Why Protesting Indian Farmers Won’t Take A Break

The agitators have a bigger cause to fight for as the demand for legal mandate for MSP for all crops will go a long way in raising the living standards of farmers across the country.

September 20, 2020. Amid the cacophony of sounds permeating the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Indian Parliament, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar introduced two of the three contentious bills that farmers had been opposing for the last one year. The deputy chairperson of the House went for a voice vote, even as the Opposition sought a division of votes by storming the well of the House. But that did not prevent the bills from getting passed, all thanks to the Chair who didn’t find it hard to figure out despite the din that ‘Ayes’ sounded more prolific than the ‘Nos’.

Much like the subversion of parliamentary rules, the authoritarian way the bills were passed, the lightning speed with which they became laws, came the climbdown on November 29 this year. No discussion, no debate, but yet another unilateral decision, to repeal the same laws that the Central government had repeatedly claimed to have introduced after due consultations with farmer unions. Strangely, the farmers never ever remotely felt like they were being consulted on things that affected their livelihoods the most.

Over the year, this miasma of apathy and temerity has ensured that the farmer-ruler relationship touched its lowest ebb. That its foundation is shaky at its best is evident from the fact that farmers have not backed off from protests, despite a convincing win over the Centre’s plan to liberalize the sector. The three laws – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (FPTC) (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act – were vehemently criticized for favouring big companies.

A closer look would reveal that farmers were more concerned about the FPTC Act, which allowed the sale and purchase of farm produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee mandis (APMC markets) without attracting a market fee or cess/levy under any State law. Private mandis were not obliged to provide the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that farmers were guaranteed by the government for transactions at APMC mandis. Besides, a farmer would not be able to approach a court of law in case of a dispute with a corporate buyer. The bargaining power of farmers would anyway be less when compared to the corporates. Result: the private players would be in a position to buy the produce whenever they want at whatever price they like. Simultaneously, the APMC mandis would see lesser footfalls as the transactions there come with a market fee, and the MSP system would die a slow death.

Divided We Stand

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on November 19, repealing the farm laws were greeted with surprise by tens of thousands of farmers blockading the Delhi borders of Singhu, Ghazipur and Tikri. But joy soon gave way to scepticism, especially as the PM had claimed that the laws were good only, but “we could not convince some of our farmer brothers of the intentions of these laws”. It came as no surprise that the protesters, whom the PM had once dubbed “andolan jeevi” (someone who lives off protest), were to blame.

Over the last one year, Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of over 40 farmers’ unions spearheading the ‘Dilli Chalo’ protest, has fought off physical, verbal and virtual attacks from law enforcers, the supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the mainstream media channels. An immediate rapprochement with the Centre was, in any case, remote – though Modi had timed the repeal announcement with Gurupurab, the birth anniversary of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak Dev – as their long-standing demand of legal guarantee for MSP was yet to be addressed.

Two days after the PM’s address, the SKM shot off an open letter listing six demands, the most prominent being that MSP based on the comprehensive cost of production should be made a legal entitlement of all farmers for all agricultural produce. The other demands were the removal of Ajay Kumar Mishra, whose son was arrested for mowing down farmers at Lakhimpur Kheri, from the post of Minister of State for Home Affairs, withdrawal of draft Electricity Amendments Bill-2020/21, removal of penal provisions against farmers for air pollution, withdrawal of cases registered against protesting farmers in various states, and provision for compensation for families of over 670 farmers who died during the course of the protest. A demand was also made for land allotment at the Singhu border to build a memorial in their honour.

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait, who is a prominent face of the movement, has made it clear that the protesters will not go home until the government enacted a law on guaranteed MSP. But the PM wants them to leave the Delhi borders as quickly as possible. In the last seven years of his rule, never has he been forced to retreat as has happened with the contentious laws. Finally, a strong Opposition has been found, though on the streets.

According to PRS Legislative Research data, 42 Bills were passed in less than half an hour and 19 in less than 10 minutes across six Parliament sessions in Modi’s second stint. The ruling BJP has recklessly gone ahead with its reforms over the years, thanks to its whopping majority in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House, and alliance building in the Rajya Sabha.

Uttar Pradesh (UP), which elects the most number of members to the Lok Sabha, is bound for Assembly polls next year. The same is the case of Punjab, where the farmers’ protest first took shape. Punjab has never been an electoral goldmine for the BJP, but UP is presently under its rule. The Sikhs in the western and Terai regions of the State had worked hand in hand with their Punjabi counterparts to make the farmers’ movement a success. The Jat farmers from Haryana had added might to the protest as the ‘Dilli Chalo’ march from Punjab cut through the BJP-ruled State. Even as the protest spread to other states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the most visible combo was of Sikhs and Jats. Had it not been for the Hindu Jats, the protest could have been entirely stamped as a Khalistani (Sikh separatist) movement.

The BJP leaders seem to fear the Sikh-Muslim-Hindu bonhomie more than anything. The party does not feed the same hate against Sikhs as it does with the Muslims. It had successfully engineered a divide-and-rule policy in western UP, especially in the wake of the Jat-Muslim riots of Muzaffarnagar in 2013, and had furthered its Hindutva politics in the region. The farmers’ movement broke the vicious cycle of hate to such an extent that Tikait himself once raised the slogan “Allahu Akbar, Har Har Mahadev”.

MSP Demand Not New

The MSP was introduced as an incentive for farmers to grow mainly paddy and wheat to overcome food shortages in the 1960s. As Punjab and Haryana happened to be the main producers of these crops, the MSP system was mostly confined there. The Centre was not under compulsion to make it mandatory across the country as there was no parliamentary legislation in place to back it. Over the years, MSPs were announced for as many as 23 crops, but the government largely confined its procurement to paddy and wheat from north India. That was the reason why the year-long farmers’ movement had resonated more in Punjab and Haryana.

The demand for a legal mandate for MSP was very much on the SKM agenda during all 11 rounds of negotiations with the government, contrary to the claims made in certain quarters. A legal guarantee would force the government to buy every grain for which MSPs exist. The Centre has maintained that the move would incur huge expenditure, to the point of making it bankrupt. As the MSP law would apply to corporate players also, they would be compelled to shell out more money to get food grains from farmers, the cost of which would be passed on to the consumers. Farm leaders discredit it saying inflation should be controlled by offering subsidized food to the poor, and not by denying fair price to the producer.

In a country where more than 50 per cent of the population depend on agriculture for livelihood, a legal mandate for MSP has the potential to raise the living standards of both farmers and farm workers. The protesters are waging the MSP battle not just for themselves, but for their counterparts across the country who barely benefit from the present system of MSP, which cater to only 15 to 25 per cent of farmers. Their fortitude could win many more hearts, provided they continue to blur the barriers of language, religion and caste.

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