India’s agitating farmers show no signs of fading away. Angry cultivators have been camped on the doorstep of Delhi for weeks through north India’s bitingly cold winter. They have shown a talent for staying in the headlines as well, with attention-grabbing stunts such as staging a tractor convoy to rival India’s official Republic Day parade.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government looks rattled. But it should hold firm. The reforms that have so incensed protesters go further in addressing Indian agriculture’s most intractable problems than any previously contemplated. Those changes need to be protected, not abandoned.
Three new laws in particular, passed hastily and in open defiance of parliamentary norms last year, sparked off the agitation. Now the federal agriculture minister, who has been deputed to negotiate with the protesters, has offered to postpone implementation. This follows a series of other concessions in December.
The farmers camped out near Delhi, however, are campaigning against a whole slew of reform measures both real and imagined. They want a total and immediate repeal of the laws passed last year. In addition, they want the government to guarantee that the current system of state-run procurement of rice and wheat will continue indefinitely – even though it hasn’t been threatened yet.
The farmers recognize they have got the government playing defense. There are cracks even within the ruling establishment. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s parent organization, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has hinted that the government should compromise.
This isn’t a surprise. In spite of the rhetoric of its men in government, the RSS has never been sold on the whole “market economy” idea. Still, it’s remarkably disappointing that the government seems willing to roll back some of its most substantial reforms to date because of the vocal opposition of the country’s most heavily subsidized and richest agricultural producers.
Let’s not beat about the bush here: The government has already conceded too much. It has, for example, agreed to protect farmers’ access to free electricity. This is not just unaffordable, it holds back the modernization of India’s power sector and thus the growth of renewable energy. Authorities have also promised they won’t go after farmers who burn agricultural waste – a major contributor to air pollution across India’s northern plains, home to almost all of the world’s most unhealthy cities.
What’s at risk isn’t just a couple of laws, but India’s commitment to the transition to a more environmentally sustainable and equitable growth model. In their demand that unsustainable practices continue into a new and more environmentally conscious age, the protesters are reminiscent of France’s gilets jaunes more than anything else. And Modi’s government seems more inclined to buckle than even French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron’s – even though Modi, with a 78% approval rating, is far more politically secure than Macron.