While farmer agitations are not new in Punjab, this is the first time in the history that the very character of farm protests have been transformed with youth, women and even children joining the stir in huge numbers. Earlier, farm agitations would be dominated by elderly and middle-aged participants, barring a handful of youngsters and women.
Experts now believe that this change in participation demographics, which has come about in the last three-odd months, is here to stay.
While there were big protests by farmers in 2017, 2018 and even before Lok Sabha polls in 2019, with even the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) protesting in Delhi several times with participation of farmers from Punjab, but such large scale participation of women and youth was not seen back then.
But the nature of participation has undergone a change in the protest led by Punjab farmers against the farm laws thanks to village-level Jagriti Lehar (awakening movement) programmes that were started in the state by farmers unions in September.
The Jagriti Lehar events included ‘Dhol march’, circulating videos from Bihar’s farmers (where Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act was repealed in 2006), plays, songs on farming community’s plight and educating the farmer on differences between government and private mandis.
In such programmes, farmers were told how government schools and hospitals degraded further after private players entered both markets, arguing that the same would happen to government mandis. The farm leaders at the village and block level also took it upon themselves to make villagers aware that like Bihar farmers, they too will suffer a fall in income if these Bills are introduced and this will force them to sell their land.
“At the first place, we started people awakening programme for five days from September 23 to September 27.
There we stopped the entry of BJP leaders, who were coming to our villages to promote these bills. We went door-to-door to tell everyone how these Bills will hit the farming community as well as every consumer of the country.
After the first event, the meetings picked up and everyone, including men, women, youths, realised that this is not a battle of farmers’ alone but every citizen of the country,” said Rimpa Singh, a leader of Bharti Kisan Union (BKU) Ugrahan, adding that after such village-level programmes now awakening event continues at the protest sites to motivate every protester.
Singh is protesting at the Tikri border.
He said that he has been going to the farmers’ protest for the past 15 years but he never saw such response from youth and women participants.
The farmer leader added: “This is for the first time that a large number of women, several of whom have no history of being the member of any farmer organisation, have come to support us along with their farmer husbands, sons, and fathers.”
“We showed them videos of the Bihar farmer who sit on the roadsides instead mandis to sell their crop following the repealing of AMPC Act there and are earning not even half of the MSP announced for wheat, paddy by the government,” said Nirbhair Singh Dudike (70), president of Kirti Kisan Union, adding that in the past 45 years he had never seen such a prominent presence of women and youth in any protest by state’s farmers.
“95 per cent participants used to be from old and middle-aged farmers,” said Dudike, a well-known farm leader of Punjab.
Labh Kaur, a woman protester from Mansa district sitting at the Tikri border along with several other women, said: “We attended meetings in our villages where we got to know that these bills will hit our kitchen as private people will purchase from farmers and will sell to consumers at a high cost…”
“When farmers will not get the good price of their produce, they will come under huge debts to meet their basic needs and ultimately will be forced to sell their small landholdings. We do not want this to happen,” said Harinder Singh, a youth from Barnala, who is a first time participant in such protest. Singh is at Tikri Border to support his farmer father, who owns 2.5 acres of land.
He added: “We will not let our elders fight alone for their rights and they will find us with them everywhere now.” BKU (Ugrahan) leader Rimpa said that around 25,000 women and nearly 30,000 youths are part of the protest at Tikri border. “Around 50 km long cavalcade of farmers’ vehicles is parked here on the roads,” said Rimpa, adding that milk and water has been coming regularly from Haryana villages. He said that movable toilets set up by the Haryana government do not have a water supply.
Meanwhile, to avoid untoward incidents like the ones that allegedly took place during the Haryana Jat protest in 2017, the farmers of Punjab said they had decided to march to Delhi from various borders so as to avoid a heavy rush on a single route.
“We started from different borders of Punjab and Haryana including Shambu, Dabhwali, Khanauri to reach Delhi to avoid heavy rush on the single route and also we wanted to bring the women folk from more safer side,” said Sukhdev Singh Kokkrikalan, BKU (Ugrahan), general secretary, who had fractured his arm during en route Delhi and had to return to his village in Moga for treatment.