NEW DELHI, India — On February 2, 2021, Rihanna tweeted out a CNN article covering the Indian government’s suspension of internet access in the area surrounding New Delhi. This internet shutdown was in response to farmers’ protests in India against three controversial agricultural acts. India’s ruling parliamentary majority party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed these acts in September.
“Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest,” her Tweet read.
Agriculture in India
Agriculture accounts for 16% of India’s total GDP; for reference, in the United States, agriculture accounts for 1% total. Additionally, according to data from 2016, agricultural employment accounts for 45.1% of total employment in India. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., approximately 70% of rural households in India depend on farming as a primary source of income.
The agriculture industry in India faces significant challenges with its land productivity compared to other nations, and the government has long failed to prioritize public investment in this sector. Limited water resources pose issues, and in 2013, only 36.8% of the land was irrigated.
Debt burden exists as an increasingly crippling reality for a majority of small farmers in India. According to a 2018 study by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, 52.5% of India’s agricultural households carry debt at an average of $1,470. This exceeds the average annual income of an Indian farming household. Furthermore, reports of elevated rates of suicide among farmers, specifically among women, directly tie into these debt burdens.
India’s economy has recently experienced a downturn due to the pandemic, which has only augmented debt complications. Banks have become more frugal with lending, leading farmers in desperate need of capital to turn to illegal and informal moneylenders. These moneylenders can charge interest rates as high as 60% annually.
Controversial Indian Agricultural Acts
In September 2020, the BJP passed the following three agricultural bills: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act.
Legislative authorities did not thoroughly consult farmers at the village, state and union levels during the creation of these new policies.
There was pushback to the BJP from opposition parties, with complaints that the bills lacked time for due deliberation within a parliamentary committee. Claims that these acts favor corporate interests and the private sector remain, as do concerns about the bills being harmful to small and marginalized farming communities. Public unease that these acts will lead to the abandonment of minimum support prices (MSPs) for crops also persists.
In response to these reforms, farmers began protesting locally and eventually gathered in the New Delhi area. The government response to the farmers’ protests in India has been described as authoritarian in nature. Police employed the use of water cannons and teargas (notably banned from use in warfare, per the 1925 Geneva Protocol) on protestors. Authorities used facial recognition software and surveillance technologies to track down protestors. Additionally, internet service was suspended in the area, preventing communication between the protestors themselves and with the international community.
Rihanna is one of several public figures to speak out about this. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg and British MP Claudia Webbe have done the same. Singer and songwriter Jay Sean also expressed support for the farmers’ protests in India on social media. Author and lawyer Meena Harris, niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, chimed in support as well.
The BJP maintains that concerns about these agriculture acts are misplaced and that the bills will not be repealed. BJP officials are also offering to suspend implementation and have invited protesting farmers to discuss their apprehensions. Yet, the Indian government considers the recent statements on social media by celebrities as “neither accurate nor responsible.” Furthermore, the government has also entered into a dispute with Twitter over content spreading on their platform related to the farmers’ protests in India.
The situation in India highlights how governments can utilize digital technologies for surveillance and censorship. In effect, the obfuscation of public narratives can occur. As such, when public figures such as Rihanna bring attention to the farmers’ protests in India, a countervailing force enters. Ultimately, a factual narrative and an improved future for India’s farming community become more likely with more informed attention.
– Katherine Musgrave