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Could Covid-19 act as a catalyst for Indian MSMEs to become globally competitive?

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Authors: Dr Neha Arora& Rishika Nayyar*

The COVID-19 crisis is a challenge never witnessed before and many economies are bound to shrink as a result of demand and supply shocks. It is expected that COVID-19 crisis could have a far more devastating impact on the world economy than the global financial crisis of 2008-09.Like any other crisis, the present one has exposed the vulnerabilities of existing structures and practices, forced the change in status-quo and, at the same time, opened new window of opportunities.

The Medium, Small and Micro Enterprises (MSME) sector is the most vibrant and crucial industrial sector for the Indian economy. The sector provides employment to over 130 million people and contributes to nearly 30% of GDP. The MSMEs contribute nearly 45% to manufacturing, forming the backbone of the Indian manufacturing economy. MSMEs have contributed significantly towards domestic employment generation, increased revenues and have boosted international trade. Over the years, MSMEs in India have transitioned from manufacturing low-tech labour-intensive goods to medium-tech capital-intensive products and have also entered the services sector in recent past.

The significant contribution of MSMEs to the Indian economy on one hand, and the hard blow that the sector has received from the present crisis on the other, have called for a renewed and carefully thought-out focus on the situation of MSME units. In this background, the present article highlights the pertinent role that a vibrant and dynamic MSME sector can play in helping India capitalize on the opportunities thrown open by the pandemic and aid the process of economic recovery. It also suggests a three-pointer action plan that focuses on technology adoption, rural cluster development programme and strategic partnership development programme to bolster the MSME sector.

Opportunities for India

Supply chain restructuring: An opportunity to be the next global production hub

The COVID-19 crisis has caused widespread and significant disruptions and exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain, especially for countries who were excessively dependent on China for sourcing of raw materials, intermediate and finished goods. Over the past two decades, China has played a dominant role as the ‘factory of the world’ for industries such as electronics, automotives, apparel and plastics. However, escalated trade tensions in 2019 between China and the US, in addition to rising labour cost and declining productivity, dimmed the country’s significance as a global production hub. While the relocation of production facilities was already setting in, the current pandemic fueled this fire. Many countries around the world, including the USA, UK, Japan and South Korea, have been incentivizing their companies to move production facilities out of China with  a view to reconfigure their supply chains and  reduce reliance on China. This initiative to reduce dependence on China has become a matter of national priority for some countries, like the UK.

The reconfiguration of global supply chains has opened up a window of opportunity for India to present itself as a business-friendly nation and an attractive, alternative investment destination for companies looking to relocate their production facilities. According to the Reshoring Index released by consulting firm Kearney, because of the COVID-19 crisis,“companies will be compelled to go much further in rethinking their sourcing strategies—indeed, their entire supply chain.” It is this compulsion and urgency that India needs to act upon. If exploited at the right time, this opportunity could provide the much needed boost to Indian Government’s flagship program -Make in India- which has now culminated into the aspiration of making in India for the world.

In a bid to attract foreign companies, the Indian government has rolled out various plans such as developing a land pool of 461,589 hectares (twice the size of Luxembourg) to supplement easier availability of land, improve hard infrastructure through huge investment in national infrastructure pipeline project, and soft infrastructure (i.e. institutions) through implementing business reforms. The Government has also handpicked ten sectors – electrical, pharmaceuticals, electronics, heavy engineering, solar equipment, food processing, chemicals and textiles – as spotlight areas for promoting manufacturing suggesting a much focused approach than earlier.

The MSME sector can be used as an catalyst to exploit the opportunity and realize the dream of making India a global production hub in three ways. First, MSMEs act as complimentary entities by providing intermediate goods to large businesses (both domestic and foreign) in India. They also help them achieve economies of scale by facilitating outsourcing of functions, specifically in labour-intensive activities. Second, they also play a pivotal role in promoting resilience to sector-specific shocks and fluctuations in international markets by diversifying the industrial sector. Lastly, MSMEs are the harbinger of entrepreneurship and innovation which are important pillars for lifting the nation’s capacity in shifting towards the manufacture and exports of sophisticated high tech products, and help move up the global value chains. Thus, to build and sustain competitive manufacturing enterprises, both large and small, and realize the vision of Make in India for the world, MSMEs need to be strengthened and supported.    

Self Reliant India- A shift from excessive dependence to embracing self sufficiency

For the last three decades, Indian economy, like any other open economy, has embraced the benefits of globalisation. Forces of globalisation, including production and trade, based on national comparative advantages have given rise to geographically-spread value chains. In normal situations, the global value chains work as a well-oiled machinery leading manufacturers and nations to be oblivious to the extent of dependency on other nations. A recent article published in Harvard Business Review provides evidence that most of the companies are not as up to speed about the structure of their supply chain. Covid-19 has given a blow to these companies as they struggle to keep a track of which site, parts, products, and suppliers are located in affected areas, leading to a complete halt of production. Automobile industry is a perfect example of this blowout.

Another, and in fact, more appropriate account of  globalisation-driven dependence can be seen in the case of India’s Pharmaceutical Industry. Third largest in the world (in terms of volume), Indian pharmaceutical industry imports 90 percent of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) or bulk drugs, with two-thirds of total coming from only one source- China. Despite being alarmed about the overdependence on China as a national security threat in 2014, only half-hearted measures were taken by the policymakers to make industry as self-reliant as it was in the 1990s when it actually exported APIs and was ahead of China. The stricter regulatory requirements on Indian firms manufacturing APIs, coupled with strong state support given by China’s government to their indigenous manufacturers, resulted in widening of the gap between the cost competitiveness of Indian and Chinese companies- a cause of increased dependence.

While several other examples of products other than APIs, such as computers, mobile phones, medical devices, toys can be given here, the one that boldly underlines India’s dependence in the manufacturing sector is the fact that it struggled to be self-sufficient in the production of something as simple as plastic dispensers for hand sanitizers. The current pandemic has given a wake-up call not only to corporations but also to governments across developed and developing economies.

From the agenda of reducing dependence on foreign imports, including those from China for APIs and  other supplies, to the initial steps in ramping up the production of essential gear like personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, masks, testing kits, alcohol based sanitizers, dispensers, Indian Government’s vision of making India self reliant is echoed in the five pillars of its Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan- Economy, Infrastructure, System, Demography and Demand. The initiatives (present and planned) under each of the five pillars are aimed at getting the economy back on its feet. Needless to mention, focus on strengthening the manufacturing sector is and has to be the centerpiece of any course of action directed to make India self-reliant. 

In realizing the vision of self-reliant India, two things will play a determining role. First is the identification of sectors and/or areas, products, in which the Indian industry is capable of replacing foreign imports and can quickly scale up production, such as textile components and basic medical devices. One sector that is recently identified by the Government is the toy industry. A renewed focus on such sectors implies a renewed focus on  MSME units that have the capability to scale up effectively and efficiently. The second and a related requirement is creating a supportive ecosystem, of which MSMEs are not only viewed as an important part (in the capacity of a partner to big businesses) but also, more importantly, as beneficiaries. So, for instance, while toy MSMEs are going to play a direct and quintessential role in reducing India’s unduly excessive reliance on imports as well as making her self reliant, it is unachievable without a supportive ecosystem that protects innovative and creative works, and streamlines the procedure of obtaining quality certification.

Reverse Migration- An opportunity to boost rural entrepreneurship

The covid-19 situation has worsened the situation of unemployment in India. The stalling of  economic activity has forced businesses to lay off workers.. According to the Center of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the rate of unemployment in India has risen to over 23 percent as of April 2020 (25 percent in urban areas and 22 percent in rural) up from  7 percent (10 percent in urban areas and 6 percent in rural) in the beginning of the year (January 2020). Even as lockdown restrictions continue to ease, businesses in both formal and informal sectors, including construction, manufacturing, restaurants, travel and housekeeping are facing severe shortages of workforce due to reverse migration from urban to rural areas. According to an estimate by the Confederation of All India Traders traders’, the capital city has already witnessed an exodus of over 60 to 70 percent of its labor force. A similar situation  has been reported from other major states for migrant workers such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The extent of reverse migration is estimated to be at least 23 million migrants moving back to rural India. The consequences of such an extent of reverse migration are being clearly highlighted and voiced by businesses across urban areas as they grapple with shortages of workforce. However, more concerning aspects of this situation will be faced sooner than we realize as a significant proportion of migrants would be reluctant to return back to cities due to fear of the coronavirus, which is expected to haunt mankind for at least a year, uncertainties and related economic and emotional distress. As migrant workers seek safe haven back in their villages, the already widespread unemployment in rural areas is bound to skyrocket. While some of them would rely on agriculture as a means of livelihood, the sector is not without challenges – low productivity and small size of land holdings – to name a few. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is another alternative but the guaranteed days of work is restricted to just 100 in a financial year and the wages are meager. Perhaps, employment under MGNREGA is generally viewed as a work avenue in the off or lean agriculture season rather than  a primary source of employment. Such a scenario, however, is an opportune moment to direct efforts towards rural industrialization through promotion of rural MSMEs. The process of rural industrialization through rural MSMEs will act as a catalyst to spur the generation of employment and income in the rural areas. A plethora of opportunities can be tapped by MSMEs not only in the agriculture and allied sector, but also in food processing, other traditional sectors such as khadi and village industries, handloom, handicraft and coir. In fact, the present crisis offers enormous potential for rural MSMEs to revive India’s artisan traditions and handicrafts which  is in line with the Government’s latest “Vocal for Local” initiative. Setting up such units and making them operational might take some time and require coordinated support and policy initiatives by private enterprises as well as the Government at center and state level. However, promoting rural industrialization through MSMEs is the most viable option for sustained employment and income generation in rural areas that are home to 66 percent of India’s total population (as of 2018) to foster balanced regional growth, and keep a check on future migration to urban areas thereby decongesting and alleviating  pressure on cities.

Three pillars of action to support, strengthen and scale MSMEs

It is unarguable that MSMEs are going to play an increasingly important role in enabling India to exploit the opportunities thrown open by the pandemic at both national and international level, and to put her on the path of economic recovery.  However, it cannot also be refuted that MSMEs are the worst hit by the pandemic, with many of them struggling to survive, and would probably die down by the time things normalize – partly owing to the absence of any direct support for them in the Government’s 20 trillion stimulus package. For units that will survive the pandemic, a coordinated action plan consisting of support from Government (centre and state), industry associations, as well as strategic agility of units themselves, would be pertinent. Therefore, we suggest three action plans that could help reap the potential of MSMEs by making them more productive, efficient, and competitive.

  1. Technology Adoption
  2. Rural Cluster Development Programme
  3. Strategic Partnership Development Programme

Technology Adoption

As the world embraces the fourth industrial revolution, automation and digitization of business processes has become an absolute necessity for businesses’ survival and growth. According to a recent survey by SME body- India SME Forum -only 7% of MSMEs surveyed (1,29,537 MSME respondents) reported the adoption of technology beyond the use of digital tools to communicate with key stakeholders such as customers, employees, and suppliers. The adoption of technology could play a non-trivial role in overcoming numerous challenges and issues that plague the productivity, competitiveness and profitability of MSME units in India. The potential benefits from adoption are expected to be realized across the value chain and/or network – from procurement of resources, to automation and use of robotics in manufacturing processes, customer engagement, supply chain management, sales force management, integration of business processes etc.

An action plan to increase the rate of technology adoption amongst MSMEs must keep into consideration two important factors- perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use (Davis, 1989)[1]. The intention to use (adopt in this case) the new technology depends on the users’ attitude towards it which is influenced by, in addition to the external forces, the belief that the use of it would result in the improvement of performance and is free from effort.  A Government initiative along with industry body CII, in the form of CII TechSaksham, is a step that underlines the belief about usefulness of technology in improving MSMEs performance (profitability and global competitiveness) and, in turn, their contribution to the Indian Economy. The three-year long comprehensive project is also aimed at addressing the issues revolving around the “perceived ease of use”. The “perceived ease of use” is reported to be a major blockade in MSMEs attempt at technology adoption.

A staggering 70 percent of MSMEs that were surveyed by India SME forum cited lack of knowledge, guidance, skilled manpower, and cost of investment, as impediments to technology adoption. While initiatives like CII TechSaksham can provide a platform to overcome the knowledge barriers, real beneficiaries would be those MSMEs that move swiftly in formulating an effective strategic plan for technology adoption that furthers three As necessary for promoting the “perceived ease of use”- awareness, agility, and adaptability. It is essential to give strategic priority to technology adoption and carry out the implementation in a phased manner. For units facing cost issues and manpower crunch, a viable and cost effective solution is to avail of technology as a service. These services provided by third parties include “Software as a Service (SaaS)”, “Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)” and “Platform as a Service”, and can go a long way in overcoming the challenges associated with technology adoption by MSMEs.

Rural Cluster Development Programme

India has a rich history of rural entrepreneurship and, to support the growth and build-capacity of Rural MSMEs, the Government should focus on developing industrial clusters specifically designed for MSMEs in and/or around rural areas. By virtue of its support to industrial activity in rural areas, rural industrial clusters can promote employment generation,  which is the need of the hour now since the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in reverse migration of labourers (not just labourers, other blue collar workers as well). According to a recent report, livelihoods of a large percentage of around 40 million internal workers has been severely affected by Covid-19.

In order to combat the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods of millions of migrant workers, a model similar to Special Economic Zones (SEZ) could be replicated in rural areas and districts to enhance the industrial capacity of MSMEs by providing them  credit, technical know-how and market support. Additionally, following a cluster development approach towards industrialization efforts in rural areas can help tackle several challenges faced by MSMEs in terms of production, quality control, testing and marketing. For instance, in Indonesia, the government has adopted MSME clustering approach as an important aspect of Rural economy development as the success rate for development of manufacturing SMEs lies in strong inter-firms linkages in clusters and competent external networks and not direct government support. Thus, this could be an ideal time to give support and shape to these rural clusters and come with a workable action plan to encourage formation of clusters in villages.

Strategic Vendor Development Programme

The need for building strategic vendor development programmes stems from the complementarities that multinational corporations (MNCs) and MSMEs can derive from each other. MSMEs constitute an important part of the supply chain as providers of low value-added products, intermediates and components to be used in final production. It is in the interest of foreign MNCs to invest in the upgradation of the capabilities of their supply chain partners in order to ensure the quality of the final product. In order to facilitate that, MNCs often impart training on modern production techniques to the employees of MSMEs and engage in transfer of technological and managerial know-how.

Looking ahead, MSMEs must consolidate and extend relationships with MNCs to leverage their existing capabilities  such as superior knowledge, technical know-how and established processes. One way to achieve such competencies is through formation of Vendor Development Programme wherein  MNCs can provide training and guidance to MSMEs on how to meet quality standards, reduce costs, deliver on time and thus become reliable vendors for them. A successful example of such a vendor development programme is the Ethiopian flower cut industry. Strategic relationships between local vendors (flower growers) and Dutch foreign investors (Dutch Development cooperation) played an important role in the development and growth of the sector.

However, Indian MSMEs face challenges and obstacles in developing strategic tie-ups with large MNCs for at least two reasons. First, there are many Government-regulated performance parameters such as mandatory sharing of critical technologies and stringent rules for local content requirements that discourage foreign MNCs from entering into contractual relationships. Second, the absence of domestic intermediaries that could act as links between foreign MNCs and local MSMEs hinder the capabilities of the former to select the right vendor or partner and exploit the complementarities.

In order to overcome these constraints, there is a need to reduce regulatory bottlenecks and establish organizations that act as intermediaries (brokers) or connecting links between foreign MNCs and local MSMEs. The presence of such intermediaries will play a vital role in overcoming the information voids that characterize emerging markets like India, reduce the cost, effort and time involved in searching for the right vendor and/or partner (in the form of MSMEs) and facilitate the formation of mutually beneficial relationships. The formation of linkages or strategic tie-ups with multinationals from developed countries would go a long way in uplifting the competitiveness and capabilities of Indian MSMEs to serve both domestic and global markets.

Conclusion

To make the best of the opportunities arising from the biggest challenge of this century, Indian economy needs a thriving MSME sector. The substantial contribution that the sector has made to the economy has got it to be acknowledged as the “backbone”. It is also true that this backbone has been hit severely by the COVID19 pandemic and as the economy tries to stand up on its feet, strengthening of the backbone assumes an imperative task ahead for the Indian government.

The article has listed out the three essential pillars of an action plan that involves coordinated efforts from industry associations, policymakers and the MSME units themselves. While infusion of liquidity could help the distressed MSMEs recoup the losses in the short term, in order to really hit the ground running and help the economy realize its potential, strategies and policy actions with a long term vision in mind need to be enacted urgently. The focus has to be widened from the survival in the short-run to building up a productive and competent MSME sector for the future.

*Rishika Nayyar is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi. She has submitted her Ph.D thesis in International Business to International Institute of Foreign Trade, one of leading B-schools in India.


[1] Davis, F.D. (1989), “Perceived Usefulness, Perceived Ease of Use, and User Acceptance of Information Technology”, MIS Quarterly,  13(3), 319-340. doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/249008

Neha Arora is an Assistant Professor at International School of Business & Media, Pune. She is a PhD in International Business from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.

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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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