A farmer throws a teargas shell toward police during a tractor rally as farmers continue to protest against the Indian government's recent agricultural reforms, in New Delhi on January 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Husain

On February 2, the Barbados-born superstar Rihanna asked her 100 million followers, “Why aren’t we talking about this? #farmersprotest!” Rihanna linked her tweet to a CNN story on how India has cut off Internet access around the National Capital Region after clashes between police and protesting farmers on new farm laws approved last September.

Rihanna’s six-word tweet on farmers’ protests in India has caught the attention of millions around the world, including the government of India. The government came out with a statement slamming foreign individuals and entities for comments on the ongoing farmer protests.

The response by the Ministry of External Affairs came after international pop singer Rihanna, environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris, niece of US Vice-President Kamala Harris, extended their support to the farmers’ protest.

This issue has become so complex that the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has called on authorities and protesters in India to “exercise maximum restraint.”

Besides the farmers’ protests, we in India have seen several issues, affecting millions of our countrymen. The question is, why aren’t we talking about these issues?

Unemployment

Compared with December 2019, more than 17 million fewer persons were employed in the country according to latest estimates from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Since September 2020, the total number of employed persons dipped from 398 million to 389 million, indicating that 9 million persons lost their jobs in three months. Why aren’t we talking about creating more jobs in India?

Migrant workers

We saw heart-wrenching visuals of migrants without footwear or food walking to their home villages during the lockdown imposed by the government to control the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19. Visuals of pregnant women, little children, people atop a goods truck, those crushed to death while walking home on railway tracks have been deeply worrying.

Millions of migrant workers were left stranded all across the country. Internal migrants in India number 454 million, or 37% of the population. So why aren’t we talking about these migrant workers?

Informal economy

There are about 400 million Indian workers engaged in the informal economy, which accounts for a staggering 90% of the total workforce, people at risk of falling deeper into the poverty trap because of the Covid-19 crisis. The entire supply chain has been disrupted because of the lockdown, and farmers have suffered a great economic loss.

In India, less than 20% of the working population has some level of assured salaries. The rest are daily wage earners or in small businesses with uncertain and very low average incomes. The proportion of people with vulnerable employment is projected to be above 80%. Why aren’t we talking about these 400 million workers?

Food security

The latest findings of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) have come as a reality check, showing that food security and nutrition in India have worsened since the last NFHS round (2015-16). Among the 22 states and union territories for which the data were released, 18 show either stagnation or worsening of stunting (height-for-age) levels among children under five.

Given the data presented in NFHS-5, the current nutritional status could be more worrying, especially for the poor and the marginalized sections. Globally, India accounts for roughly one-third of the total population of stunted children under the age of five. Why aren’t we talking about this?

Internet access

India restricted Internet use more than any other nation in 2020 and suffered the highest economic cost as a result. The US State Department has said it considers unhindered access to information, including the Internet, a hallmark of a thriving democracy.

Internet shutdowns also hurt the economy. A Top10VPN report said Internet shutdowns that amounted to 8,927 hours cost India US$2.7 billion in 2020. That works out at 20 million rupees or $274,769 per hour. India is the world’s largest democratic country; if Internet access is restricted at such a level, what should we as a country be talking about?

Rape

According to the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), an average of 87 rape cases were reported every day in 2019 in India, an increase of 7% over the previous year, though most rapes are thought to go unreported. Out of the total 32,033 reported rape cases in 2019, around 11% of the victims were members of the scheduled caste community.

The rape vulnerability of a girl or woman in India has increased by as much as 44% in the last 10 years, the NCRB data show. According to the NCRB data, during the period 2010-2019, a total of 313,289 cases were reported across India. Why are we not talking about this?

Political ethics

According to a report by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), nearly half of the current elected members of the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament) are facing criminal charges, a 26% increase as compared with 2014 and a 44% increase when compared with 2009. Why aren’t we talking about bringing people of ethics into the parliamentary system?

Small business

According to a report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) contribute around 6% of the manufacturing GDP and 25% of the services in India. MSMEs also provide direct and indirect employment to around 120 million people in the country. This sector also accounts for 45% of the overall exports from India.

However, there is now concern in some quarters that close to 35% of MSMEs have started shutting their enterprises in the country. Most of these enterprises feel that there is limited chance of recovery in the current situation. The financial package announced by the government is either not adequate to meet their losses or not reaching them as required.

The government has to come up with more support, in terms of plunging liquidity constrains faced by the MSMEs. The focus should be targeted on the more labor-intensive industrial productions such as construction and the manufacturing sector to generate more employment in the country. This in turn can help drive private consumption. Moreover, this has the potential to employ more migrant workers. Why aren’t we talking about this?

Suicide

India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2019, a total of 10,281 farmers and farm laborers took their own lives across the country, according to statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. Skyrocketing agricultural costs forced many farmers to take on more debt, and crop failures over the years eventually destroyed generations of rural families.

Further, the government raised fuel prices in the middle of the pandemic, citing the costs of the lockdown, adding more problems for farmers.

Why aren’t we talking about this?

Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries. The author can be reached at sachisatpathy@yahoo.com

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *