NEW DELHI | Many Indian farmers, most of them from the state of Punjab, have been camping since November on the main roads on the outskirts of New Delhi to protest against agricultural reforms by the government of Narendra Modi.
On Tuesday, thousands of them invaded the capital, giving a violent turn to their movement.
How is Indian agriculture doing?
The weight of the agricultural sector is considerable, ensuring the subsistence of nearly 70% of 1.3 billion inhabitants, and contributing to around 15% of the GDP.
The “green revolution” of the 1970s allowed India, which regularly faces food shortages, to become a surplus country, today a major exporter.
However, the sector, whose income has stagnated for several decades, is in great need of investment and modernization. According to a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture for the period 2015-2016, more than 85% of farmers owned less than two hectares of land and less than one in a hundred farmers owned more than 10 hectares.
India provides an average of $ 32 billion in subsidies to farmers each year, according to the finance ministry.
What is the reality of farmers?
Drought, floods … Indian agriculture is facing increasingly erratic weather conditions due to climate change. According to a report by the government of Punjab published in 2017, this state will have exhausted all its groundwater resources by 2039.
Farmers are drowning in debt and more than 300,000 of them have committed suicide since the 1990s.
According to recent official data, some 10,300 farmers died in 2019.
Farmers and agricultural workers are abandoning the sector en masse: 2,000 threw in the towel every day, according to the last census dating from 2011.
What promises made by Prime Minister Modi?
The various Indian governments have always made big promises to farmers – who are a crucial electoral target – and Narendra Modi was no exception, promising them to double their income by 2022.
In September, parliament passed laws allowing farmers to sell their produce to buyers of their choice, rather than relying exclusively on state-controlled markets.
These markets were created in the 1950s to protect farmers against situations of abuse and provide them with a minimum support price (MSP) for certain commodities.
Many smallholder farmers are attached to the PSM, which constitutes an essential safety net for them, and now feel threatened by the liberalization of the markets brought about by the reforms. They fear competition from large farms, which may force them to sell off their goods, in order to be able to sell them, to large companies.
What can Modi do?
Modi has already encountered some pitfalls since his first term, but they did not prevent his wide re-election in 2019.
Months of challenges to a contentious citizenship law in late 2019 culminated in sectarian riots in New Delhi in February 2020.
To portray farmers as “anti-national”, as happened in 2019, could backfire on the government, as they enjoy wide support among the population.
And while the Prime Minister has tried to downplay the impact of the current agricultural movement, deeming farmers deceived by “misinformation” from an opportunist opposition, the farmers’ scolding cannot be treated lightly. Ignoring their appeals could damage Modi’s image of champion of the poor.
What results for farmers?
The farmers have organized themselves since the end of November to camp on the outskirts of Delhi, ready to hold the siege as long as necessary.
They have created schools for children, their own newspaper, active teams on social networks, canteens, medical services …
But the Republic Day riots caught farmers’ unions off guard, who had promised police that tractor rallies would follow agreed routes.
“At the moment, farmers find themselves in a weak position because of the incidents that occurred” Tuesday, said Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, a political analyst based in New Delhi, judging that “in terms of public perception, the violence harmed their cause ”.