INDIA’S 150-million-odd farmers are seething with anger. For the past 11 eventful weeks, thousands of cultivators have been camping at the borders of the national capital Delhi braving biting cold and the killer coronavirus pandemic to boot.
In what is the world’s single largest agitation, the hard-pressed sons of the soil have been protesting against the three newly-enacted, controversial agricultural commodity laws which they fear will make life miserable for the 82 per cent small and marginal peasants what with 70 per cent of Indians being dependent on agriculture to bring home the bacon.
In September, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020; the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 were bulldozed through Parliament without consulting ryots and other stakeholders, and without any debate in the Rajya Sabha, notwithstanding the brouhaha by opposition parties.
After the instant hue and cry in Punjab and Haryana, some 300,000 fiery farmers on November 27 marched to Delhi with countless tractors and have stayed put on its borders since then, staging rallies, observing fasts and blocking highways as done on February 6 in between 11 rounds of infructuous parleys with the government which has tried every trick in the book to crush the peaceful movement.
The Constitution of India guarantees all citizens fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of speech and expression, and to assemble peaceably but the Modi regime and the state governments controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been throwing the Statute norms and even Supreme Court orders to the winds.
In order to harass the protesters, water cannons, batons, and tear gas were used, multi-layered barricades and barbed wires were put up, monstrous iron nails were fixed on roads, water and electricity supplies were cut, access to toilets was stopped, Delhi-bound trains packed with sharecroppers were diverted, journalists were barred from meeting farmer union leaders and, most importantly, internet services were shut down by the federal government notorious for doing so as many as 83 times last year.
In fact, when their tractor rally witnessed violence near the Red Fort on the Republic Day (January 26), the right-wing press claimed, with little or no evidence, that there was a connection between these protests and the Sikh separatist movement, and the government, instead of separating the wheat from the chaff, falsely implicated the innocent, pacifist peasants reeling under poverty and debt.
The multi-pronged attacks have failed to dampen the spirit of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body representing 40 major farmers’ groups of 450 local unions spearheading the cultivators’ crusade but the harsh actions violating human rights have tarnished the image of the Modi administration faced as it is now with brickbats from international celebrities and organisations.
After all, farmers, most of whom hardly earn a paltry Rs 15,000 a month, fear that the new laws will leave them at the mercy of large corporations and override safeguards against being cheated. They think the reforms planned by the government will bring about an erosion of the mandi system, a disappearance of the minimum support price (MSP), and subsequently the end of the Indian state’s proactive support of agriculture.
The farmers also believe that the new laws will end their existing relationship with the commission agents who act as middlemen by providing financial loans, ensuring timely procurement, and promising adequate prices for their crop.
With productivity slowing for donkey’s years, there is a glut in some crops, driving down prices, with the result that more than half of India’s farmers are neck-deep in debt, and their incomes, peanuts or just one-third of those for non-agricultural households, have increased by just 2% a year over the last three years and have remained stagnant or even declined for several decades.
No wonder, ten frustrated peasants die by suicide day after day what with 20,638 of them having taken the extreme step in 2018 and 2019. Truth to tell, some 70 farmers have died since the protests began on November 27 last due to road mishaps, heart attacks and cold stroke.
With farmers refusing to budge, the government has climbed down by offering to suspend the three laws for 18 months and agreed to the top court’s order to form a committee but the Morcha, still full of beans, has instead said after its February 6 nationwide non-violent road blockade stir that the it would plough on till October 2 before deciding the next course of action if the laws are not rescinded by then.
Enacted in September, the three farm laws have been projected by the government as major reforms in the agriculture sector that will remove the middlemen and allow farmers to sell anywhere in the country. The Centre has repeatedly sought to allay farmers’ fears by asserting that there would be no tinkering with the existing MSP regime.
Desperate to end the stalemate, the beleaguered government has had to pour oil on troubled waters because of the Supreme Court’s move to stay the implementation of the contentious farm laws, the public statement by BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, urging it to be sensitive towards growers’ gravamina, and apprehensions that it will be cornered by a united Opposition in Parliament during the Budget Session.
All said and done, agriculture is a state subject and the Centre is only weakening the federal system by bringing these farm laws. The Modi regime may have hit the bull’s eye by carrying out the abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, but in the case of hard-up farmers, whose tales of miseries have touched the heart-strings of the Indians, the government cannot hope to have a field day any time soon.
On their part, the farmers, much against their grain, could do well to spare a thought for the country’s ailing economy and at least think of climbing down one step by accepting the suspension of the three Acts for a two-year period which will give ample time to both sides for an introspection.