Two of India’s richest men have landed in an unlikely controversy over farming laws, becoming targets of protesters who allege the tycoons have benefited from their close links to PM Narendra Modi.
For weeks, tens of thousands of farmers have camped outside the nation’s capital, demanding the withdrawal of recently passed legislation they say, without evidence, was designed to allow billionaires such as Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani to enter farming.
The tycoons say they have no such interest. More than 1,500 phone towers of Ambani’s wireless carrier were vandalised last month and some farmers called for a boycott of their businesses.
The fight between the government and the farmers has revived the debate on what Modi’s critics call cozy nexus between the magnates and the popular leader — accusations they all have denied. The protests, one of Modi’s toughest political challenges yet, follow an eventful 2020 when the combined fortunes of Ambani and Adani swelled by almost $41 billion, even as millions of Indians
lost their jobs to the pandemic that pummeled the $2.9 trillion economy.
“Everyone loves to hate the rich in times of economic stress,” said Sanjiv Bhasin, a director at investment management firm IIFL Securities Ltd in Mumbai. “People are venting out their anger at social disparity. It is indeed a new business risk to these large conglomerates. But all the noise will settle when the economy starts growing.”
Highlighting the disparity, an Oxfam report in January 2020 said India’s richest 1% hold over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70% of the country’s population.
The wealth of the nation’s top nine billionaires is equivalent to the wealth of the bottom 50% of the population, according to the non-profit body that works against inequality.
The new farm legislation, passed in September, will
allow private companies to
buy produce directly from
farmers, moving from the decades-old system of state-run wholesale buyers and markets that guaranteed a minimum
Farmers, mostly from the northern state of Punjab, fear that the removal of state support will make them vulnerable to market-driven price fluctuations despite government assurances that a safety net of minimum support prices will continue. About 800 million of the country’s over 1.3 billion people
depend directly or indirectly
on agriculture, giving the group political clout.