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What awaits the world – depression of markets or minds?

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The head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, has warned that the global economy risks a return to the Great Depression. Speaking at the Peterson Institute of International Economics in Washington, she referred to IMF experts, who compare the current economic trends to the situation that existed at the close of the 1920s and culminated in the great market crash of 1929.

Georgieva pointed to inequality and financial sector instability as the main reasons for the growing threat to global economic stability.

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic recession that started with the stock market crash in the United States in October 1929, and continued until the late 1930s, peaking out between 1929 and 1933.

Apart from the US, the hard-hitting economic downturn also affected Canada, Britain, Germany and France, “and was felt in other countries too.”

Industry, construction, and agricultural production dropped double digits before the first signs of economic recovery appeared in 1939. All this was accompanied by major social upheavals, which played a significant role in precipitating WWII.

The debate about the root causes of the Great Depression continues to this very day. According to some economists, it was the general crisis of capitalism, related to insufficient state intervention and commodity overproduction. Other experts blame the crisis on too much money being in circulation due to excessive emission by central banks. Capital markets were literally showered with money, and dirt-cheap loans encouraged borrowing by businesses, which didn’t worry much about investment profitability. Stocks going through the roof dimmed the people’s view on the real situation on the market. Therefore, the crash was only a matter of time. What the proponents of different approaches agree on, however, is the negative role that financial speculators played in exacerbating the crisis, the inflation of the financial bubble, followed by the collapse of stock exchanges, all of which acted as a “fuse” in the already emerging economic crisis.

Nowadays, more and more international experts are concerned about the prospects of a new global crisis that could hit the world’s financial and economic system in the near future. Some believe that “the global economic crisis is a kind of “sleeping reality,” not yet clearly manifested in the economic activity itself.” Others believe that central banks and governments may “lose control of the situation in the world” already this year.

Macroeconomic and geopolitical factors are equally alarming. International trade is slowing, and it remains unclear how long the present “truce” in the ongoing trade war between the United States and China is going to hold.  The WTO’s work is all but blocked by Washington, and the economies of most EU countries are caught between stagnation and recession. Finally, the Chinese economy is slowing down, which, in turn, is undermining the export capacity of many countries, and threatens to bring down prices on commodity markets.

In the financial sector, imbalances of the “unipolar model of globalization,” where capital keeps accruing to a narrow group of countries that issue global  reserve currencies. In August 2019, experts with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow predicted that the global economic crisis “will happen sometime 18 months from now.” They pointed, among other things, to a drop in indices, as well as to the so-called “inverted yield curve” of the US government debt market, where yields on short-term bonds are higher than those on long-term bonds. Inflation in almost all of the world’s leading economies is below two percent, and interest rates either fluctuate around zero, or tend to decrease. Instability of the financial sector was mentioned among the primary threats also by the head of the IMF.

Kristalina Georgieva named inequality “between different groups of the population” as another factor that could provoke a crisis. 

“This situation is mirrored across much of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), where income and wealth inequality have reached, or are near, record highs,” Georgieva said, adding that “this troubling trend is reminiscent of the early part of the 20th century – when the twin forces of technology and integration led to the first gilded age, the roaring 20s, and, ultimately, financial disaster.”

According to a Credit Suisse Global Wealth report, released in October 2019, just one percent of “super-rich people,” and one to 10 percent – by the “poorest.”

The problem of inequality is something more and more politicians and economists around the world are worried by today. Speaking at the UN General Assembly, the organization’s secretary general, Antonio Guterres, called the growing public mistrust of public institutions one of the “four horsemen” threatening the world. And one of the reasons for this growing mistrust is that two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries where the “income gap between rich and poor” is widening. “Ordinary people” are losing trust in the elite, Foreign Policy magazine agrees, and names other reasons for this, including “growing economic and social inequality” and “a lack of prospects for a brighter future.” The magazine believes that if unable to address this problem, the world’s high and mighty will face an “anti-elite rebellion.”

The question is whether the problem of inequality is more of a political nature, or whether it becoming a macroeconomic factor that determines the situation and prospects of the global economy. In an interview with Business FM, Alfa Bank chief economist Natalya Orlova said that “inequality is a concern for everyone, it really is the main economic problem the world is facing today.” Indeed, the unsolved problem of inequality can become a leading factor in a new phase of a global economic downturn. “The problems of inequality did not arise yesterday, so we do not know how long it will take to turn into a precursor of an economic crisis and an economic crisis itself,” Orlova added.

Proponents of this standpoint link the problem of inequality to the spread of populism with populist politicians coming to the fore in Europe and South and Central America. Many Asian leaders are also ranked by experts as populists. US President Donald Trump is often called the world’s number one populist who has been waging a trade war with the world’s second economy,  China, for two years now. Together, these two countries account for at least 35 percent of the global GDP, and the financial and economic escalation between Washington and Beijing is already reflecting badly on the economic performance of most countries of the world. Thus, populist trends in world politics pose new threats for the economy, as they increase uncertainty.

The crisis of social trust, caused by the growth of inequality, negatively affects the mood in the business community as well. The overall psychological atmosphere and the opinion that millions of people have about the existing situation play a crucial role in the economy, as John Maynard Keynes said. When the mood in society is far from optimistic, this inevitably affects the “state of mind” of businessmen and financiers, and even a small push or a combination of several small “shocks” is enough for the economy to start going under, just like it happened in the early 1990s. According to Bob Moritz, chairman of the PwC international consulting company, chief executives around the world are showing record levels of pessimism that are much lower than what they did in 2018. This is not so much due to the new problems the global economy is facing today though. “What is new here is the scale and speed these problems are growing at.”

There are optimists, however, who are convinced that “there will be no Great Depression, of course,” although they admit that we still should brace up for a possible recession. There are no objective prerequisites for a global economic meltdown since the growth, especially in the stock markets over the past 20 years, is primarily associated with the advent of new technologies, which require “fewer production facilities” to ensure previous volumes of production.  As for the problem of inequality, critics claim that it is being unnecessarily demonized by left-wing political forces around the world, who are playing on voter’s fears.

Meanwhile, the problem of inequality is more complicated than left-minded people tend to think. “There is reason to talk not just about some smoothing, but about a dramatic reduction in global inequality levels over the past few decades.” Moreover, the “level of inequality” directly depends on how it is measured. For example, inequality in terms of “consumption” is usually several times smaller than when measured in terms of “income.” Finally, “establishing a quantitative measure of inequality does not contain any direct normative and political implications.” Abject poverty is certainly a challenge for society, “but there is no challenge in increasing the Gini coefficient from 0.40 to 0.45.” The relationship between inequality and the dynamics of social conflicts is less obvious though. According to numerous studies, social conflicts are not so much caused by objective income gaps between the poor and the rich, as by the subjective perception of the situation by society the dynamics of “demand for redistribution” depend on.

Still, most economists worldwide are confident that economic growth directly affects inequality, which can be reduced with the help of redistribution mechanisms. This opinion is echoed by some international economic organizations, with UN experts arguing that technological progress not only stimulates economic growth “and creates new opportunities,” but also increases inequality due to the uneven “access to technology in different countries.”

Finally, we should also keep in mind the fact that present-day imbalances are accumulating in stock markets, just like they did in the late 1920s.  Their uprush could lead to a short-term crisis by the end of this year, or in early-2021, for example, after the presidential election in the United States. Experts at the Higher School of Economics Market Research Center point to the so-called Juglar cycles, “the phenomenon of the average cyclic wave, followed by a crisis.”

“The year 2021 will mark 12 years since the crisis of 2008-2009. These 12 years are the middle wave and are the harbingers of a crisis. It is during this 12-year cycle that all financial bubbles are inflated in.” There is always hope, however, as most experts admit that modern economic science is still unable to predict the exact timing and depth of the next global crisis.

From our partner International Affairs

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Iran has an integral role to play in Russian-South Asian connectivity

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Iran is geostrategically positioned to play an integral role in Russian-South Asian connectivity. President Putin told the Valdai Club during its annual meeting in October 2019 that “there is one more prospective route, the Arctic – Siberia – Asia.

The idea is to connect ports along the Northern Sea Route with ports of the Pacific and Indian oceans via roads in East Siberia and central Eurasia.” This vision, which forms a crucial part of his country’s “Greater Eurasian Partnership”, can be achieved through the official North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) and tentative W-CPEC+ projects that transit through the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The first one refers to the creation of a new trade route from Russia to India through Azerbaijan and Iran, while the second concerns the likely expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC, the flagship project of China’s Belt & Road Initiative [BRI]) westward through Iran and largely parallel to the NSTC. W-CPEC+ can also continue towards Turkey and onward to the EU, but that branch is beyond the scope of the present analysis. The NSTC’s terminal port is the Indian-backed Chabahar, but delays in fully developing its infrastructure might lead to Bandar Abbas being used as a backup in the interim.

CPEC’s Chinese-backed terminal port of Gwadar is in close proximity to Chabahar, thus presenting the opportunity of eventually pairing the two as sister cities, especially in the event that rumored negotiations between China and Iran result in upwards of several hundred billion dollars worth of investments like some have previously reported. The combination of Russian, Indian, and Chinese infrastructure investments in Iran would greatly improve the country’s regional economic competitiveness and enable it to fulfill its geostrategic destiny of facilitating connectivity between Russia and South Asia.

What’s most intriguing about this ambitious vision is that Iran is proving to the rest of the world that it isn’t “isolated” like the U.S. and its closest allies thought that it would be as a result of their policy of so-called “maximum pressure” against it in recent years. While it’s true that India has somewhat stepped away from its previously strategic cooperation with Iran out of fear that it’ll be punished by “secondary sanctions” if it continued its pragmatic partnership with the Islamic Republic, it’s worthwhile mentioning that Chabahar curiously secured a U.S. sanctions waiver.

While the American intent behind that decision is unclear, it might have been predicated on the belief that the Iranian-facilitated expansion of Indian influence into Central Asia via Chabahar might help to “balance” Chinese influence in the region. It could also have simply been a small but symbolic “concession” to India in order not to scare it away from supporting the U.S. anti-Chinese containment strategy. It’s difficult to tell what the real motive was since American-Indian relations are currently complicated by Washington’s latest sanctions threats against New Delhi in response to its decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense systems.

Nevertheless, even in the worst-case scenario that Indian investment and infrastructural support for Iran can’t be taken for granted in the coming future, that still doesn’t offset the country’s geostrategic plans. Russia could still use the NSTC to connect with W-CPEC and ultimately the over 200+ million Pakistani marketplaces. In theory, Russian companies in Pakistan could also re-export their home country’s NSTC-imported goods to neighboring India, thereby representing a pragmatic workaround to New Delhi’s potential self-interested distancing from that project which could also provide additional much-needed tax revenue for Islamabad.

Iran must therefore do its utmost to ensure Russia’s continued interest in the NSTC regardless of India’s approach to the project. Reconceptualizing the NSTC from its original Russian-Indian connectivity purpose to the much broader one of Russian-South Asian connectivity could help guarantee Moscow’s support. In parallel with that, Tehran would do well to court Beijing’s investments along W-CPEC+’s two branch corridors to Azerbaijan/Russia and Turkey/EU. Any success on any of these fronts, let alone three of them, would advance Iran’s regional interests by solidifying its integral geo-economic role in 21st-century Eurasia.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The phenomenon of land grabbing by multinationals

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Since 2012 the United Nations has adopted voluntary guidelines for land and forest management to combat land grabbing. But only a few people know about the guidelines, which aim to protect small farmers particularly in Third World countries.

When multinational investors buy up fields for their huge plantations, the residents lose their livelihood and means of support and will soon only be sleeping in their villages. If they are lucky, they might find work with relatives in another village. Many also try their luck in the city, but poverty and unemployment are high. What remains are depopulated villages and the huge palm oil plantations that have devoured farmland. People can no longer go there to hunt and grow plants or get firewood. The land no longer belongs to them!

Land grabbingis the process whereby mostly foreign investors deprive local farmers or fishermen of their fields, lakes and rivers. Although it has been widely used throughout history, land grabbing – as used in the 21st century – mainly refers to large-scale land acquisitions following the global food price crisis of 2007-2008.

From 2000 until 2019 one hundred million hectares of land have been sold or leased to foreign investors and the list of the most affected countries can be found here below:

Such investment may also make sense for the development of a country, but it must not deprive people of their rights: local people are starving while food is being produced and turned into biofuels for export right before their eyes.

In 2012, after three years of discussion, the UN created an instrument to prevent such land grabbing: the VGGTs (Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security:

Detailed minimum standards for investment are established, e.g. the participation of affected people or how to safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples and prevent corruption. Formally, the document provides a significant contribution to all people fighting for their rights.

The document, however, is quite cryptic. The guidelines should be simplified and explained. Only in this way can activists, but also farmers and fishermen, become aware of their rights.

Others doubt that much can be achieved through these guidelines because they are voluntary. After all, the UN has little or no say in the matter and can do no more than that. If governments implemented them, they would apply them as they will.

In Bolivia, for example, there are already laws that are supposed to prevent land grabbing. In the Amazon, however, Brazilian and Argentinian companies are buying up forests to grow soya and sugar cane, often with the approval and agreement of corrupt government officials. Further guidelines would probably be of little use.

At most, activists already use the guidelines to lobby their governments. Together with other environmental and human rights activists, they set up networks: through local radio stations and village meetings, they inform people of the fact that they right to their land.

Nevertheless, in many countries in Africa and elsewhere, there is a lack of documentation proving land ownership. Originally, tribal leaders vocally distributed rights of use. But today’s leaders are manipulated to pressure villagers to sell their land.

The biggest investors are Indians and Europeans: they are buying up the land to grow sugar cane and palm oil plantations. This phenomenon has been going on since 2008: at that time – as noted above – the world food crisis drove up food prices and foreign investors, but also governments, started to invest in food and biofuels.

Investment inland, which has been regarded as safe since the well-known financial crisis, must also be taken into account. Recently Chinese companies have also been buying up thousands of hectares of land.

In some parts of Africa, only about 6% of land is cultivated for food purposes, while on the remaining areas there are palm oil plantations. Once the plantations grow two or three metres high, they have a devastating effect on monocultures that rely on biodiversity, because of the huge areas they occupy. There is also environmental pollution due to fertilisers: in a village, near a plantation run by a Luxembourg company, many people have suffered from diarrhoea and some elderly villagers even died.

Consequently, the implementation of the VGGTs must be made binding as soon as possible. But with an organisation like the United Nations, how could this happen?

It is not only the indigenous peoples or the local groups of small farmers that are being deprived of everything. The common land used is also being lost, as well as many ecosystems that are still intact: wetlands are being drained, forests cleared and savannas turned into agricultural deserts. New landowners fence off their areas and deny access to the original owners. In practice, this is the 21st century equivalent of the containment of monastery land in Europe that began in the Middle Ages.

The vast majority of contracts are concentrated in poorer countries with weak institutions and land rights, where many people are starving. There, investors compete with local farmers. The argument to which the advocates of land grabbing hold -i.e. that it is mainly uncultivated land that needs to be reclaimed – is refuted. On the contrary, investors prefer well-developed and cultivated areas that promise high returns. However, they do not improve the supply of local population.

Foreign agricultural enterprises prefer to develop the so-called flexible crops, i.e. plants such as the aforementioned oil palm, soya and sugar cane, which, depending on the market situation, can be sold as biofuel or food.

But there is more! If company X of State Y buys food/fuel producing areas, it is the company that sells to its State Y and not the host State Z that, instead, assigns its future profits derived from international State-to-State trade to the aforementioned multinational or state-owned company of State Y.

Furthermore, there is almost no evidence of land investment creating jobs, as most projects were export-oriented. The British aid organisation Oxfam confirms that many land acquisitions took place in areas where food was being grown for the local population. Since local smallholders are generally weak and poorly educated, they can hardly defend themselves against the grabbing of the land they use. Government officials sell or lease it, often without even paying compensation.

Land grabbing is also present in ‘passive’ Europe. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Lithuania and Bulgaria are affected, but also the territories of Eastern Germany. Funds and agricultural enterprises from “active” and democratic Europe, i.e. the West, and the Arab Gulf States are the main investors.

We might think that the governments of the affected countries would have the duty to protect their own people from such expropriations. Quite the reverse. They often support land grabbing. Obviously, corruption is often involved. In many countries, however, the agricultural sector has been criminally neglected in the past and multinationals are taking advantage of this under the pretext of remedying this situation.

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No let-up in Indian farmers’ protest due to subconscious fear of “crony capitalism”

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The writer has analysed why the farmers `now or never’ protest has persisted despite heavy odds. He is of the view that the farmers have the subconscious fear that the “crony capitalism” would eliminate traditional markets, abolish market support price and grab their landholdings. Already the farmers have been committing suicides owing to debt burden, poor monthly income (Rs. 1666 a month) and so on.”Crony capitalism” implies nexus between government and businesses that thrives on sweetheart deals, licences and permits eked through tweaking rules and regulations.

Stalemate between the government and the farmers’ unions is unchanged despite 11 rounds of talks. The farmers view the new farm laws as a ploy to dispossess them of their land holdings and give a free hand to tycoons to grab farmers’ holdings, though small.

Protesters allege the new laws were framed in secret understanding with tycoons. The farmers have a reason to abhor the rich businesses. According to an  a  January 2020 Oxfam India’s richest one  per cent hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70 per cent  of the country’s population. India’s top nine billionaires’ Inc one is equivalent to wealth of the bottom 50 per cent of the population. The opposition has accused the government of “crony capitalism’.

Government has tried every tactic in its tool- kit to becloud the movement (sponsored y separatist Sikhs, desecrated Republic Day by hoisting religious flags at the Red ford, and so on). The government even shrugged off the protest by calling it miniscule and unrepresentative of 16.6 million farmers and 131,000 traders registered until May 2020. The government claims that it has planned to build 22,000 additional mandis (markets) 2021-22 in addition to already-available over 1,000 mandis.

Unruffled by government’s arguments, the opposition continues to accuse the government of being “suit-boot ki sarkar” and an ardent supporter of “crony capitalism” (Ambani and Adani). Modi did many favours to the duo. For instance they were facilitated to join hands with foreign companies to set up defence-equipment projects in India. BJP-ruled state governments facilitated the operation of mines in collaboration with the Ambani group  just years after the Supreme Court had cancelled the allotment of 214 coal blocks for captive mining (MS Nileema, `Coalgate 2.0’, The Caravan March 1, 2018). Modi used Adani’s aircraft in March, April and May 2014 for election campaigning across the country.

“Crony capitalism” is well defined in the English oxford Living Dictionaries, Cambridge and Merriam –Webster. Merriam-Webster defines “crony capitalism” as “an economic system in which individuals and businesses with political connections and influence are favored (as through tax breaks, grants, and other forms of government assistance) in ways seen as suppressing open competition in a free market

If there’s one”.

Cambridge dictionary defines the term as “ an economic system in which family members and friends of government officials and business leaders are given unfair advantages in the form of jobs, loans, etc.:government-owned firms engaged in crony capitalism”.

A common point in all the definitions is undue favours (sweetheart contracts, licences, etc) to select businesses. It is worse than nepotism as the nepotism has a limited scope and life cycle. But, “crony capitalism” becomes institutionalized.

Modi earned the title “suit-boot ki sarkar” when a non-resident Indian, Rameshkumar Bhikabhai virani gifted him a Rs. 10 lac suit. To save his face, Modi later auctioned the suit on February 20, 2015. The suit fetched price of Rs, 4, 31, 31311 or nearly four hundred times the original price. Modi donated the proceeds of auction to a fund meant for cleaning the River Ganges. `It was subsequently alleged that the Surat-based trader Laljibhai Patel who bought the suit had been favoured by being allotted government land for building  a private sports club (BJP returns ‘favour’, Modi suit buyer to get back land, Tribune June21, 2015).

Miffed by opposition’s vitriolic opposition, Ambani’s $174 billion conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd. Categorically denied collusion with Modi’s government earlier this month. Reliance clarified that it had never done any contract farming or acquired farm land, and harboured no plans to do so in future. It also vowed to ensure its suppliers will pay government-mandated minimum prices to farmers. The Adani Group also had clarified last month that it did not buy food grains from farmers or influence their prices.

Modi-Ambani-Adani nexus

Like Modi, both Adani and Ambani hail from the western Indian state of Gujarat, just, who served as the state’s chief for over a decade. Both the tycoons are reputed to be Modi’s henchmen. Their industry quickly aligns its business strategies to Modi’s nation-building initiatives. For instance, Adani created a rival regional industry lobby and helped kick off a biannual global investment summit in Gujarat in 2003 that boosted Modi’s pro-business credentials. During 2020, Ambani raised record US$27 billion in equity investments for his technology and retail businesses from investors including Google and Face book Inc. He wants to convert these units into a powerful local e-commerce rival to Amazon.com Inc. and Wal-Mart Inc. The Adani group, which humbly started off as a commodities trader in 1988, has grown rapidly to become India’s top private-sector port operator and power generator.

Parallel with the USA

Ambani and Adani are like America’s Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s in the USA’s Gilded Age in the second half of the 19th century (James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: a Journey through India’s New Gilded Age).

Modi government’s tutelage of Ambanis and Adanis is an open secret. Kerala challenged Adani’s bid for an airport lease is. A state minister said last year that Adani winning the bid was “an act of brazen cronyism.”

Threat of elimination of traditional markets

Farmers who could earlier sell grains and other products only at neighbouring government-regulated wholesale markets can now sell them across the country, including the big food processing companies and retailers such as WalMart.

The farmers fear the government will eventually abolish the wholesale markets, where growers were assured of a minimum support price for staples like wheat and rice, leaving small farmers at the mercy of corporate agri-businesses.

Is farmers’ fear genuine?

The farmers have a logical point. Agriculture yield less profit than industry. As such, even the USA heavily subsidies its agriculture. US farmers got more than $22 billion in government payments in 2019, the highest level of farm subsidies in the last 14 years, and the corporate sector paid for it. The Indian government is reluctant to give a permanent legal guarantee for the MSP. In contrast, the US and Western Europe buy directly from the farmers and build their butter and cheese mountains. Even the prices of farm products at the retail and wholesale levels are controlled by the capitalist government. In short, not the principles of capitalization but well-worked-out welfare measures are adopted to sustain the farm sector in the advanced West.

Threat of monopsonic exploitation

The farmers would suffer double exploitation under a monopsony (more sellers less buyers) at the hands of corporate sharks.  They would pay less than the minimum support price to the producers. Likewise, consumers will have to pay more because the public distribution system is likely to be undermined as mandi (regulated wholesale market) procurement is would eventually cease to exist.

Plight of the Indian farmer

The heavily indebted Indian farmer has average income of only about Rs. 20000 a year (about Rs. 1666 a month). Thousands of farmers commit suicide by eating pesticides to get rid of their financial difficulties.

A study by India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that more than half of farmers in India are in debt. More than 20,000 people involved in the farming sector died by suicide from 2018-2019, with several studies suggesting that being in debt was a key factor.

More than 86 per cent of India’s cultivated farmland is owned by small farmers who own less than two hectares of land each (about two sports fields). These farmers lack acumen to bargain with bigger companies. Farmers fear the Market Support Price will disappear as corporations start buying their produce.

Concluding remarks

Modi sarkar is unwilling to yield to the farmers’ demand for fear of losing his strongman image and Domino Effect’. If he yields on say, the matter of the farm laws, he may have to give in on the Citizenship Amendment Act also. Fund collection in some foreign countries has started to sustain the movement. As such, the movement may not end anytime soon. Unless Modi yields early, he would suffer voter backlash in coming elections. The farm sector contributes only about 15 per cent of India’s $2.9 trillion economy. But, it employs around half its 1.3 billion people. 

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