NEW DELHI—More than 2,000 cell towers in northern India have been damaged, as a backlash over the deregulation of the nation’s agricultural industry has led to a showdown between farmers and India’s wealthiest businessman.
The businessman, Mukesh Ambani, heads Reliance Industries Ltd. The company, along with local authorities, says vandals showing support for a protest that has blocked the roads into New Delhi for more than a month are responsible for damaging the cell towers.
Reliance controls India’s biggest cellular company and its largest retailer, including some of the country’s largest grocery-store chains. Those chains are expected to benefit from a new law that deregulates the farming industry to allow more private-sector control of distribution. Mr. Ambani, worth around $75 billion according to Forbes magazine, is seen as close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is backing the new law. He is one of the most influential corporate leaders in New Delhi.
The state of Punjab said on Tuesday that it had deployed more than 1,000 people to protect Reliance assets across the state. The company had petitioned courts this week in Punjab and the state of Haryana, where it has more than 20 million cellular customers, for more protection for its retail stores and towers for its Jio telephone network.
Reliance has “sought the urgent intervention of government authorities to bring a complete stop to the illegal acts of vandalism by miscreants,” it said on Monday, without specifying exactly what actions it expected authorities to take. “These acts of violence have endangered the lives of thousands of its employees and caused damage and disruption to the vital communications infrastructure.”
Leaders of the farm protests say they have neither encouraged nor supported the attacks on the towers. Some protesters are boycotting Reliance products—including Jio, Reliance retail outlets and its gas stations—because they think the company backs the new farming laws and will benefit from them by exploiting farmers. Some have posted photos of destroyed Jio SIM cards on social media sites.
“We have appealed to our farmer brothers to boycott Jio,” said Satnam Singh, a Punjabi farmer and protester. “We are together in this. A lot of us have already discontinued our Jio connections.”
Shingara Singh Mann, a leader of one of the farmers unions, said big companies and corporate leaders like Mr. Ambani played a big role in getting the farming laws passed.
Reliance said it wasn’t involved in the new farm laws. Mr. Ambani hasn’t commented publicly on the law, and the company declined to make him available for an interview.
Reliance said it supports farmers and forces suppliers to its retail chains to be sure they pay government-set minimum prices for produce. It said it has no intention of trying to use the new farming laws to undercut small farmers and buy their land.
Most Indians live in rural areas and depend directly or indirectly on agriculture.
Percentage of total population living in rural areas in 2019
Mr. Modi’s government pushed through the laws in September in an effort to deregulate the sector and help the country rebound from its pandemic recession.
Under the previous laws, farmers had to sell to government-licensed middlemen in most states, while food processors and retailers had to buy from the same group of middlemen. The new law gets rid of those restrictions so farmers can sell directly to whomever they want: consumers, retailers, food processors or even the same government middlemen.
The farmers, who are demanding the laws be repealed, say they are worried they are about to lose a safety net of government-approved buyers who pay a minimum price. They say they understand that the new regulations give them more choices, but they are worried the change also gives buyers more choices. Small farmers say they fear they won’t be able to strike deals with big retailers, no one will buy their crops and eventually they will go out of business.
Economists say India’s agricultural sector needs to be modernized and streamlined to improve the lives and incomes of all Indians. They say that giving buyers and sellers more freedom doesn’t necessarily hurt the small farmer, pointing to the dairy and poultry industries, which have long allowed more private-sector participation and competition and have seen much higher growth than other types of farming.
But the protests haven’t let up, showing that some within India’s rural populace aren’t buying government reassurances that farmers and consumers will benefit from the new laws.
The farming overhaul is treacherous political ground for Mr. Modi. Farmers are probably the most important voting bloc in India, which has the largest rural population in the world, making up more than half the country’s 1.3 billion people.
The attacks on cellular towers represent more than a clash between rich and poor; they are about the pain and uncertainty involved with the transition away from an economy in which most of the populace depends on agriculture, said Shubho Roy, an economist at the University of Chicago who has studied the wholesale market system.
“The Jio towers represent the future, a service-sector dominated economy,” he said.
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On average, economists say the new laws should lead to better prices for most farmers, as well as consumers, but that doesn’t mean all farmers will benefit. The farmers who sell most of their crops through middlemen at government-set prices could be hurt.
“It will lead to better lives for more people but not these people and that has consequences,” as India is experiencing through the protests, Mr. Roy said.
—Vibhuti Agarwal contributed to this article.
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