GZERO Media logo

Farm to (negotiating) table in India

People hold placards during a nationwide strike to protest against newly passed farm bills, in Mumbai, India

In recent days, tens of thousands of protesters have descended on the capital of the world's fifth largest economy as part of a political fight that directly affects the livelihoods of more than 600 million people.

This drama is unfolding in India, where a series of reforms to decades-old agriculture laws has touched off a major political crisis. Farmers streaming in from the country's breadbasket regions have blocked roads and set up encampments in New Delhi to demand that the government scrap the new laws. Yesterday, they called a nationwide strike.

In a country where nearly 60 percent of the population of 1.4 billion people depends on farming to earn a living, this is an issue with huge repercussions for the country's popular prime minister, Narendra Modi.


What's the back story? Under a system set up by the socialist-leaning governments that held power during the first decades of India's independence, farmers have long been required to sell their harvests to state warehouses, which guarantee a set minimum price in return. To make the system more efficient and market-driven by ensuring that supply responds directly to actual demand, the government recently passed laws that allow farmers to sell to whomever they like.

Allowing farmers a greater choice of buyers might sound appealing, and supporters of the new laws say they will attract more and better investment in the sector. But many farmers' groups are angry. They say they weren't sufficiently consulted about the law and, crucially, that without the guarantee of state purchases and prices, they'll be at the mercy of large agriculture companies that can force down prices to levels that make it impossible for them to make a living.

It's a classic case of market-oriented reforms that offer the promise of more prosperity and efficiency on a broad level, while also raising individuals' fears about their own economic security and future.

For context, more than 80 percent of India's farmers are small-plot tillers who eke out a very modest living. And droughts, floods, and underinvestment were making their lives harder even before the coronavirus pandemic kneecapped the economy: last year, some 10,000 Indian farmers committed suicide.

So far, talks between the government and farmers groups have gone nowhere. The government says it's willing to revise the laws, but farmers insist on scrapping them entirely and starting from scratch.

Prime Minister Modi has to tread carefully. This is heartland politics, and unlike last year's citizenship law protests, farmers' grievances are harder for Hindu hardliners of the BJP, India's ruling party, to ignore or quash on nationalist or sectarian grounds.

Modi has, of course, recovered from many reform missteps. His decision to squeeze black markets by abruptly removing most paper currency from circulation in 2016 caused widespread confusion and produced little benefit. His historic attempt to streamline the national tax system ended up more fragmented than promised. His moves on citizenship laws and the massively disruptive short-notice coronavirus lockdowns earlier this year both seemed politically perilous at the time. Yet, he and his government remain broadly popular – Modi's approval rating is above 70 percent.

Will a mass protest by the people who feed India damage Modi more than these other misadventures did? Those tractors parked in New Delhi don't look like they're going anywhere soon.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the currency move was done in 2017 -- the measure was actually implemented in December 2016.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

More Show less

Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets EU representatives next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

More Show less

Now that Joe Biden is officially US president, leaders from around the world would like a word with him — but where will he make his first international trip?

After a tumultuous four years, many countries are now clamoring for a face-to-face with President Biden. That includes allies who felt abandoned by Trump's "America First" presidency, as well as adversaries with thorny issues on the agenda. We check in on who's pitching him hardest on a near-term state visit.

More Show less
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal