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The Biggest Strike in History: India on the Brink of Revolution?

Right now, 250 million farmers are striking against the Indian government. In September 2020, the incumbent Modi administration introduced several bills to completely reform the agricultural sector. These bills will have such enormous consequences because around half of India’s 1.4billion people work in agriculture. The reforms will supposedly liberalise the industry, but many in India believe these revolutionary changes as potentially devastating to the socio-economic system.

The current agricultural system relies on two main principles, firstly, many small and undeveloped farmers and, secondly, the major governmental regulation. Indian farmers lack modern agricultural technology, and the majority of farmers own very small plots of land. Combined with a poor rural credit system, many farmers are at the mercy of the market and hold little power in terms of price negotiation. The harshness of the conditions is evidenced in the high-and-rising suicide rate among farmers. The other side of the coin is the socialist-era agricultural policy that stipulates farmers must sell their produce to licensed middlemen in chartered government yards. Such a system does lead to exploitation of farmers but, for the most part, they are guaranteed a minimum price.

The Modi administration’s new reforms are seeking to liberalise this system by cutting out the middlemen and allowing farmers to sell the product themselves. Such policy gives farmers price negotiation power by giving them access to many more buyers. While this isn’t a false take, it’s very misleading. In reality, if these policies are enacted without an adequate support system, a huge portion of the 700million farmers will be exploited as they come into negotiations with major agribusinesses. In Europe, the agricultural sector is held up by a complex web of EU laws, quotas, cooperatives and unions and even with this it is still a volatile industry and many farmers still struggle under ever falling food prices. As millions of smaller farmers go bust, mass migration to the urban centres and raging unemployment are all on the table. To avoid a host of social and economic ills Modi must step back from rapid change and start listening to the farmers.

This brings us to the next level of Indian politics we must unpack. The Modi administration finds its typical support base from the urban centres and not the farmers. The relationship between the farmers and Modi have been strained in recent years as the government sought to quell food price inflation in the city at the expense of the farmers. Onion exports were recently banned to ensure domestic supply was sent to the cities and food prices could be stabilised. While Modi’s base was won over, the policy led to a crash in the price of onions and devastated Indian onion farmers. As well as the urban population, the Modi administration has also been accused of working to satisfy major US agribusiness’ that have lobbied hard for this liberalisation in order to gain more control of agricultural production. By forcing even lower prices for the farmer’s crops, corporate lobbyists profit enormously while staying on side with the Modi administration for keeping food prices low. As the government continues to alienate the rural farmers by appeasing the urban population the political divide will only grow between the two spheres of Indian society.

The current clash has emerged in the midst of the pandemic in which Modi’s administration has looked to force through major new legislation through parliament, which was closed in March and only opened for 18 days in September, or by way of executive orders. The administration has acted with haste and force, using the 18-day window to bring through the agricultural policy bill without allowing for scrutiny or meaningful debate. The key grain-producing regions of Punjab and Haryana are home to the most organised farmers in India and have so far been the major sources of dissent. Throughout November, farmers from these regions have parked tractors along roads and railways to plug up New Delhi’s arteries of transport. This major sit-in, performed by thousands of farmers, has been met with overwhelming support from the general public. Across the nation reports of over 250 million workers striking in solidarity with the farmers have emerged, with some extending to hunger strikes.

The outpouring of social solidarity bodes badly for a chance of resolution. The Modi administration stands firmly in its policy choice and has little political motive to back down as this won’t necessarily hurt their voter base. The economic crisis will therefore be the rock on which one camp will crumble. Either the farmers will be forced into submission as they lose months of work, or the government will have to consider the impact on food prices if farmers refuse to work.

But who is to blame? Since the pandemic, Modi has come under increasing fire for diluting India’s democracy. Their electoral success, however, places the Modi administration in an intensely powerful position with which they have the means to enact major socio-economic reforms. Many in India believe the government is sliding towards more authoritarian tendencies, notably in parliament's closure throughout the pandemic. Keeping this in mind, it is the Modi administration which is seen as the biggest aggressor in the current economic breakdown. One MP, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, recently vocalised how Modi’s authoritarianism and obstinacy are the main obstacles to meaningful negotiation. Many therefore see the actions of the farmers as completely rational, with their entire livelihood facing an existential threat.

A simple negotiation process, as many MPs and union leaders have called for, may not be enough, however. Since 2014 PM Modi has gained a reputation for being an Iron leader, wishing to be seen as impervious to the chaos around him and convicted to governing strongly. His reputation is therefore on the line which complicates any chance for resolution. India’s socio-economic revolution is on the brink of coming into reality, but its inception must first wrestle with the complexities of democracy, or the lack of.

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