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Why Indian farmers movement is backed by Rihanna

 Farmers take part in a tractor rally as the protest in New Delhi [Photo: AFP via Getty Images]

Farmers in India are rallying on tractors and blockading railways as they demand a stop to agricultural reforms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the eye of a storm of discontent over his controversial agricultural reforms.

The Indian Government's new farming laws are throwing Indian politics into disarray, and the months of protests have succeeded in attracting high-profile celebrity support. Rihanna expressed solidarity for the farmers - angering the Indian government with her message calling attention to their plight. T

he star, who is popular with Indian audiences, tweeted about the protests to her more than 100million followers, writing: “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” Modi's regime appeared burned by the endorsement of its critics from figures including young climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, and US Vice President Kamala Harris' niece, the lawyer and activist Meena Harris. 

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His government condemned "sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others”. In spite of the attempt to discredit advocacy from the West, the celebs have managed to draw wider attention to an economic problem that threatens to weaken India's populist leader's grip on power.

 Rihanna [Photo: Courtesy]

But what is it all about? Here's what you need to know about the Indian farmers' protests that have inspired sympathy demonstrations in the UK and around the world.

Where are protests taking place?

Tens of thousands of farmers, largely from India's north, have blocked roads leading into New Delhi for more than two months. They have set up camp, sheltering in tractors from the cold and blockading railways, as volunteers from surrounding villages ferry food and supplies to support their cause.

Their protest has caught attention thousands of miles away, recently even inspiring a sympathy protest in Birmingham. The cause is being taken up in particular by concerned Sikh communities around the world -including among the estimated 700,000 Brits with Punjabi heritage - many of whom maintain strong ties with India.

Many British-Indians who have a strong interest in the country's political affairs, are worried about friends and family in the country. Labour Slough MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi has led calls from MPs for Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, to take an interest.

They sent a letter urging him to raise concerns about the farmers' plight with India's High Commission in the UK. A cross-party letter from MPS highlighted debt-ridden farmers' tragic suicides, and saying the tragedy was affecting the vast majority of Sikhs in the UK who have ties to agricultural land in India. Supporters abroad are worried farmers in India will be left at the mercy of powerful multinationals by Modi's reforms, and risk being plunged into further poverty.

 Farmers work in a field on the outskirts of Amritsar as the protests continue (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

The Sikh Council UK in recent weeks backed the protesting farmers, repeating allegations Modi's government had cut the internet, water and electricity to protest sites, fostered paramilitary activity, and arrested journalists. The council warned the world's eyes were on potential human rights violations in India. "We urge the Government of India to consider the human impact of the agrarian crisis and act compassionately towards the protesters, many of whom are elderly," leaders said.

Why are the farmers protesting?

Full agreement on any topic in a country with a population of 1.3billion is tough - if not impossible - to achieve. But there is one thread of consensus in this complex saga. Observers agree that too many farmers are struggling to make a living, and many Indians support the need to overhaul the country's vast agricultural economy.

But views on exactly how that economic engine should be run is where the viewpoints depart. Modi's agricultural reforms have angered farmers who believe privatisation will leave them vulnerable to corporate greed.

The protest movement is centred on New Delhi and is being led by Sikh farmers from Punjab, in India’s north, the country's bread-basket region,where rice and wheat is produced. The leader brought in new farming laws last summer designed to shift agricultural markets from state control to the private sphere.

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That means rather than selling to the government markets, farmers can ply their trade directly with private buyers.

Why are the farmers angry?

Modi's broad argument is that a shift to private enterprise will make the agricultural sector more competitive. He is telling farmers that cutting out the 'middle man' will stop others from creaming off their profits.

 Villagers in a northern Indian village prepare supplies for the protesters (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

The government says this will make agricultural markets for trade in grains more efficient and attract more investment. But this is not how the reforms are being viewed by many farmers. Used to selling in government-controlled markets, grain growers worry that the changes will leave them vulnerable to exploitation by powerful corporations they fear could ruin their livelihoods.

The protesters claim that allowing big retailers to buy directly from growers will mean the end of long-standing guaranteed prices for their crops they got from the state. They fear the reforms will strip back government regulation of prices and leave them vulnerable to the whims of big business.

Speaking to the BBC, a commentator boiled the argument down for British audiences with a neat analogy. OpenDemocracy writer Sunny Hundal explained: "It's a bit like putting a corner shop next to a Tesco and saying to them 'go and compete against each other.'

He continued: "There's no doubt that India's three new farm laws and its whole agricultural system need modernisation. The problem is that you're putting these small businessmen (in a position) saying 'go and compete with these giant multinationals.' What's going to happen? They're going to go and squeeze these small farmers, and I think that's the biggest worry for a lot of them."

What's the problem with the current farming methods?

Boiling it down to the basics, the issues are two-fold. There is an economic issue, and an overlapping environmental one. The multitrillion-pound agricultural industry is worth about 15% of India’s economy and employs nearly half of the country's workforce.

The global Green Revolution of the 1960s bought high-yielding wheat and rice seeds to India, providing a solution for a hungry country reeling from food shortages. To encourage the growth of an agricultural sector and feed the poor, the government of the day purchased grains from farmers at prices that made selling profitable for them, and then distributed the rice and wheat to India's masses for a small fee.

 Farmers are concerned about the shift to a private market system (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

As farmers continued producing more and more grain to sell to the state in the decades since, the intensive farming methods drained the water table, and crop burn-offs caused heavy pollution. Modi's government is today faced with a massive grain surplus, with millions who struggle financially lacking the purchasing power to buy it. India has for years been producing too much rice and wheat, and the state is struggling to maintain storage of millions of tonnes of the cereals.

By comparison, other crops produced in India are already traded in ways more recognisable to Western markets. Crops like lentils and oilseeds are already sold directly by farmers to private traders. Farmers in the UK and elsewhere in the world will be familiar with a problem posed by this strategy.

In many cases, the farmers trading with massive multinationals end up reaping barely a fraction of the price of the product by the time it hits the shop shelves. Some are left feeling cheated, and struggle as they are forced to keep their prices low to compete for retailers' trade.

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Modi's farm laws' goals aim to shift more wheat and rice sales onto the private market, and cut back limits on how much buyers can hold in stores. Critics backing the farmers say this amounts to full deregulation - the government washing its hands of public grains procurement without maintaining a stake.

Mekhala Krishnamurthy, a social anthropologist at Ashoka University, explained the problem to the Financial Times: "The idea that you have changed the law and everything else will follow will not work. “The assumption that the only thing preventing the private sector from investing was regulation is not true.” If consumers can't afford a more expensive product - a growing problem as the coronavirus pandemic hits India's economy - then the farmers fear they themselves will bear the burden, Krishnmurthy said.

What does India's government say?

Modi's government has characterised the protesters as 'extremists'. Some influential Bollywood stars and cricket players have thrown their support behind his government. New Delhi is casting the demonstrations as a Sikh revolt, pointing to the scenes of turban-wearing farmers staging demonstrations in their thousands. That framing has sparked concern the rift will stir up religious divisions in the country.

 A clash over the protests in Singhu (Image: AFP via Getty Images)

The farmers protesting are largely from the wheat and rice-growing state of Punjab in the country's north where Sikhism is the most practised religion, while Hinduism is considered the de facto faith nationally. “A very small section of farmers” had issues with the new laws and some groups had tried to mobilise international support against India by appealing to Western celebrities, the government claimed. “Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” India's foreign ministry told international media.

The protests, which began late last year, have been largely peaceful, but in recent weeks demonstrators have clashed with police in Delhi. Police, at points, has cut off the internet in what protesters say is an attempt to silence them. They drove nails into roads and topped barricades around main protest camps with razor wire to prevent farmers from entering Delhi again.

Rakesh Singh Vidhuri, a Punjab farmer, told Reuters the movement was bringing together growers from across India’s breadbasket region - not only Sikhs - who are all concerned at the wider economic impact. “The protests have spread because these laws will impact the livelihood of farmers and Indian agriculture overall,” he said.

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