The standoff is growing more tense. Protests turned violent on India’s Republic Day last month when marchers broke through police lines and briefly occupied the capital’s Red Fort. Two weeks ago, police surrounded the farmers’ encampments and cut off their phone and internet access, prompting a rebuke from the Biden administration. On Feb. 6, protesters blocked highways across the country.
The farmers say they’re battling for their fragile livelihoods. They fear that the new laws, which allow them to enter into advance contracts with buyers and sell their produce outside state-controlled markets, will expose them to exploitation by powerful corporations and cartels. Worse, they worry the reforms will mean an end to the government purchases of rice and wheat that have long propped up their incomes. They’re demanding the laws be repealed and the government guarantee minimum prices for their crops.
There’s no question Indian agriculture needs reform. Most of the country’s farms are tiny and unproductive. Some 60% of Indians depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their living, yet the sector accounts for barely 16% of India’s GDP. The new laws would ultimately benefit farmers — by freeing them from rapacious middlemen, increasing competition among buyers and raising prices, and assuring demand in advance for their crops.
But the government shouldn’t ignore the farmers’ fears. It ought to add provisions that guard against exploitation by unscrupulous buyers, and amend the law to let farmers take disputes to court. It also needs to devise a safety net that will protect farmers against sudden shortfalls in income.
Just as important, the government should be willing to listen. Ruling party officials were foolish to ram the reforms through Parliament in September without explaining and building support for them first. Lately they’ve compounded that error by tarring some protest leaders, their international supporters and journalists covering the movement as seditious troublemakers.
Protesters have rejected the government’s offer to suspend the reforms for 18 months. To overcome their resistance, Modi will need to draw on his personal popularity, meeting directly with protest leaders and consulting with opposition politicians, while making his case to the country. If he wants a truce, he should lead the peace talks himself.