Why are Indian farmers protesting, and what can Modi do?

New Delhi: As an army of resolute Indian farmers keeps up its blockade of New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces potentially the trickiest challenge yet to his authority and reform agenda.

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With the protests entering their third week, AFP looks at the background to new farm laws, why they are sparking such opposition and Modi’s limited options.

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What is the state of Indian agriculture?

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India’s farming sector is vast and troubled.

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It provides a livelihood to nearly 70 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion people and accounts for around 15 per cent of the $2.7-trillion economy.

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The “Green Revolution” of the 1970s turned India from a country facing regular food shortages into one with a surplus – and a major exporter.

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But for the past few decades, farm incomes have remained largely stagnant and the sector is in sore need of investment and modernisation.

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More than 85 per cent of farmers have less than two hectares (five acres) of land. Fewer than one in a hundred farmers own over 10 hectares, according to a 2015-16 agriculture ministry survey.

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India hands out an estimated $32 billion in subsidies to farmers annually, according to the finance ministry.

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How are farmers coping?

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Water shortages, floods and increasingly erratic weather caused by climate change, as well as debt, have taken a heavy toll on farmers.

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According to a Punjab government report in 2017, the northern state will use up all its groundwater resources by 2039.

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More than 300,000 farmers have killed themselves since the 1990s. Nearly 10,300 did so in 2019, according to the latest official figures.

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Farmers and their workers are also abandoning agriculture in droves – 2,000 of them every day according to the last census in 2011.

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What did Modi promise?

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Indian governments have long made big promises to farmers – a crucial vote bank – and Modi is no exception, vowing to double their incomes by 2022.

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In September, parliament passed three laws that enabled farmers to sell to any buyer they chose, rather than to commission agents at state-controlled markets.

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These markets were set up in the 1950s to stop the exploitation of farmers and pay a minimum support price (MSP) for certain produce.

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The system has led to farmers sometimes growing crops unsuited to the local climate, such as thirsty rice in Punjab, and can be fertile ground for corruption.

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But many farmers see the MSP as a vital safety net, and fear being unable to compete with large farms and being paid low prices by big corporations.

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“The laws will harm the farmers and in turn destroy our livelihood,” said Sukhwinder Singh, a farm worker who cycled 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the protests.

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“Land, cattle and farmers will be enslaved by rich people. This government wants to finish us,” he said.

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What can Modi do?

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Modi has drawn fire before – a disastrous withdrawal of large banknotes in 2016, for example – but his popularity has held up, winning a landslide re-election in 2019.

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From late 2019, there were months of protests against a citizenship law imposed by Modi’s Hindu-nationalist BJP government that was seen as discriminatory to Muslims.

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But the BJP, with its clout in traditional and social media, was able to depict the demonstrators as “anti-nationals” before COVID-19 eventually snuffed out the protests.

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Modi, 70, has tried to brush off the current agitation as being stoked by an opportunistic opposition “misleading” the farmers.

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Some in his party have upped the ante by branding the protesters – many of whom are Sikhs – as “hooligans, Sikh separatists and anti-nationals”.

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But with the farmers, it is different.

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They enjoy widespread support among Indians and ignoring them clashes with Modi’s self-styled image as a champion of the poor.

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“There are many things which are outdated in the agriculture sector. But reforms cannot be pushed like this,” Arati Jerath, a political analyst, told AFP.

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“This is so far the biggest challenge to the government… It will have to find a way to walk back and save face at the same time.”

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