Rihanna, MSP and farmers: what is happening in India?

Opinion/ Politics

16 februari 2021
Auteur(s): Varnika Srivastava
Find out what is happening in Indian Politics with large organised protests, effigy burning and internet shutting.

by Varnika Srivastava


Indian politics is in a weird state right now. The right-wing is rallying against Rihanna, the Indian government is blocking Twitter accounts, the internet in New Delhi has been shut down, and the lifeline of the Indian workforce, its farmers are unhappy and protesting. To understand how all of this is tied together, we need to go back to the drawing board. 

India is primarily an agrarian economy, with almost 50% of its workforce being involved in agriculture either directly (farmers and agricultural labourers) or indirectly (traders and middlemen). When India achieved independence from the British in 1947, the country had a large population and a huge food scarcity. Thereafter, much of India's agrarian policies were based on the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, of making India agriculturally independent. Various land reforms were introduced which virtually removed the semi-feudal agrarian structure by abolishing the zamindari (landlordship), giving labourers ownership rights over the land they worked on (Tenancy Reforms, 1948) and introduced a ceiling on the number of landholdings. While these reforms were relatively successful in improving the farmers' social condition, the output remained low, since these reforms depended on the exploitation of a large workforce, but not on institutional and technological advancement. Nevertheless, through the Green Revolution, under Prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1971, mechanisation and the introduction of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides significantly alleviated the economy as well as the social status of farmers overall, particularly in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, which even now have the best output rates and the wealthiest farmers across the country. As a result, from 1975 onwards, India has had a massive supply of rice and wheat from these states. However, this boost came at a cost. The overuse of pesticides and fertilisers made vast plots of land infertile. Moreover, many crops, predominantly grown in poor states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, such as jowar, bajra, barley and millets lost their previously significant share in the market to wheat and rice. 

To combat this persistent disparity growing in the farming community and to ensure that poor farmers do not get even more marginalised, the central government introduced a series of nationwide agricultural market reforms in the 1980s. These reforms were mostly meant to ensure fair prices for all crops and gave way to a complex system of markets and trading that differed from state to state. In line with this, the central government introduced a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops such as paddy, cotton, wheat and jowar. MSP can be described as a safety net for farmers when they go to Mandis or local wholesale markets to sell their crops to traders in auctions, whose process is open and transparent. Through MSP, the government promises a minimum price to farmers that cannot be altered. MSP is beneficial in years when productivity is low or when crop prices fall drastically.

All in all, MSP seeks to protect the most vulnerable farmers against the ups and downs of a fragile market. Although this system is not perfect and has several loopholes, it works because it gives farmers some market standards to negotiate within and provides oversight against exploitation. The application and use of MSPs also dictate how farmers make a living. In Punjab and Haryana, where MSPs are a vital part of the economy, farmers here are the country's richest to date. In contrast, in Bihar, where the MSP system was abolished entirely in 2006, the farmers are the poorest in the country due to lack of oversight. 

Now, let us step back for a moment and understand why all this is important. Even though most of the Indian workforce is employed in farming, the share of agriculture is dwindling in the already shrinking economy. Over the past few decades, farmer suicides have increased many fold due to rising debt and the fear of unemployment in agriculture. Simply put, the agricultural sector in India is in a deep crisis. In mid- 2020, the ruling Modi Government introduced a set of 3 Farming bills in Parliament.  While the 3 bills do not explicitly disregard MSPs, they deregulate different aspects of the market. The first bill allows farmers to sell their produce outside the Mandis with the promise of getting higher prices. These private spaces would essentially override the existing wholesale market rules and eliminate oversight by the government, essentially giving big corporations an invitation to come in unregulated. Similarly, the second bill creates a space for farmers and traders to get into private contracts without any oversight. Overall, due to these two bills which allow trade to take place outside of the wholesale markets, they would be without oversight and this would marginalise small farmers, who will not have any options to combat low prices and/or negotiate bad deals.

Moreover, the third bill eliminates the storage limit of facilities set by the government, which would allow wealthy traders to simply stock-up and dictate prices. Essentially, these three bills would make the traditional market structure collapse by introducing big corporations into a fragile market that is meant to cater to the most vulnerable Indian population. When the government introduced these reforms in June 2020, it did not take long for the effects to be seen. In the Kharif season in October, the number of crops arriving in the market yards and godowns decreased. Traders have moved away from traditional mandis in many states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the hopes of getting higher prices from private markets, forcing small farmers to negotiate with big corporations on their own. 

In response to these bills, farmers primarily from Punjab and Haryana started marching in New Delhi by November 2020, in what has been called the World's largest organised strike by many, and they were met with tear gas, water cannons and stones by the police. Meant as a warning sign, this brutality ended by riling the population even further. By December, tens of thousands of farmers had set camp around the capital, New Delhi, with over 250 million people in India participating in a 24-hour strike in solidarity. On January 12, the Supreme Court of India ordered a temporary suspension of the legislation. On January 26 2021, India's Republic Day, the protesters marched into the Red Fort (where the Prime-minister gives the Address to the nation on Independence Day), while the Republic Day parade was going on in Rajpath (just a few kilometers from the Red Fort). On top of all of this, by mid-January, the central government had opted to use its distastefully familiar response to everything that they dislike: cutting electricity, water supplies and/or internet in the areas where protesters were camping and to hit a literal “final nail in the coffin”, they also put nails in the streets where the marches were to take place  as well as charged many journalists for covering the protests. 

Not surprisingly, Indian social media has obviously blown up with hashtags like #farmersprotest trending for almost a month. However, these massive protests only received real international recognition when Rihanna retweeted a CNN post on February 2 detailing the cutting off of internet access around Delhi. While many netizens applauded the pop star for bringing the protests into internet light, the Indian right had a meltdown. Many, led by the Bollywood film personality Kangana Ranaut, called Rihanna a "fool" and the right-wing has followed Ranaut in criticising Rihanna and has labelled protesting farmers as terrorists. But it didn't stop at Rihanna. Greta Thunberg also received flak for showing her support for farmers. Many prominent right-wing Hindu groups called her a hypocrite for supporting the farmers as agriculture is a huge carbon emitter. The United Hindu Front went as far as to burn effigies of Rihanna and Greta, calling them an antithesis to Indian spirituality and culture.

With general sentiment turning more towards the topics of whether celebrities are qualified for commenting on the affairs of the state, or how Bollywood and Cricket celebrities turn a blind eye to most events due to the fear of losing followers, the attention on the farmers' protests has significantly died down. After February 2, the rhetoric shifted from analysing MSPs' importance to how Rihanna is a lousy icon for Indian women and glorifying abuse against her. As the attention of the media has moved from the relevance of the opinion of international celebrities in Indian politics and some utterly bizarre and outrightly ludicrous beliefs from Indian ones, the Modi government has already moved the Farmers bill in the Rajya Sabha (the equivalent of the Senate in the US) where it will most likely get passed. As of writing this article, Modi is on the way to passing this hugely controversial bill, and will most likely succeed given that his party , the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) has a clear majority in both the lower and the upper house of the Parliament. As an Indian, it has become common to see massive protests, like this one, the previous anti-CAA protests notwithstanding and many many more simply getting fizzled out over time. The attention of the masses easily shifts from these pressing matters to how nepotism is destroying Bollywood and how Hollywood celebrities (and foreign influence) are bad for Indian culture. It saddens me to see how Indian democracy is slowly decaying, and that decay is happening through a thick-skinned government, a divided opposition, a public who has a short memory and a helpless, poor population. 

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