New Delhi (AFP)
As an army of steadfast Indian farmers maintains its blockade of New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces the most delicate challenge yet to his authority and reform agenda.
As the protests enter their third week, AFP examines the background to the new farm laws, why they are attracting such opposition and Modi’s limited options.
– What is the state of Indian agriculture? –
India’s agricultural sector is large and troubled.
It provides a livelihood for nearly 70% of the country’s 1.3 billion people and represents about 15% of the $ 2.7 trillion economy.
The ‘green revolution’ of the 1970s turned India from a country with regular food shortages into a country with a surplus – and a major exporter.
But in recent decades, farm incomes have remained largely stagnant and the sector is in dire need of investment and modernization.
Over 85 percent of farmers have less than two hectares (five acres) of land. Less than one in a hundred farmers owns more than 10 hectares, according to a 2015-2016 survey by the Ministry of Agriculture.
India distributes around $ 32 billion in subsidies to farmers annually, according to the finance ministry.
– How are farmers doing? –
Water shortages, floods and increasingly erratic weather patterns caused by climate change, as well as debt, have taken a heavy toll on farmers.
According to a report from the Punjab government in 2017, the northern state will use all of its groundwater resources by 2039.
More than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide since the 1990s. Almost 10,300 have done so in 2019, according to the latest official figures.
Farmers and their workers are also abandoning farming in droves – 2,000 of them every day according to the last census in 2011.
– What did Modi promise? –
Indian governments have long made big promises to farmers – a crucial voting bank – and Modi is no exception, promising to double their income by 2022.
In September, Parliament passed three laws that allowed farmers to sell to any buyer they chose, rather than commission agents in state-controlled markets.
These markets were created in the 1950s to stop farmers’ exploitation and pay a minimum support price (MSP) for certain products.
The system has led farmers to sometimes grow crops unsuited to the local climate, such as thirsty rice in Punjab, and can be a breeding ground for corruption.
But many farmers see the MSP as a vital safety net and fear that they will not be able to compete with large farms and be paid cheaply by large companies.
“The laws will hurt farmers and in turn destroy our livelihoods,” said Sukhwinder Singh, a farm worker who traveled 400 kilometers (250 miles) to attend the protests.
“The land, the cattle and the farmers will be enslaved by rich people. This government wants to finish us off, ”he said.
– What can Modi do? –
Modi has already drawn fire – a disastrous big bill pullout in 2016, for example – but his popularity has held firm, winning a landslide re-election in 2019.
From late 2019, there were months of protests against a citizenship law imposed by the Hindu-nationalist BJP government in Modi that was seen as discriminatory against Muslims.
But the BJP, with its influence in traditional and social media, was able to portray protesters as “anti-national” before Covid-19 ended up quelling the protests.
Modi, 70, has tried to brush aside the current unrest as being fueled by opportunistic opposition “deceiving” farmers.
Some members of his party upped the ante by labeling the protesters – many of whom are Sikhs – “hooligans, Sikh separatists and anti-nationals.”
But with farmers, it’s different.
They enjoy wide support among Indians and ignoring them comes up against Modi’s self-proclaimed image as a champion of the poor.
In rural areas, where 70% of Indians live, there is already a growing perception that Modi is comfortable with big business and billionaire industrialists such as Mukesh Ambani, the richest person in Asia.
“There are a lot of things that are outdated in the agricultural sector. But reforms cannot be pushed like that, ”political analyst Arati Jerath told AFP.
“This is the biggest challenge for the government so far… It will have to find a way to go back and save face at the same time. ”
© 2020 AFP