Modi Under Pressure as Support for India Farm Protests Grows
(Bloomberg) -- India’s farmers have vowed to expand their protests across the country, buoyed by growing support from other key groups like military veterans, increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to scrap its new farm laws.
Farmers’ issues are both emotive as well politically significant in the country of more than 1.3 billion people, where over 60% depend on agriculture either directly or indirectly. The added support, especially from retired soldiers, another widely respected group, makes it increasingly likely that the protests will spread beyond the Indian capital. Banking and IT workers as well as a dozen opposition parties and 10 trade unions also back the demonstrations that began a fortnight ago.
“We stand in solidarity with the peacefully protesting farmers, empathize with them, and support their demands,” a group of retired army soldiers said in a press statement.
Tens of thousands of farmers have been camping out near several entry points to New Delhi since Nov. 26 in protest against the legislation that they say will hurt farm incomes and leave them vulnerable to big corporations.
After a nationwide strike call by farmers’ groups on Tuesday, India’s powerful federal Home Minister Amit Shah invited protest leaders for talks to try and break the impasse. The discussions ended inconclusively, like several previous sessions, and it now remains unclear when the next round of dialog will be held.
“We have rejected the government offer to our demands. If there is another offer then we will consider it,” Jangvir Singh, a farm leader told reporters at the protest site on Wednesday.
The protesters said they will block at least two national highways on Dec. 12 and also protest outside the offices of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi has weathered several political storms since he came to power in 2014. His decision to repeal the constitutional autonomy of Indian Kashmir and enact a new religion-based citizenship law saw considerable resistance but the government was able to ride those out without significant cost. This time the situation may be different.
“The Modi government is caught between a rock and a hard place. Now everybody has dug in their heels,” said Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive of the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. They’re “not sure how they will build consensus. Repealing will be a difficult decision.”
Federal Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told reporters in New Delhi on Thursday the government is willing to continue talks with the protesters and also to assure them in writing that the system of the government procuring certain crops at minimum state-set prices would continue. The farmers should consider the government’s suggestion to amend the provisions they are concerned about rather than push for the entire legislation to be scrapped, he said.
There was no immediate response from the farmers’ groups.
Farmer leaders have said the government has so far ruled out any rollback of the legislation.
“Shah told us that the government is willing to discuss and amend the law but we made it clear the stage for discussions is over and nothing short of repealing the laws and starting afresh will do,” said Shiv Kumar Sharma, a farm leader from Madhya Pradesh state.
The three new laws -- pushed through in an abbreviated session of parliament in September -- seek to remove restrictions on marketing farm products and allow cultivators to engage with private companies to sell their crops. Farmers fear this will prompt the government to stop making direct purchases at minimum state-set prices. They argue the laws will hurt their incomes and make agriculture in India harder, while the government says the reforms will make farming more competitive.
“All three laws are pro corporates and tinkering with amendments will not solve the problem,” said Ashok Dhawale, president of the All India Kisan Sabha, a group representing farmers, noting the support from veterans, fishermen, trade unions, and others. “Farmers organizations are unanimous in the demand that the only solution is to repeal the laws.”
Modi himself has taken to social media and used his monthly national radio address to try and assuage the farmers’ concerns but to little avail.
“The widespread support for farmers will make the government understand that the demand is beyond the boundaries of farmers,” said Avik Saha, organizing secretary of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, another farmers’ group. “Widespread support means the government is doing something wrong.”
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