Protests in India and the costs of modernisation

Some of the largest protests in history are taking place in India right now. Thousands upon thousands of farmers have surrounded Delhi and are settling into large makeshift camps in what looks likely to be a protracted struggle.

The issue in question is agricultural laws. India’s agricultural sector is massive and employs just short of half the population. Much of this is concentrated in smallholdings which average just under 3 acres in size.

Today, when farmers want to sell their produce, they must do so in a special wholesale market. Buyers are often government controlled, or operate with a floor under prices. The new laws would allow any private actor with a license to buy agricultural products at market prices, allow farmers to enter into long-term supply contracts, and allow private actors to store commodities, a privilege only granted to government regulated wholesalers today.

Most economists see the reforms as non-controversial common sense; long overdue reforms to India’s highly regulated economy. Farmers are concerned it heralds the end of the various price supports and subsidies they receive, leading to lower prices for their products, and small farms getting hoovered up by large corporations.

The protests intersect uncomfortably with two other recent trends in India :

  • Inequality – India is fast becoming one of the most unequal places on earth, undoubtedly to be made worse by Covid. While these reforms are likely to be beneficial in the long-term, the short-term dislocations could be severe and may increase poverty.
  • Authoritarianism – The laws were passed in a rush, and oppposition parties walked out after some of their members were suspended. The authorities have responded heavy-handedly to the protests, with police and paramilitaries units attacking protestors. Pro-government media has labelled the protests “anti-Indian.” Given how important the farm constituency is to Modi, there will likely be some concessions, but it does point to worrying patterns of law-making and enforcement.

Going even one step further, the whole issue touches on the difficult question of modernization. One of the trademarks of industrial modernization is the transfer of labour from agriculture to industry/services, a process usually accompanied by urbanization. In Europe, this process occurred over centuries, which is good because it comes with significant adjustment costs. People are forced to uproot their lives and move hundreds of miles to unfamiliar cities for work that is often low-skill and low-pay.

If you value modern industrial society (as I do), then the benefits of this process speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the benefits accrue collectively, and may take a generation or two to arrive in full. While I am grateful my ancestors left rural Ireland to start again in Australia, I’m very glad I don’t have to.

That process has been repeated again, to various degrees of completeness and much more rapidly, in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America since WW2. The process has produced many miracles, like South Korea catapulting to high-income status in a generation, or Japan rebuilding itself into the world’s second largest economy after being devastated by war. China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in a few short decades.

A process this transformative is full of political tensions and problems. Even in countries like China or South Korea, where development was managed well, inequality remains a massive problem. Elsewhere, overheated urbanisation, commodity dependence, predatory international actors, and sheer bad luck have left many countries stalled on the escalator of development.

It is on this long escalator of industrialisation and ‘modernisation’ that we should situate India’s situation today. As the following graphs show, the process is very much incomplete.

India faces several unique challenges. Unlike the Asian tigers or Southern Europe, it has a huge population spread out over an enormous landmass. Its people are ethnically and religiously diverse. Unlike China, it boasts a sprawling democracy (the world’s largest), which can make change or decisive action slower. It must also grapple with hundreds of years of direct British colonization.

While these reforms are likely to be very beneficial in the long-run, that is not likely to matter much to farmers who will then be long dead. It will be a question of how the government can smooth the transition, while still ensuring it happens.

4 thoughts on “Protests in India and the costs of modernisation

  1. Greatly enjoying your blog, Lewis.

    This piece, and the question of modernisation/urbanisation in India, reminded me of an excellent address given by Jan Breman on the topic of ‘the great transformation in the setting of Asia’. It’s enlightening and sober reading re: the challenges of industrialisation in an economy characterised by footloose agricultural labour.


    1. Thanks for the feedback Matt, it is really appreciated.

      I will have a look at the piece today, thanks for sharing. I see the speech was hosted by the ISS in the Netherlands. I actually did a year of my Masters there – small world!


  2. When Mr Modi locked down India at four hours notice in March to stop the spread of coronavirus, tens of millions of jobless workers streamed out of the cities and returned to the security of their farmlands. Despite low productivity, land remains the only security for many Indians.


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