This is part of a series of year-end posts on Asia Blog written by Asia Society experts and Associate Fellows looking back on noteworthy events in 2011. You can read the entire series here.
Protestors hit the streets across India in 2011, fired up over the issue of corruption and putting the Congress-led government into crisis mode. Corruption permeates Indian society, where bribes regularly have to be paid to obtain everything from a birth or a death certificate, a working phone line, entrance into a desirable school or just a break on a traffic ticket. These thousand tiny cuts hemorrhaged after a series of major corruption scandals grabbed headlines in the Indian press and air-time on India's 24/7 news channels. The last, and the most egregious, involved the doling out of contracts worth billions of dollars by India's minister of telecommunications Animuthu Raja for radio spectrum for India's burgeoning cell-phone market. The so-called 2G scam was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Many of the alleged participants in the scam, including Raja, have been arrested. The trial of the accused is ongoing at the end of 2011 and will continue into 2012, with accusations and counter-accusations in the news every day.
Anna Hazare became the popular leader of the anti-corruption movement under the banner Indians Against Corruption. Hazare undertook a fast, citing the example of Mahatma Gandhi's protest fasts during the independence movement, threatening to keep it until death if necessary if the government didn't pass the Lokpal Bill, which would create an oversight body to examine corruption in India's government. The bill has been criticized on the grounds that, should it be put into law, it would create a body subject to no checks or balances, virtually circumventing the democratically elected representatives of India. Hazare is now threatening to begin protests beginning January 1, 2012 outside the residences of Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress National Party, and of her son, the heir apparent to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for the majority of its independent existence. Critics of Hazare's movement see a cynical plot to attack and destroy the Congress Party, and a threat to India's democracy.
2) Agricultural Crisis
India's agricultural crisis continued in 2011 and will certainly continue in 2012. More than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India during the past 16 years, according to journalist P. Sainath, a period that saw unprecedented economic growth. The suicides continued in 2011, a sign of the desperation of many of India's farmers. Some 65% of Indians depend directly on agriculture for their livelihoods and over 80% of India's farmers are small-scale — farming between one-half and five acres — cultivators who depend on India's more and more erratic monsoon to irrigate their crops. Liberalization of India's economy has brought an end to price supports farmers used to enjoy. Most of these farmers cannot afford the higher input costs of fertilizers, insecticides and irrigation many of the newer GMO and HYV seeds — themselves more costly — require. Meanwhile, India must again import food, including pulses and oils, to feed its still growing population and Indian agriculture is predicted to be hit hard by climate change.
Proponents of market solutions to the crisis, especially in the United States via the US-India Business Council and USAID, point to genetically engineered seeds and the entry into India of big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart as a way of putting in "farm-to-fork" infrastructure, claiming that the reason India doesn't have enough food and food prices have risen is that so much food spoils because it cannot reach markets quickly enough. Critics of this approach point to the link between farmer suicides and the arrival of the more expensive GMO seeds requiring more expensive inputs. They also claim very little food is wasted, in fact, because a good deal of food is consumed locally and because the lower the price point for food that isn't perfect enough for affluent urban consumers makes it more affordable for the poor. And they promote sustainable agricultural practices that put the interest of India's farmers up front.
In 2011, the government of India was finally expected to permit the entry into the country of the multinational big-box giants, a move the United States government and business welcomed. At the last minute, under pressure from opposition parties and an outcry from small "mom-and-pop" store owners who feared being run out of business, the government put the change on hold. Earlier, in 2010, the minister of environment and forests imposed a moratorium on the commercialization of genetically engineered eggplants, the so-called "Bt Brinjal," because of a nation-wide protest against the introduction of India's first GMO vegetable. These debates will certainly continue in 2012.
3) Nuclear Power
The 2008 Civil Nuclear deal, led by the United States, was supposed to open the way for a massive expansion of India's nuclear power capability. Proponents of the deal argued nuclear power was essential to help India meets its growing energy needs in a way that wouldn't worsen global warming. They also argued the deal would create billions of dollars in profits for U.S. companies and create jobs. In order to proceed, however, U.S. companies asked for a liability ceiling in the event of a nuclear accident. In 2010, both houses of India's parliament passed the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill. However, protests by landowners, nearby residents and fishermen in waters affected by planned nuclear power plants, especially in Maharashtra and in Tamil Nadu, have resulted in violent clashes, including some fatalities. Concerns about the safety of nuclear power in general and in India in particular increased after the tsunami and subsequent meltdown of nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan. The anti-nuclear movement in India is growing, with protestors taking to India's capital in late 2011. The government of India remains strongly committed to developing India's nuclear power capacity and to going ahead with the controversial plants. Expect more clashes in 2012.