corners of the country and the world. As a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, signed by 75 international nonprofit organizations, reads: “To Indian farmers: You have ignited one of the largest protests in human history. From the fields of Punjab, to the villages of Kerala, to the streets of New Delhi, your voices echo around the world. Now we raise our voices in solidarity.”

Still perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements of this movement is the way it has brought a degree of unity to sections of civil society and political economy which are usually highly fragmented. Owing to the sweeping nature of the laws — which threaten the livelihoods of not only large grain farmers but also agricultural laborers and small farmers, who consume more of their yield than they sell — the movement has attracted people from a variety of class positions. Samyukt Kisan Moorcha (SKU), the leadership body which formed in the aftermath of the BJP government’s passage of the three farm laws, consists of over 40 farmers unions that range ideologically from Gandhian to Communist, and is equally diverse. The emerging solidarities between agriculturalists and climate justice warriors are also an important development of this struggle.

While the organizing links are nascent, the material basis of such a unity is strong. At the most basic level, in order to grow crops, there must be predictable climatic conditions. But as the globe warms, India’s extreme weather events have soared; from 1950 to 2015 these events have tripled, costing India’s economy $3 billion USD per year, according to a study in the journal Nature.

These losses have been ruinous for India’s small farmers (85 percent of all farmers) whose crops are dependent on the vagaries of the weather, especially precipitation. At the same time, erratic climatic conditions have perhaps exacted a more extreme toll on the medium-size farmers who adopted mechanized and input-intensive agriculture during the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Yields initially were impressive, bringing new levels of wealth to the largely upper-caste beneficiaries who could afford the onerous costs of chemical inputs and high yielding variety crops (HYVs). Eventually, however, these practices depleted nutrient density in the soil and a sinking water table soured the fortunes of many. Declining yields have prompted farmers to seek out higher loans to invest in more toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

In this context, even a minor change in weather fluctuations has the ability to drive a family farm into an extreme crisis of overindebtedness. The APMC system (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) — in which the government procures and provides a remunerative price on select crops, namely wheat and rice at public market yards — has been one of the only reliable lifelines for grain farmers of Punjab and Haryana. In places where the Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are non-existent or poorly enforced, such as the cotton farming belt of Maharashtra, the situation is even more dire — as seen by the farmer suicide crisis (more than a third of the 300,000+ deaths since 1995 are concentrated in Maharashtra).

This socially and ecologically hazardous agricultural regime adopted by India and many developing countries across the world in the 1960s under the influence of the U.S. government cannot persist in its current form. But the transformation cannot be achieved through brute force or the market-driven decimation of farmers’ livelihoods — and certainly not through the current laws which are more likely to expand capital intensive agriculture.

This is why the US must support the farmers’ demands for a more ambitious scheme of government support, one where not only grains, but all crops, are covered under the MSP. And while not officially endorsed by the SKU, the movement has also brought forth demands that could benefit the largely Dalit (ex-untouchable caste) landless laborers — a class that rarely finds common cause with farmers’ movements in India. For example, organizations like the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (PKMU) and Mazdoor Adhikar Sangh (MAS) have pushed for the enforcement of minimum wages and aid to families of laborers who have commit suicide (currently only landed farmers are counted in farmer suicide databases — and thus compensated — by the government).

Without such measures, coupled with investments in a more ecologically-appropriate rural economy — including incentives for farmers such as the expansion of stable non-farm employment — a just transition will not be possible.

Kicking Away the Ladder to Food Security

The argument being made by the U.S. and crony capitalist class in India that opening India’s agricultural markets further to market forces, and doing away with price subsidies would “help” the majority of small farmers (who comprise 85 percent of India’s agrarians) does not hold water. In fact, it is contrary to the development record of virtually every wealthy nation in this world. The U.S. and other nations heavily subsidized their infant industries and agriculturalists. In 2020 an estimated 39% of net farm income came from the federal government. Now that poorer nations seek to do the same, the advanced nations are attempting to “kick away the ladder,” to borrow the words of the economist Ha-Joon Chang.

Moreover, in India, where there are 189.2 million undernourished people (that’s more than half the population of the United States) and nearly 70 percent of the Indian population depends on the agricultural sector either directly or indirectly for their livelihoods, deregulating agricultural markets would be playing with fire. On top of the human toll, subjecting farmers to market forces only has potential to improve the economy when a base level of development has already been attained. Moreover, according to Chang, “for countries that have not reached this level, a fall in food import capacity even for a year or two may have serious irreversible negative consequences for long-term productivity of many people due to irreversible falls in the provision of nutrition and, for children, education.”

It appears that the current regime has little regard for “hierarchy of human needs — where food is the most basic of consumption goods.” This has been illustrated through not only the farm laws, but also draconian measures such as the lockdown in March 2020, which left millions of migrant workers stranded in far-flung places without work or food rations; and the botched demonetization drive of 2016, which cost the country 1.5 million jobs and dealt a crushing blow to small businesses that operate in the informal sector.

Modi’s Fossil Fuel Fascism

Finally, growing outrage by the various oppressed communities that have been further subordinated by the ruling BJP’s majoritarian political program since Modi’s rise to power in 2014 is also helping to fuel to the current movement.

The BJP and the larger “family” of organizations to which it belongs, known as the Sangh Parivar, espouse an ideology known as “Hindutva,” which professes that India is a nation belonging exclusively to Hindus. The hundreds of millions of religious minorities (Muslims, Christians and Dalits), environmentalists, human rights advocates, secularists, communists and anti-caste activists are all “enemies” of the nation to be destroyed.

The founders of the “parent” organization of the Sangh, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were explicitly inspired by the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini. The man who fired three bullets into Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, Nathuram Godse, was a proud member of the RSS, and is celebrated by Hindu nationalists as a “patriot.”

What makes this movement particularly dangerous is not simply the ideology but the way it has so thoroughly embedded itself in civil society. The Sangh Parivar comprises a network of dozens of institutions, including schools, women’s clubs, publishing houses, “IT cells,” health centers, and many more. The RSS claims to have 5-6 million members and 50,000 centers (shakhas) across the country. These centers act as sites of ideological indoctrination, but also weapons-training grounds. One could say it is the largest network of fascist organizations by membership in the world.

Aside from possessing many of the classical features of fascism, what should be particularly of interest to the Biden administration’s climate team is the Sangh’s politics of “fossil fuel fascism.”

Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies Basav Sen has studied the obsession of fascist movements across the world with fossil fuels (in the U.S., Brazil and India). In part it has do with “notions of conquest, and the notions of control of resources,” he told Truthout. “In America, we have the displacement and dispossession of Indigenous populations. White supremacists lay claim to the Indigenous lands and the resources in it which includes fossil fuels. Similarly, in India, the caste Hindu power structure and the elite see the resources of Adivasis’ [Indigenous] land as something they have an inherent right to. If Adivasis are in the way, drive them out.”

Conversely, as has been documented in places across the world, the impacts of climate change fuel extremist politics. In India we see this in the Hindutva’s response to increasing undocumented immigration from neighboring Bangladesh. “Outside of island chains in the Pacific, Bangladesh is probably the country most vulnerable to sea level rise in the world,” Sen said. “Two-thirds of country is a river delta, and a lot will be inundated with seas rising and the Himalayas melting. It’s not the only factor driving people to migrate, but it certainly is a factor.”

Rather than providing refuge to these vulnerable populations, India’s response has been to militarize the border. The BJP in particular has used the rhetoric of the “invasion” of “illegal” Muslims as a way to win popularity. It has been a big part of the BJP’s electoral messaging in West Bengal, where politicians have increasingly used Facebook to demonize and provoke supporters to commit acts of violence against religious minorities. Mythologies of Muslim invasion and demographic takeover were also central to the BJP’s national mobilization in support of the controversial Citizens Amendment Act passed in 2020, which creates a pathway to citizenship for all major religious minorities from bordering states except for Muslims.

No Internationalism, No Green New Deal

Climate diplomacy and cooperation is impossible in the context of fascist dictatorship — the U.S. government should thus be very concerned with the road India is traveling.

In 2014, while even conservative media outlets like The Economist had made the editorial decision to oppose the candidacy of Narendra Modi due to his ethnonationalist politics and violent past, President Obama diligently worked to “rehabilitate” Modi. Previously, under a 1998 U.S. law which bars entry to foreigners who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” the Hindu supremacist was banned from the U.S. It is widely held that as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was responsible for the 2002 pogroms which saw 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, perish.

Donald Trump’s affinity for so-called “strongmen” only deepened U.S. ties to Modi’s agenda. In February 2020, Trump infamously traveled to Delhi just as the Sangh Parivar was painting the streets of Delhi red with the blood of Muslims, and mentioned nothing about the carnage. And while the Biden administration likely won’t be replicating Trump’s expressions of bonhomie such as the 2019 “Howdy Modi” event in Houston, the anti-farmer and anti-climate trade policies currently being pursued by the Biden-Modi partnership both strengthen the hand of fascism and threaten progress on global climate justice.

The contemporary youth-led climate movement in the U.S. and abroad has demonstrated why militant and aggressive organizing to pressure the Biden administration must be an integral part of the climate justice strategy in the years ahead. There is no question that activists have already pushed Biden’s climate policy to a far more ambitious place than it would have otherwise been. And while it may seem farfetched to get the U.S. administration to care about the farmers of the Global South and to take steps to reverse the spread of ecofascism, the degree to which progressives have moved them so far brings hope.