If you've been watching the news — or even just following Rihanna on Twitter — you're likely to know that protests of unprecedented scope — at least one may have been the largest in modern history — and duration are raging across India.
Although they are being called the "farmer protests," the collective protest by millions of Indians — cutting across religion, caste and income lines — is about much more than any agriculture legislation. It is a coming together of desperate people to resist being subjected by their government to increased economic vulnerability.
In India, millions of farmers are protesting to overturn three new agriculture laws the government says are designed to reform India's agricultural sector to make it less state-controlled and more market-based — what economists call liberalizing the sector.
The need for reforms is urgent, and farmers themselves would generally agree that change is sorely needed. My 14 years of doing development economics work in rural India have shown me that farmers face crushing debt, unsustainable groundwater depletion and an epidemic of suicides.
So why, then, are they protesting their own deliverance?
Farmers fear that the new agricultural laws will enable big corporations to snatch up market control in the agricultural sector.
Well, as farmers — and many small-business people — all over the world know, rapid economic liberalization of a sector doesn't guarantee free markets or efficiency, let alone any farmer's livelihood. And it is at least as unlikely in this case as anywhere else — both because of the specifics of these laws and because of how the economy works in India.
For instance, the new laws completely lack the obvious safeguards that should accompany any massive deregulation, including a regulatory framework or safety nets to protect growers against market volatility. Previous government commissions have consistently recommended such measures. Their lack is puzzling if the government is serious about pursuing economic growth in a way that allows smallholder farmers to benefit from it.
Farmers' fears that these laws leave them vulnerable to exploitation weren't assuaged by many of the other provisions. For example, one of the laws prevents farmers from being able to take companies to court if they violate contracts to buy farmers' products in any way. That this provision was ever included is impossible to defend, and it raises understandable concerns about intent.
It's also important to understand the broader economic picture for the farmers (and everyone else in India). In India, monopoly power is commonplace. For example, in one-third of industries, a single company often controls over 50 percent of sales. A mere 20 companies account for 70 percent of all corporate earnings in India (compared to 25 percent in the U.S.).
Rapid economic liberalization of a sector doesn't guarantee free markets or efficiency, let alone any farmer's livelihood.
Farmers fear that the new agricultural laws will enable big corporations to snatch up market control in the agricultural sector as well, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. This is not a fantasy, but a legitimate fear that stems from the government's failure to curb monopolistic power in other sectors. (The tight financial links between major corporations and the ruling BJP party only augment these concerns.)
Economic reforms are undoubtedly needed in Indian agriculture, but it is, at best, naive to assume that simply allowing for free markets will necessarily deliver them. It may, or it may not. For those who are already living on the brink of survival, this is a gamble that feels too risky to blithely undertake on faith alone.
Meanwhile, proponents of the new laws simply argue that the farmers and those supporting them are being misled by propagandists. That view not only insults the dignity of those risking their lives on the highways of Delhi; it also ignores the reality of the Indian economy.
And it ignores the fundamental question the ruling party hasn't answered to anyone's satisfaction: Why weren't provisions built into the laws that would have left farmers feeling protected, thereby paving a middle path that could satisfy all sides? In a functioning democracy, these conversations would have happened during the legislative process, making protests after the laws were passed unnecessary.
But under the right-wing BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India's democracy is hurtling toward dysfunction.
The BJP's increasingly authoritarian bent is blatantly on display in how it has reacted to the largely peaceful farmer protests.
The new agricultural laws were rammed through Parliament during the pandemic without allowing for regular parliamentary procedure and without consulting even a single farmers organization — undermining their perceived legitimacy.
Implementing drastic policy changes without regard for democratic process is, however, the new norm in the Modi government. For instance, in a surprise announcement in 2016, the government abruptly suspended the use of major cash currency. This demonetization broke the back of the Indian economy overnight, with catastrophic results: National GDP growth fell by 13 percent, with the poor bearing the brunt.
This government has already shown a willingness to unilaterally enact sweeping policy changes that expose its most vulnerable people to potential disaster — an approach to governing that is as arrogant as it is cavalier. It isn't an approach designed to engender trust among its constituents.
The BJP's increasingly authoritarian bent is blatantly on display in how it has reacted to the largely peaceful farmer protests. The police beat protesters while they slept on the streets, and right-wing nationalists have used violence to disrupt protest sites. The government suspended internet access for millions of people, and it has cut off electricity and bathroom access for protest camps. Journalists like Mandeep Punia are being picked up and detained. Protestors like Nodeep Kaur are reported to have been tortured and sexually assaulted in jail. National media outlets — many of which have close ties to the government and are owned by the corporations that control so much else in the economy — do little to shine light on these activities.
Why weren't provisions built into the laws that would have left farmers feeling protected, thereby paving a middle path that could satisfy all sides?
Even Twitter has bowed to government pressure by suspending the accounts of journalists, protesters, sympathizers and opposition politicians; while some of these accounts were later restored, Twitter permanently suspended 500 accounts just last week after facing threats from the Modi government. The violent and sexualized threats against Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris for their online statements of support for the farmers reflect a pattern that emerges any time Modi's government is challenged.
The government wants farmers to trust in its benevolence when it designs laws without their input to supposedly benefit them, but it undermines this trust by repressing their dissent to those laws with indifferent cruelty.
There's no doubt that improving farmers' economic fortunes requires liberalizing the agricultural sector and allowing the free market to play more of a central role. But changing how the entirety of Indian agriculture is organized must be done thoughtfully and democratically — and in a way that recognizes that the supply side of the market is made up of human beings.