The central government passed a series of controversial farm-laws in September 2020 , with a vision to open up the agricultural sector to free-market forces. Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 that took effect from September 27 after President Ram Nath Kovind’s assent.
The assumption beneath the move is that private sector investment is going to stimulate agricultural growth. Farmers have slammed these laws, regarding them as “pro-corporate”, alleging that private players would dominate the farming sector and push out farmers with smaller landholdings, if such laws are implemented. Their primary apprehension has been that the dismantling of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system, that guarantees minimum returns to the farmer from the government for a crop in case the market price of the crop falls below the amount of costs incurred; would leave them at the mercy of the “big corporates”.
Farmers have come to the borders of Delhi, prepared for a long haul with rations and necessities, using their tractor-trolleys as makeshift shelters; while lighting the barricades placed by the police around them with earthen lamps, and exchanging sweets among themselves at the onset of every dusk.
Many of the farmers are drawing inspiration and courage from Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom, who was the ninth of the Sikh gurus. According to Beant Singh, a Phd Scholar from Punjabi University, Patiala, Guru Tegh Bahadur had become a prominent voice of the oppressed in the history of Punjab, and in a likewise manner, the people of Punjab today, are resolving to hold the central government accountable for its anti-farmer and anti-people policies. The guru had once come to the aid of Kashmiri pundits by sacrificing his life for them, and this time too when the special protection offered by Article 370 to the people of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked, Punjabis have stood with their Kashmiri brothers and sister, Beant said.
The farmers, whose protests have been accused of Khalistani allegiance, have refuted the claim and tried to highlight how the protest is secular in nature and has garnered mass support. Gurpreet Kaur, a leader of a farmer’s body in Patiala district asserts that people of all castes and faiths are participating in the protests, with a large number of women playing an instrumental role.
“This fight of ours stems from desperation. We need to save our lands, our fields, our food. We have already burnt effigies of Narendra Modi, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani on Dussehra. It is now time to show the government the power of kisaan-mazdoor (farmer-worker unity) “ said Gurpreet.
Lacchman Singh Sewewala, general secretary of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, reinstated Gurpreet’s concerns. “This fight is for our very existence. The government has raised the issue of Coronavirus in order to try and derail the movement. In the backdrop, it is important to realise one thing. While COVID-19 does not kill all those infected, starvation kills whoever it affects. If we do not fight today, we will go hungry tomorrow,” he says.
Despite the mammoth challenges, Sewawala professed with a note of optimism, that the protests could become a model example to demonstrate how to fight against oppressive regimes. For the farmers’ fight is not merely for their own issues, but for issues that concern the entire nation. The farmers, according to him, along with their demand to repeal the farm-laws, have also asked for all the innocent students, leaders, journalists, academicians, and teachers who have been unjustly incarcerated by the state, to be released at the earliest.
All the leaders of the farmers’ unions have expressed their disdain over Prime Minister’s statements on the new farm-laws made during his ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio show this Sunday. The union leaders invoked the teachings of Guru Nanak- Kirrt karo, Naaam Japo, Vand Chaako (work hard, say the name of God and share with others) on his 551st birth anniversary and said that they have gathered to protect the rights of workers, labourers and farmers.
Jagmohan Singh of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakunda) said that the farmers want him to listen to their ‘Mann ki Baat’ as well. He said that the agitators will keep sitting at the borders of Delhi until the central government decides to revoke the farm-laws. The bill, according to him, released without any consultation with the farmers, reveals the inklings of a fascist state.
Yogendra Yadav, who is the national president of the Akhil Bharatiya Kisaan Sangharsh Samiti (ABKSS) said that the farmers’ movement throws light on the lies that the Centre has told, which are mentioned as follows:
1. The Centre claims that the bill is aimed at removing the middlemen and therefore, it is only the middlemen who are protesting against the bill. The on-ground reality, however, is that, only the peasantry is expressing its discontent, with no trace of the middleman.
2. The Centre has routinely characterized the farmers as a gullible breed of people who lack any knowledge regarding what’s good for them. In actuality however, the farmers and their family members are so well-versed with the injustices they are suffering and the purported legal reforms that threaten to jeopardize their livelihood, that even a child among the farmers’ community would be able to tell what’s wrong with the farm-laws, and why the farmers are protesting.
3. The Centre is desperately painting a picture that the protest is merely that of Punjab. However, although Punjab has led the fight, farmers and workers from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are also participating in the protests.
A broken farmer-state relationship has been one of independent India’s worst failings and a primary cause of widespread and increasing rural-urban inequalities- it is limiting incomes, opportunities and aspirations for the citizenry.
Adding the crisis context of the pandemic to this numbing economic divide, a collective feeling of chronic discontentment and public resentment among farmers, is now being witnessed on the streets.
Nirbhay Singh, a farmer from Kurukshetra in Haryana, explained that each of the provisions under the new farm-laws ranging from contract-farming to the stockpiling of food-produce, aims to throttle the agency of an average farmer and hand it over to corporates and big businesses, who would be further enabled by the new laws to control the prices as per their will and exploit the farmer, without giving anything to them in return.
To get their main produce sold at a fair, market price and at a place of proximity has perpetually been a struggle for the Indian farmer. The string of factors which condition their cropping pattern and choice on ‘what to produce’ are less grounded upon commercial principles and more heavily sourced upon political leverage around Minimum Support Price, poor market-infrastructure, high production-costs and entrenched middlemen-based price interventions. The urban consumer bias deeply embedded within our consumption pattern of farm-products further aggravates the seasonal price fluctuations of crops.
The majority of crop-protection schemes have remained poorly implemented at the local level.
Most states in India do not even pay the promised MSP to farmers on listed crops, that they are required by law to provide for. Sadly, the average Indian farmer remains indebted to a nearly medieval style living condition.
Due to the pandemic, crop prices further declined as the overall demand was low and extremely volatile. Even when the mandis opened up, the farmers have been forced to sell their produce at as low a price as Rs. 2/kg. This demand-shock has aggravated due to poor healthcare safety conditions and social distancing requirements, that made many wholesalers and retailers wary of buying non-packaged vegetables.
Mismanagement of the health-crisis by the governments at local and state levels has damaged the main source of income and livelihood for the farmers.
Irrespective of what one may think of the farmers’ protest and their opposition to the new farm-laws, the monolithic top-down style of command and functioning deployed by the government and its imposed ‘economic reforms’ that lack consensus of the farmers’ community which is most affected by it, is clearly visible.
The government has failed to ensure a proper institutional mechanism for deliberation, debate and discussion over the farm-laws and the seemingly neo-colonial economic ideologies that they are built upon.
The farmers have been protesting at the outskirts of Delhi for seven days now, but the talks with the Central government have failed so far. The government has not allowed the farmers to enter Delhi.
Former Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has chosen to return the Padma Vibhushan Award, the country’s second-highest civilian honour that he received in 2015, as an act of protest against the new farm-laws, and to express solidarity with the farmers who are protesting.
“When the Government of India had brought the Ordinances, assurances were given to us that the farmers’ apprehensions on these Ordinances would be addressed to their satisfaction when these would be converted into Bills and subsequently into Acts. Accordingly, I even appealed to the farmers to trust the Government’s word. But I was shocked when the Government simply went back on its word.
That was the most painful and embarrassing moment in my long political career. I just cannot put into words the emotional stress which I have been going through since then. I have truly begun to wonder why has the Government become so heartless, so cynical and so ungrateful towards the farmers.” said Parkash Singh Badal.
Cushioning their tractor-trolleys with layers of straw and mattresses to protect themselves from the cold, some of the men and women in the protests are above the age of 70.
Gathered in the thousands amid the pandemic, the farmers clearly are determined in their cause, and the cold and harsh winters of Delhi do not seem to stifle their spirit.