The India Cable: Many Kinds of Farm Protest Evolving, Vaccine Rollout Amidst Questions
Plus: Women protesters write to CJI Bobde, British MPs talk Kashmir, economy may recover in 2026, millions gathering for Kumbh Mela, Anna threatens “last fast” again, CBI raids its own HQ
From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
Snapshot of the day
January 15, 2021
It’s official: India has announced that no foreign dignitary will officiate as chief guest at the Republic Day parade, due to Covid-19. Boris Johnson had cancelled after imposing a fresh lockdown in the UK.
In a letter to Prime Minister Modi, Anna Hazare has written that he would organise the “last fast of my life” in support of the farmers’ protest, seeking the maintenance of the MSP system and the implementation of the Swaminathan Report recommendations. The Centre has not responded to four letters requesting permission to use the Ramlila Maidan, but he will fast in Delhi at the end of January.
Vaccinations in India are scheduled to start tomorrow, with two groups of scientists squaring off in rival statements. One group had their statement defending the government’s vaccine clearance and rollout tweeted by the health ministry, raising questions about the health ministry’s own approach to science.
There is no talk of MPs getting the shot, but Parliament is to resume from January 29. The Budget will be presented on February 1. Parliament was last in session in September, and the winter session was spiked, citing Covid-19. In 2020, Parliament was in session for 33 days ― 23 during the Budget session and 10 days during the monsoon session ― the least number of sittings per year in Independent India.
The Indian Express reports that the Finance Ministry and Niti Aayog had raised objections during the 2019 airport bidding process. They had misgivings about the outcome being anti-competitive and indeed, the Adani Group swept up six airports. In just 20 months, it has become the country’s biggest private airport developer, in terms of passenger volumes handled.
British MPs speak up on Kashmir, Modi govt squirms
The Indian High Commission in London has expressed its dismay at parliamentarians who participated in a debate on Kashmir in the British Parliament. The debate, organised by backbench British MPs at Westminster Hall in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening, was entitled “Political situation in Kashmir” – terminology problematic in itself, the Indian High Commission in London pointed out.
India should lift all restrictions in Kashmir and allow a team from its High Commission in Delhi to visit the Valley for a first-hand assessment of the situation, said UK Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland while replying to the debate. It was held a day after the UK MPs discussed “Persecution of Muslims, Christians and Minority Groups in India”, which elicited a strong reaction from the Indian High Commission in London. Last week, UK MPs had lobbied for the repeal of India’s farm laws.
Farmers talk, women protesters write back to CJI
Eight hundred women farmers have written an open letter to the Chief Justice of India about statements of the apex court suggesting that they be “kept” away. They have urged “the Supreme Court to acknowledge the role of women farmers in agriculture and recognise their agency in the farmers’ protest”, and will mark January 18 as a special day towards this.
The ninth round of talks between farmers and the Centre are on today. The Centre is hopeful, and the committee appointed by the court ― which has lost 25% of its strength following a recusal ― is prepared to go to protest sites to talk. The farmers have little hope, since they have turned down the panel, and very conscious that these could be the last talks.
Jab launch tomorrow
Prime Minister Modi will launch the all-India Covid-19 vaccination programme tomorrow at 10:30 AM via video. There would be 3,006 session sites across all states and Union territories and 100 beneficiaries will be vaccinated at each on Saturday. The two-vaccine rollout comes amid concerns among a section of scientists, medical researchers and policy planners on the governmental push being given to the indigenous Bharat Biotech vaccine, whose efficacy is not established, though the epidemic has been on the decline since September. Meanwhile, Brazil claimed it is sending an aircraft to pick up 2 million doses of Covishield, but India refused to confirm and says it is “still assessing vaccine production schedules and delivery and we will take decisions in this regard in due course.”
The government’s decision to administer the second dose of the Serum Institute’s Covishield vaccine just four weeks after the first dose may reduce efficacy to just 53%, the vaccine’s package insert showed. A longer gap of at least 12 weeks would have raised the efficacy to as much as 79%, say vaccine experts.
Assessment of a variety of data by experts estimates that more than 7.5 crore Indians contracted Covid-19 last year. Officially, India had just 1 crore laboratory-confirmed cases.
“Befitting reply” promised to unnamed “superpower”
Yet again, no country or “superpower” was named, as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in Bengaluru: “We don’t want war and we are in favour of protecting everyone’s security, but I want to say in clear terms that if any superpower wants to hurt our pride, then our soldiers are capable of giving them a befitting reply.” The context: this is the eighth month of the standoff with China in eastern Ladakh. Singh asserted that India never wanted conflict with any nation and preferred to maintain peace and friendly ties with its neighbours.
MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that “India and China continue to maintain close communications through diplomatic and military channels with the objective of ensuring complete disengagement in all friction points along the LAC in the western sector and for full restoration of peace and tranquillity.”
Fitch: economy won’t recover until 2026
The Indian economy will suffer lasting damage from the coronavirus crisis, says Fitch Ratings, concluding that pre-pandemic GDP will elude it for years. “After an initial strong rebound in the fiscal year ending March 2022, growth will slow to around 6.5% a year all the way till March 2026. The Indian economy has been in poor shape since before the pandemic struck, with slowing rates of growth, a fall in consumption expenditure and soaring inequalities.
Festival season here, but Sabarimala seeks bailout
About a million pilgrims have gathered on the banks of the Ganga marking the start of the Kumbh Mela, which is being held despite Covid-19. Millions more are said to be on their way. There are other big festivals in India this week ― the Gangasagar Mela in West Bengal, where about 15,000 people are expected, and jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, which witnessed Congress leader and MP Rahul Gandhi’s first public outing this year.
Sabarimala was an exception. It saw a subdued ‘Makara Vilakku’ yesterday, with only 5,000 pilgrims allowed in by the government. About 4-5 lakhs usually throng here on this day. The cash-strapped temple has asked the government for a bailout package.
The Long Cable
“More than one kind of agrarian protest is unfolding”
Tanweer Alam asked Barbara Harriss-White, emeritus fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, about the origins and outcomes of the farmers’ protests.
I am on day 300 of lockdown confinement in Oxford. I depend for my understanding on Zoom meetings, research literature and UK media reports. That said, the protests are responses to long-term structural problems and immediate policy spasms. More than one kind of agrarian protest is unfolding.
Structural problems: Indian agriculture is not just differentiated but also surprisingly miniaturised: 86% of holdings are below 2 hectares, with soils degraded by chemicalised production techniques, and water supply is unreliable and increasingly costly. It’s hard to maintain farm expenditure without help from wages, remittances and self-employment. Agriculture is growing in a mediocre way (though 2020 was an exception); it is rapidly dwindling as a proportion of GDP, vanishing from macroeconomic policy, but remains a massive and vital sponge for absorbing surplus labour. Real agricultural wages are stagnating, landlessness is increasing and debt intensifies. Public expenditure in agriculture is declining and village level infrastructure is underdeveloped. For policy, agriculture has become labelled as a welfare sector.
Enter a government announcement in 2016 that farm incomes will double by 2022 ― that’s in 11 months’ time. The meagre evidence available suggests farm incomes are growing at a fifth of the rate needed to achieve that, and patchy cash transfer programmes are too small to make a difference. Real costs are rising, whereas the prices for farmers’ produce, which compete with subsidised global ones, are volatile. But buried in the averages of the official data are the ‘masters of the countryside’: a cash-cropping elite, the 6% who own over 10 hectares, who can ride out post-harvest price slumps, and who dominate cash inputs and credit, hire wage-labour, profit from this ‘welfare sector’, and also move between agriculture and trade, where they operate as wholesalers, commission agents and processors.
This simplified outline already suggests not one but five crises involving agricultural markets – farm wages confronting rising food prices, low returns, competition in the existing post-harvest market system, corporate capital posing a future crisis, and a likely broken promise by the Modi sarkar to double farm incomes.
Seventy per cent of India’s harvests are marketed rurally to private traders who often double as moneylenders. Throughout India, local private mercantile oligopolies coexist with large numbers of small traders. The states’ APMCs – 7,000 regulated market sites – date from 1960s laws written to improve farmers’ first transactions. If well implemented, they democratise auctions and their fees are recycled into market infrastructure. But APMCs have been patchily implemented and are often avoided. Many grow weeds, or are the site of cash sales to non-local traders, or are penetrated by non-transparent customary practices, or are cartelised by locally big capital. Yet despite or because of APMCs, India has for long had a national agricultural market – even if it’s not perfectly integrated.
In the north-western states and parts of UP and MP, however, cash crops of grain are purchased at the Minimum Support Price by the Food Corporation of India via commission agents in regulated markets/APMCs. While strategically important for the public distribution system, this arrangement is unusual. The PDS is based on the opposite principle from that of the APMCs, in which private markets just need light-touch regulation of farmers’ first transactions. The PDS needs direct public control of the entire distribution system for social purposes.
The Farm Acts: Enter the three farm laws like three claps of thunder, consistent with the Prime Minister’s style of politics. Grounded in a critique of regulated markets as monopolies full of malpractices, hailed as instruments freeing sales, contracts and storage, they have triggered long-running demonstrations by coalitions of farmers unions, fervent debates among economists, and a surge of less noticed lobbying by agricultural and commercial interests which strongly favour them.
Implications of the Farmers’ Protests: An articulate eruption of half a million members of several unions and more or less federated associations has drawn international attention. They predict intensifying inequalities of power, limitless hoarding and contract farming at scale. Fearing the dismantling of the PDS, they are campaigning to generalise its MSP at the Swaminathan Commission rates of full costs plus 50% – which wouldn’t double farm incomes but would move towards it. The farmers have also campaigned against revenue losses from weakening APMCs, and the lack of recorded consultation, flouting of parliamentary procedure and an unconstitutional seizure of the powers of states by the Centre.
Some farmers also protest against the Electricity Amendment Bill, which seeks to centralise the regulation, privatisation and management of power subsidies for irrigation. Other unions have had private meetings with the Minister of Agriculture, some supporting the government amendments.
So these protests invite a ‘divide and rule’ political response. With a few notable exceptions, farm labourers, who have a high stake in food price stability, and interests at variance with the labour reforms that are already assaulting their work conditions and safety, and which are being pushed through simultaneously, hardly figure in the protest. They have already been divided, ruled and marginalised.
Implications of the Economists’ Debates: India’s agricultural markets have even lower status than agriculture itself, and so are vulnerable to theory-based assumptions, hearsay and a dialogue of the deaf.
One group of international economists stresses – in the absence of production reforms – the impact of market reforms on politically sensitive farm incomes. They argue that removing inefficiencies of agricultural markets would increase the producer’s share of revenues. Contract and cluster farming incentivise healthy competition: economies of scale follow. Asking private traders to buy at state-administered prices is an elementary economic error. As for the complaint that there has been no consultation, they point to the papers of three commissions over the last two decades.
Another group of senior agricultural economists argue from field experience that the farm acts would legalise unregulated areas of trade, emasculate rather than strengthen APMCs, are unlikely to incentivise private investment in village-level infrastructure, would deprive states of development revenue, would centralise state powers and legitimate making the first transaction even more unequal. Meanwhile e-nam, the online trading platform for agricultural commodities, which is not interoperable, has done nothing but fragment the national market it was supposed to create.
A third, well-publicised group of economists debates the impact of the MSP and the PDS on poor states, poor farmers and poor consumers and welcomes or denounces the threat of its destruction.
A fourth set advising big business sees the protests as led by traders from Punjab defending their interests. Agricultural markets are crowded with middlemen, incurring high costs of intermediation while using chicanery, cheating and arbitrary exactions, and neglectful of high levels of waste. These economists think that a new scale of capital would sweep away these problems by replacing the markets with producer organisations on contract to agri-business and linked to agri-tech start-ups and AI.
Farm Law Supporters: Powerful interests across the board welcome the farm laws. FICCI and CII, rattled by the blockages to export supply chains caused by protesters, both approve of what they see as new scales of integrated value addition and quality control, the removal of irksome barriers to the entry of big capital and the already proliferating hi-tech market platforms. Assocham appreciates the rise which the law is predicted to lead to in FDI in agri-commerce.
Farmers’ organisations such as the AIKCC, carrying a banner for Maharashtra, see the reforms as making agriculture more competitive and also levelling the playing field between private trade and the state. For FAIFA tobacco farmers in central and southern India, the farm acts are visionary and farm-centric, enabling farmers to take control of trading processes. FAIFA also expects an influx of private investment in infrastructure.
The threat to intermediate trading classes from big agri-business is countered, in their view, by the prospect of being recruited as agents for corporates. Meanwhile, the global grain oligopoly of Cargill, Bunge etc works in the background, backed by the WTO and management consultants who dislike India’s PDS subsidies.
Conclusion: For the first time in 70 years agricultural markets are bubbling in a political cauldron, which intensifies the struggles over the future of agriculture, but does not solve the crises of income and wages, or of the MSP.
The committee appointed by the Supreme Court to listen and advise has an unsullied track record in favour of these laws. “This is a 1991 moment for agriculture,” proclaimed Ashok Gulati, a member, referring to economic liberalisation. Another has already recused himself due to conflicts of interest. A detractor calls it a face-saver for the government. The committee has no brief to advise on constitutionality, or to mediate. It has been dismissed by farmers whose trust in the government has ebbed. Whatever the merits of the arguments, the balance of power favours Adani-Ambani – and Modi doesn’t do negotiations.
This moment of acute struggle is ripe for a set of open consultations for reforms through which petty commodity-producing agriculture is recognised, can be strengthened, made resilient, helped to be less ecologically damaging and contribute to public distribution. Pretty much the opposite of what is on the table.
Women and Covid
Covid-19 changed the relationship of women with the workplace, and women’s work and livelihoods were adversely impacted in 2020. A new report covers economic and social indicators (like female labour force participation, barriers to work and livelihoods, financial inclusion, digital access, skilling, education and violence against women) that played a central role in determining women’s role in the Indian economy.
Prime Number: 270
number of militants currently active in Jammu and Kashmir
, which is less than the 2019 figure of 421 and 2020 figure of over 300. In 2020, 225 militants were killed, compared to 160 in 2019 and 257 in 2018.
The Mughals are often dragged into discussions over so-called ‘love jihad’, with the argument that it was practiced widely in the subcontinent under its emperors. This narrative is then imposed on today’s Muslims to establish it as an Islamic tradition. But what do history and evidence say? Mukulika R of the Indian Cultural Forum speaks to Ira Mukhoty and Audrey Truschke.
Op-Eds you don’t want to miss
The anti-corporate tone of farm protests reflects wider discontent about emerging market monopolies, and fears that the phenomenon will be replicated in the agricultural sector, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.
The protesting farmers are angry as they fear that new laws will help giant corporations and leave them at their mercy, writes Hartosh Singh Bal in the New York Times.
Yamini Aiyar writes on India’s handling of the pandemic in Seminar magazine. India needs to move away from a ‘top-down’, expert-led approach to a long-term community-led approach ― a new social contract.
Misconceptions about income distribution in India: most of us don’t know what the real India lives like, contends Navin Kabra, in this interesting take.
“If liberalism has become a bad word for the religious right, there must be some virtues in the concept and practices of the ideology.” Let us reinvent it, suggests Neera Chandhoke.
Any attempt to divert attention from core issues through judicial means is unlikely to help the cause of bridging the trust deficit between the government and agitating farmers. What’s needed is a proactive policy of raising rural demand through fiscal spending and protecting the rural economy from further distress, says Himanshu.
Kate Sullivan De Estrada looks at the new Chatham House report, and says that as long as India practises domination at home, it cannot hope for more equality or inclusiveness in the international sphere.
India has more than ten judges who are transgender persons. On Earshot, hear from India’s first transgender judge. The Supreme Court recognised transgenders as the third gender seven years ago.
On Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi’s 102nd birth anniversary yesterday, there was a special screening of Raag Shayari, a poetic and musical tribute to him featuring Shankar Mahadevan, Zakir Husain, Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar, directed by Feroz Abbas Khan.
Kamala recalls her mother, CBI raids itself
US VP-designate, Kamala Harris shared some pictures of herself as a child with her Indian mother, Dr Shyamala, reflecting on how her mother, one of the few women scientists of colour at Berkeley, shaped her life.
And in search of self-knowledge, the CBI has raided its own headquarters in Delhi and slapped four of its officers with bribery charges.
That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.