India’s lesson on rushed reforms for farmers

Mass protests against liberalizing agricultural markets show why progress must come with consensus.

Protesters eat a meal on a highway during mass protests in New Delhi, India, Dec. 8.

Most societies and their leaders tend toward continuity – stable economic growth, steady foreign alliances, modest swings in policy. But the arc of progress can be punctuated by periods of disruption – whether wars, technological breakthroughs, natural disasters, or social movements. In India, which could soon have the world’s largest population, such a disruption may be afoot.

In the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have staged protests against three new laws aiming at ending price supports for agriculture and enabling farmers to sell crops directly to markets rather than through the government. The number of people affected by this change is huge. Nearly two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people depend on farming. Nearly 85% of farmers cultivate fields of less than five acres. 

For many economists and political leaders, the need for the reforms is obvious. A decades-old system of price supports to ensure a minimum return for producers and low food prices for consumers is failing, leaving more than half of all farmers overburdened by debt. In 2018 and 2019, more than 20,000 farmers took their own lives. 

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power six years ago, he promised to double farmers’ income by 2022. Failing to make progress toward that goal, his government enacted the three laws in September. They argued the reforms would empower farmers and further a long-term shift from a semi-socialist economy to one of regulated free markets and high investments. Yet the reforms were rushed through parliament without much consultation. Farmers worry that they will be unable to compete with large commercial interests without support. They demand not only repeal of the laws but better crop prices, loan waivers, and new irrigation systems to cope with drought. The protesters have blocked many transportation corridors into the capital, New Delhi. 

As the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr. Modi has presided over a period of divisiveness in India. Some of his reforms have disrupted both the economy and society. In 2016, for example, he tried to fight corruption by demonetizing the national currency, creating a cash crisis and long lines of panicked citizens outside banks. New laws barring interfaith marriage and excluding Muslim immigrants from neighboring countries have exacerbated class and ethnic tensions. 

The farmer protests, wrote Indian journalist Barkha Dutt in The Washington Post, “are a reminder that there is a value in consensus. Even the most popular leaders sometimes need to listen to what the streets say.” Reforms are often necessary, driven by grand principles (equal justice, market economies) and urgent goals (fixing climate change or mass human displacement). But to meet the needs and aspirations that impel them, they must come with a strong measure of consensus and even kindness.

The BJP’s partner, the Sikh-dominated Shiromani Akali Dal party, has quit the ruling coalition in protest. Talks between the government and farmers have yet to reach a compromise. Even so, some protesting farmers have set up kitchens to feed the police battling them. Gestures like that speak to higher motives and aims. This disruption in India could still lead to progress. But Indians, working together, may need to change how they get there.

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