Naya Bharat – A look Into Farmers’s Protests

Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. The historic call to the farmers of the country continues to be etched strongly into our country’s social and political ethos. It has been a year and endless tribulations, tears and efforts for the BJP government to finally revoke the Farm Bill laws earlier last week. As farmers across the country celebrate the resounding ‘defeat’ of the Farm Bills, the occasion demands a closer look at the whole state of affairs that unraveled in this significant movement of modern India.

On June 25, 2020, the central government had promulgated the three ordinances concerning the Farm Bills, which officially came into effect by end of September last year. The farmers followed a 3-day ‘rail roko’ (boycott to ensure non-functioning of trains and disrupt travel) which went on to become an organised protest lasting several months. Last week the three contentious acts – the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 or the FTPC Act; the Farmers Empowerment and Protection Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 – have been repealed on a televised address to the nation delivered by PM Modi himself. Critics argue that this respite comes much too close to the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh State elections questioning the intent of the ruling party’s half, while some see it as an attempt at masking the hurt sentiments of the community and a feeble minded half hearted endeavour to win over the disturbed faction’s sentiments.

The Prime Minister’s official statement on the morning of November 19 at 9 AM reads as follows “the three farm laws were brought in, the aim was to provide relief to small farmers, to give them alternatives for selling their crops and to get them better prices for them. Farmers groups across the country have supported these moves and I express my gratitude to them…but despite all our efforts and good intentions we were not able to convince a section of farmers. Even though this section was not huge, it is important for us that we convince them. We tried engaging them in dialogue, we listened to their arguments and logic. The particular sections of the laws, which they objected to, were also acceded too. We agreed to suspend it for two years and now the matter is before the Supreme Court. Maybe there was a lack in our efforts that we were not able to convince this section of farmers.” PM Modi further added to this statement by wishing the Sikhs a pleasant and safe Gurupurab. In Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal quit their alliance with the BJP and as much as seven key discussions over the farm laws were held with central representatives including Home Minister Amit Shah while the protestors remained immovable in their demands – the repeal of the laws.

Protestors and their supporters say the Farm Bills are leaning heavily to the aid of capitalist markets, a far cry from the socialist aids and measures the Constitution assigns to the government in its functioning and organisation. The primary concerns raised over the FTPC happened to be the ‘APMC Bypass Bill’ (APMC stands for Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Laws). According to the Act, farmers could take their produce beyond the limited physical designated area and sell their produce. This eventually led to anxieties about the validity of ‘mandis’, a major part of the informal economic structures of India which serves as the centres for trade in agricultural produce. They were concerned about how farmers will be unable to take their produce beyond mandis for lack of resources and the government’ s constant verbal assuages did not do any good. Another key issue is the MSP or the Minimum Support Price, a system in circulation in India from the British raj era. The MSP is the assurance that if the farmers are not able to sell the crops for a better price in the markets for the covered crops, the government would buy their agricultural produce at a fixed rate – the MSP. This came to be perceived as protection against loss for the farmers.

The farmer’s anxiety mainly lies with the fact that the MSP will be made redundant if the Bills come to fruition. The primary argument against the second bill promulgated was how the law sought to create a separate contract farming bill with the buyer directly would create a monopoly of bigger capitalistic giants that would be able to control demand supply chains outside the APMC bills and lead to shortage of supply. The small farmers would be left open to exploitation as multinational corporations would dictate the legal terms and create binding frameworks on the farmers. The third bill removed any stockholding powers of the central government on food items except under “extraordinary circumstances” (calamitous situations, natural disaster, wartime tragedy and the like). The lack of central regulation alarmed the farmers who flocked to the borders of the capital to make their demands heard.

The crowd of protestors at the Republic Day parade on 26th January grew violent and had resulted in one casualty of a farmer and injury of several policemen. The Samyukta Kishan Morcha reports the death of at least 248 individuals, martyrs to the farmers’ cause, on the borders of New Delhi. These casualties were very often the primary bread earners of the families, often engaged in manual labour and farming. Opposition parties and some media reports say that by the time the repeal rolled in last week, around 700 people had succumbed during protests due to the harsh diurnal extremes of Delhi’s climate, a raging COVID-19 pandemic, ‘police brutality’ and so on. One of the worst incidents of injustice against the mostly peaceful congregation was when a convoy including a minister’s son ran over four farmers; a journalist too was killed and the perpetrator went scott-free in Uttar Pradesh. The movement gathered massive support even from the Punjab diaspora and community spaces – the Punjabi ethos of langar (sharing food) and sewa (community service) ran high. Women have taken up major roles in this cosmology of new India’s protest- they walk hand in hand with the men of their family in leading the protests. While the efforts of women go largely unnoticed in the patriarchal machinations of the Indian agricultural system, women seem to assert their roles as workers and contributors of manual labor and daily wages, especially in family owned farms. Women back in the villages have allowed for the household to run smoothly, hassle free and ensured the supply of rations and blankets essential to brave the harsh winters.

It is, however, reasonable to believe that there might have been some ulterior motives subdued under the guise of the protests, especially international support from Punjab diasporas and some prominent international figures ring hollow and bigot in its tone and manner of dispatch. The government report – NSSO survey of July 2012-June 2013 (not from the current NDA government but the then ruling UPA government) – showed that less than six per cent of Indian farmers (over 9 crore agricultural households) have benefited directly from selling their wheat or rice under the MSP regime. This means an overwhelming majority of farmers could never become part of the income guarantee scheme for the farmers in so many decades. The Supreme Court’s sound ruling , that while the farmers can’t be denied their fundamental right to protest, occupying the key areas of entry into the city involving national highways for an unspecified indeterminate length of time is also not an economical solution, needs to be taken into account.

While it remains to be seen whether the central government would come up other proposals to table new Bills in the parliament, the true spirit of democracy seems to have shone forth in this heated debate. The rights of protestors have given way to the voice of the people. It will definitely be worthwhile to continue probing into the roots of the issues that were revealed to light in this massive upheaval and to study the consequences of actions yet to come in the political macrocosm of the nation.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

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