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Sensemaker: Indian harvest

Wednesday 27 January 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Britain became the first European country to record more than 100,000 deaths from Covid, and currently has the highest per capita death rate in the world (more below). 
  • Russia and the US agreed to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty for five years.
  • A protester died and more than 80 police were injured as farmers broke into the Red Fort in the heart of Delhi.

Indian harvest

Why would tens of thousands of Indian farmers storm an ancient building in their capital on Republic Day and raise a Sikh flag calculated to enrage their Hindu nationalist government? They fear that agricultural reforms planned by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, will deprive them of their livelihoods. They may be right, but that doesn’t mean Modi is in the wrong. 

  • The grain belt question. India’s farming sector supports half of its 1.4 billion people, but its productivity has plateaued since the 1970s. Its water use and dependence on fertilisers are unsustainable. Wheat and rice growers in the grain belt north and west of Delhi are reliant on price guarantees that cost the state $25 billion a year, and smoke from burning rice stubble periodically poisons the air in the cities of Punjab and Haryana states. 
  • Modi’s answer. Last September the PM used his party’s formidable parliamentary majority to force through laws to end the monopoly currently enjoyed by state-run wholesale markets and make it easier for the private sector to invest in agribusiness. The sell to farmers was that for the first time they would be able to sign long-term contracts with customers and fund their own modernisation. It has not gone down well.
  • Tractor power. Converging from the north, east and west, and organised by powerful unions, huge numbers of farmers have been camped outside Delhi since November in mainly peaceful protest. This week they brought more than 200,000 tractors too, and their occupation of Delhi’s Red Fort on Tuesday was the boldest challenge Modi has faced in six years in power. 

Most of the protesting farmers are Sikhs but this is not mainly a sectarian confrontation. It’s a seismic collision between a socialised farming system more than half a century old on which hundreds of millions of low-income workers depend, and a government that was determined to reform it even before Covid hit. The pandemic has since sent India into its first recession since 1996, squeezing funds for subsidies and sending a wave of perhaps 170 million migrant workers from cities back to the countryside.   

The farmers’ demand is for the September laws to be repealed and Modi has been cautious about enforcing them. One young man on the front line told The Caravan the government faced a no-win situation: “If they do not repeal the law they lose a major vote bank. If they repeal them, they lose their sponsors – the capitalists and agri-business, perhaps other industries too.”

The next move is Modi’s, and it will do a lot to shape post-Covid India.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Tough outlook
The IMF has downgraded its growth forecast for the UK while upgrading it for the world. The fund foresees global growth of 5.5 per cent this year thanks to the gradual rollout of vaccines, but only 4.5 per cent for the UK. That compares with 4.2 per cent on average for the Eurozone but is down from 5.9 per cent when the fund last reviewed the British economy three months ago. What happened in the interim? An infection spike despite two lockdowns. The IMF revised its calculation of the UK’s economic contraction last year, down slightly to 10 per cent but still the worst of the G7. It says the country’s fast vaccination programme will juice the economy, but not till 2022 – and that in the meantime nearly 90 million people will fall into extreme poverty around the world.

New things technology, science, engineering

Crispy fries
In marginally more cheerful news, a Californian start-up has found a way to keep chips / fries relatively crispy while they’re being delivered. The death knell for chips in bags is condensation that turns them soggy. The answer from SAVRPak, founded by an ex-aerospace engineer, is a peel-and-stick patch that limits condensation by lowering the temperature in a food container by up to 5 per cent. It does not, the company insists, make hot food cold. The Washington Post has the scoop.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Biden’s backers
The battle over climate change in the US is shaping up as one between the new administration and allies in industry on the one hand, and senators worried above all about jobs in their home states on the other. The NYT notes that it’s not just Honda, Ford, VW, and GM that have signalled their support for aggressive new carbon emissions rules, but Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP too (by endorsing America’s return to the Paris climate agreement). Meanwhile Senators Mitch McConnell from Kentucky and Joe Manchin from West Virginia don’t share a party affiliation but do share a fondness for “energy independence”. (Translation: let’s stick with coal as long as it employs people back home.) Persuading them and others to trust the federal government to help secure replacement jobs in clean energy is one of Team Biden’s central tasks between now and the midterms.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

‘Everything we could’
As Britain’s Covid death toll passed 100,000 Boris Johnson said his government had done “everything we could”. The Telegraph buried a paraphrased quote about late lockdowns in the 24th paragraph of a story focused otherwise on Johnson’s sorrow for every life lost. But the broader consensus seems to be that the claim to have done everything possible to save lives falls somewhere between grotesque distortion and bald-faced lie. The Mirror has a detailed list of 15 failings including late lockdowns, missed Cobra meetings, neglected care homes, botched travel corridors and inadequate PPE supplies. It’s not enough, as the health secretary suggests, that the prime minister has worked hard. His task is to make good decisions in tough circumstances and the evidence suggests he has made bad ones. It’s essential that his government not be allowed to create a bogus narrative of striving and success before the inquiry it has promised establishes the truth.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Here’s something to look forward to when this is all over: a room in a converted manor house, three meals a day, a shared office and the use of a sauna, a swimming pond and a yoga studio, all for less than the rent on a small flat in the city. The city in this case is Berlin. The countryside is an hour outside it. There are 20 rooms and in fact they’re all already taken, mainly by millennials yearning for company, despite – or because of – the pandemic. Masks and social distancing are required, but kumbaya moments round blazing fires in the gardens are encouraged. The WSJ spots a trend in “co-living” ($). It may not be entirely new, but it sounds good.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images