Farmer protests represent Modi’s greatest test as PM

Farmer protests represent Modi’s greatest test as PM

Short Url

For several months, thousands of Indian farmers — mainly from the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh — have been protesting against new farm laws. While the protests have largely been peaceful, a mass rally in the heart of New Delhi on Jan. 26, the Republic Day holiday in India, turned violent when some farmers rammed tractors through police barricades and others converged on the capital’s iconic Red Fort.

New Delhi’s attempts to accommodate these farmers — including an offer to delay the implementation of the new farm laws by 18 months — have been unsuccessful. The government hasn’t exactly helped its cause, though, given that senior officials have described some of the protesters in harsh terms.

In recent days, the protests have garnered extensive foreign media coverage after international celebrities — including the singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg — tweeted about the farmers.

After Thunberg shared a “toolkit” document on Twitter, outlining how people around the world could express solidarity with the farmers, police in New Delhi announced they were filing complaints against the document’s creators. This came just a few days after officials charged several Indian journalists with sedition for how they had reported on the protests.

Unfortunately, the high-profile international reaction to the farmer protests, and New Delhi’s seemingly disproportionate response to that reaction, have obscured the importance of the new farm laws, as well as of the broader agricultural reforms that the government hopes to usher in for a sputtering sector badly in need of a facelift.

Farmers have long benefited from being paid set prices by the government when they sell crops to government-regulated markets. The new laws, which were passed last September, deregulate agricultural markets and facilitate private buyers’ ability to purchase directly from farmers. New Delhi argues the change will liberalize agricultural markets and help strengthen the economy, but farmers worry they will be exploited by corporate interests operating outside of government markets. They also fear they will become susceptible to contract farming and other undesirable arrangements.

Farmers are an important political constituency in India and the protesters’ resistance to compromise puts Modi in a tough spot

Michael Kugelman

Debates over farm reform and the corporatization of agriculture have played out in many countries over the years, but the stakes are particularly high in India today. The country is rapidly urbanizing — the consulting group McKinsey estimates that the urban population will rise from 340 million in 2008 to 600 million by 2030 — but the majority of Indians still live in rural areas and agriculture remains a key sector. Yet it is struggling. About half the entire Indian workforce is employed in agriculture, but the share of agriculture in India’s gross domestic product has declined in recent years. The figure is currently less than 20 percent.

Compounding India’s agricultural woes is the fact that water, one of the sector’s essential inputs, is managed inefficiently. According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization data, when it comes to water withdrawals by sector in India, 91 percent is used for irrigation and livestock. However, officials often provide subsidies for the most water-intensive crops and flood irrigation is prioritized over less wasteful drip irrigation. Climate change exacerbates the situation.

Consequently, many farmers across India are suffering. A full fifth live under the poverty line. Many struggle with debt, drought and, tragically, an epidemic of suicide.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand why New Delhi believes reforms are needed to strengthen the agricultural economy. But it is also easy to see why farmers worry that these same reforms could deprive them of the set prices that provide them with a reassuring measure of predictability and that insulate them from the corporate agricultural investment they fear will worsen their already-precarious plight.

The protests don’t imperil Modi’s government; the prime minister remains popular, especially in the absence of a viable political opposition. But they do arguably represent the greatest test he has faced during his nearly seven years in power.

Farmers are an important political constituency in India and the protesters’ resistance to compromise puts Modi in a tough spot. If he gives in and backs away from the laws, a promising step toward much-needed agricultural reform will be squandered. But if he stays the course and implements the laws, he could face a sustained protest campaign. There would be a risk that the protests — which to this point have largely been restricted to several states — would spread and become more of a nationwide movement.

The best outcome for New Delhi would be a negotiated settlement with protest leaders that yields a mutually agreeable middle-ground result. But, in the current charged environment, with both sides doubling down and digging in, this amounts to a tall order.

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view