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What is happening in India and why are farmers protesting?

What is happening in India and why are farmers protesting?

Whilst the United Kingdom is wrapped in a news cycle on delivering a Brexit deal before Christmas - threatening French fishermen with gunboats - and Germany is sent back into lockdown, there has been little news on the ongoing farmers strike in India, where there are an estimated quarter of a billion people protesting.

That is more than the population of Germany, France and the United Kingdom combined, all taking part in a demonstration against the Indian government, with roads and infrastructure into some major cities being blocked off, bringing much of the country to a halt.

Why are people protesting?

The strike that is currently ongoing is the latest demonstration after weeks of protests across the country, with the Indian government – led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – ending subsidies for Indian farmers. Instead, the government are planning on allowing private buyers greater power to set prices, potentially limiting the price that farmers will get for their products.

Almost half of India’s workforce are in farming, with the subsidies ensuring that many can make-ends-meet, with margins often extremely small in the industry; the ending of subsidies could damage the livelihoods of many farmers.

There is also a fear that smaller business owners and farmers will begin to lose out to larger corporations, resulting in many family-owned and run farms being bought out by large corporations that can more efficiently and cheaply produce products on a large scale.

What are the government subsidies?

For almost 60 years, the Indian government has guaranteed a minimum price for certain crops, ensuring that farmers are able to receive some remuneration for their products and not be exploited by low prices. It is believed that these subsidies played a significant role in the economic development of the country, lifting many families out of poverty since the 1960s.

The changes do not eradicate the guaranteed minimum prices, however, they do get remove restrictions on corporations buying land and stockpiling commodities beyond a certain level, which often makes it difficult for smaller farmers to compete. The Coronavirus pandemic saw many smaller-scale operations struggle due to the infrastructure and supply chain issues that were presented, resulting in them falling behind larger farms; there is a fear the law changes will worsen this.

The new laws also prevent stubble burning – a practise where farmers burn a recently harvested field to make it quicker to plant a new crop – which has been criticised by many farmers, despite it likely having positive environmental impacts.

Why are the government making the change?

The government say that the ending of subsidies is necessary due to the difficult economic conditions that are being felt in India at the moment, partly induced by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Another major factor is that farming only makes up a small portion of India’s GDP – around 16% – despite as much as half of all workers in India working in the industry. The belief is that the subsidies could be used more efficiently elsewhere in the economy, or that greater private sector influence will result in more efficiency in the farming industry.

How have Indians been protesting?

Protests broke out some weeks ago, with demonstrations around some of the countries’ major cities, with a march on Delhi beginning at the end of November and continuing into December. They were met by armed police once they arrived in Delhi, with many protesters being tear-gassed and water cannoned, prompting solidarity protests from Indian communities across much of Europe and North America.

Bilkis, an 82-year-old woman, who became a figurehead of a protest against the new Indian citizenship law earlier in the year, joined the protesters and gained international attention after being detained by the Indian authorities.

What next?

Unions have been successful in getting the government to the negotiating table, with three rounds of talks so far, however, there has yet to be any meaningful conclusion or compromise from either side. There are more talks expected for later in the week, with hopes that some compromise can be reached.

A number of farmers groups have however supported the measures, making it perhaps unlikely that the farmers will manage to achieve significant concessions from the Modi government. Many regional government officials are also negotiating with the farmers, but protests are likely to continue for some time.

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