The CPI(M) leader and general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha insists farmers won’t accept “cosmetic changes” to new laws, criticises “calculated attempt” to paint protest as Punjab movement and urges govt to harmonise ties between traders, farmers. The session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Manoj C G
MANOJ CG: Farmers’ organisations want all the three new farm laws to be repealed. Is there a middle ground?
In the last six months, farmers from across the country have been raising their issues. When the ordinances were passed, farmers were not asked… The movement was continuously gaining momentum in the last six months. Ultimately, when farmers realised that the government is not listening to them, what else could they do in a democratic system? We decided to organise a peaceful movement… They (farmers) decided to come to the Capital and inform the government about their problems. The government is insisting that these (farm) Acts are a panacea. But the farmers never wanted these Acts, no farmer organisation demanded it.
MANOJ CG: If the government does not repeal the laws, are you willing to accept some amendments?
We want the laws to be scrapped. If there were some mistakes, there could be amendments, but all the laws are anti-farmer. That is why farmers have said that cosmetic changes here and there will not serve any purpose.
LIZ MATHEW: Will your protest draw more farmers from other parts of the country?
There is a calculated attempt by the government to paint it as a Punjab movement and, unfortunately, the media is helping them. On August 9, there was a ‘Jail Bharo’ (agitation) against these laws. Nearly one crore farmers in 600 districts across 25 states were on the streets to protest. Did only farmers from Haryana and Punjab protest then? Punjab is definitely at the forefront of the movement, but the Punjab movement is part of the Indian movement.
There is a wrong perception that farmers are very strong and that they have bargaining power… The government is making laws with wrong perceptions… Farmers need regulatory protection, but it isn’t there in the new Acts. About 86 per cent farmers are small farmers and have less than two acres (of land). How will these helpless people survive the attack from the Adanis and Ambanis?
Farmers are producers. Please help us remain producers. Don’t force us to become traders… After the pandemic, all production sectors collapsed except farming. Farmers survived without any government help or package. The government should help us survive, and not destroy us.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Why are farmer unions demanding that MSP be made a legal right? If private traders have to compulsorily pay the MSP, they will not trade. How will it benefit farmers?
Why should everything be at the cost of the farmers? You can survive without everything, but if you do not have food, you will die. Can you compare food with any other product? Now, farming has become a loss-making venture but despite that farmers cannot leave it because it is their way of life. Why are you forcing us to become traders? Let us remain producers.
Four lakh farmers have committed suicide. Why didn’t a single corporate-aided intellectual or journalist mention it?… We need certain guarantees and protection. The government has a duty to protect the weaker sections. Now, India is no more a welfare State. It is becoming a neo-liberal State. Welfarism is gradually being finished. But we are demanding welfare measures. Without welfare measures, we cannot survive.
How many industrialists or traders commit suicide? And if they commit suicide, what is the reason? It may be because of bad management of the economy. But farmers fail because of natural calamities, which is not in their hands. They do not receive compensation. As a nation, we have a duty to protect our anna daata (food providers).
ANANT GOENKA: It’s tough to be in the farming profession today. What would your advice be to a 22-year-old from a farming family, who plans to sell off his land and work for a corporate?
The sons and daughters of farmers do not want to engage in farming because their fathers and grandfathers suffered. It is becoming a loss-making venture. In such a situation, what is the duty of the government? Will profit only be for Adani and Ambani, and not for the crores of farmers? If the government manages to improve the situation, then a section of the younger people will remain in farming. Government is not helping (the farmers). They are only interested in contract (farming). There is contract farming all over the country, but at least there is certain control over it. Now, (because of these new laws) contract farming will be totally free. The stronger partner will dominate. And once they buy crops, give loans and inputs, don’t you think rich people will gradually have influence over the land?
ANANT GOENKA: What was the best period for the Indian farmer since Independence?
No government had implemented perfect farmer-friendly policies. Farmers work for 18 hours a day. Their entire family works, day and night, in rain and cold, but they are not receiving any benefit. The government should take responsibility to some extent. But they are not ready to listen to the problems.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: Farming is becoming a loss-making business. How can the situation be improved?
We are giving Rs 6-7 lakh crore to those who are looting the country by (creating) non-performing assets, and cheating the banks and government. Why can’t a part of the exchequer be given to farmers for survival?… Unfortunately, as they (the farmers) come from the poorer sections, no one is concerned. At one point, the middle-class was vocal in its support of the poor. But now, since the neo-liberal policies were introduced, we are seeking a better life for a few, and destroying the lives of common people.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: In Punjab, the major complaint of the farmer was with the arhtiyas or the commission agents, who received 2.5 per cent as commission on anything that the farmers sold. The new laws propose to change that. In that case, don’t you think that the laws will help farmers?
We keep the poor perpetually illiterate and try to exploit them. We are not concerned about raising their consciousness. They should know their rights. But when they go to exert their rights, they are under attack. The government is talking of consensus, which is a very, very favourable word. But what is consensus? This consensus is a democratic consensus or fascist consensus? Democratic consensus means listening to all, taking everybody’s concerns and opinions and combining it to reach a conclusion. And if ‘what I say, you agree’ is (considered) consensus, that is fascist consensus.
NUSHAIBA IQBAL: Is there a way in which we can implement a set of reforms that would give farmers more bargaining power in the market without, as you mentioned, furthering the neo-liberal agenda?
You come to the farmers, consult them, listen to their problems and find out how those problems can be addressed with some participation from the government and with some protective measures. Reform does not mean that all burden will pass on to the farmer, and all benefit will go to the traders.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: What are your expectations from talks with the government?
We are not expecting much because the government’s attitude isn’t very favourable. In the meetings too I told the minister that the Prime Minister has already said that these are very good laws, very beneficial, then what can you do? You have no power. They are only killing time. Lakhs of people are sitting in the cold, three people died… Instead of a more humane attitude to resolve the problem immediately, the government is talking and wasting time to exhaust the farmers so that they are defeated.
SANDEEP SINGH: You mentioned how earlier small traders were looting farmers and now a few corporates will do that. So where does the farmer stand, because even if the previous situation is restored, the farmer will bear losses?
A sincere government can take steps to protect the farmers, to harmonise the relationship between small traders and farmers… There are lakhs of farmers and you have to understand the existing situation of the country. You cannot wish it away. In such a situation you cannot follow ways of Singapore. India is not Singapore. You have to consider your policies based on Indian realities… We need reforms to ensure a harmonious relationship (between farmers and traders). Government must think about it. If you keep farmers in your mind and form policies, that will be a certain type of policy. But if you think about only farming production, trade and export, then the policy will be in a different direction. All the policies formulated by successive governments have been keeping in mind production, benefit, export, import etc. Our demand is to keep the farmer at the centre of the policy and to stop this economic exploitation for benefit to a small section of people.
ATRI MITRA: The Left had a strong organisation among farmers in West Bengal. But there isn’t a consolidated movement against the new farm laws in the state. Why is that the case? Is it because they believe the laws will be beneficial to them?
The farmers (in West Bengal) are not in good condition. During this government’s tenure, 219 farmers committed suicide… We are building the movement and mobilising farmers. There are ups and downs in a movement… The farmers of West Bengal have the same problems as those in the rest of the country — problems of land, cost of production, input cost.
There were some problems initially… People forget they are farmers, and suddenly become Hindu and Muslim. We told them you can be Hindu or Muslim, but you are a farmer… If you become Hindu or Muslim, you become instruments in the hands of communal forces. So, at certain stage, they (farmers of Bengal) were misled and became victims of communalism, which is also dominating other parts of the country. But now they are realising things and coming back to the struggle. The farmers (of Bengal) are also realising that if we have to fight, we have to fight unitedly. There is no other way.
MANOJ C G: Many of the farmer unions are affiliated to the Left. You critics say that you are using these protests to gain political ground.
Farmer movements cannot always be equated with electoral battles. Election has different issues… Now, money power has become a major issue (in polls). We saw it in Bihar elections, where farmers voted against the government (BJP-JD-U government).
HARISH DAMODARAN: Why is it that the Left’s trade union politics has failed whereas its farmer politics seems to be succeeding?
There is no comparison. Earlier, farmers were suffering, but after neo-liberal policies, their problems took the shape of a crisis. Now, there is an agricultural crisis. We are trying to take up their cause and the farmers are coming forward. But you know how the trade union movements have been destroyed all over the world. How the neo-liberal policies have destroyed the workers’ rights… Such policies are trying to destroy the trade union movements, and that is implemented in our country too.
For 70 years, workers fought and got many pro-worker Acts implemented. But now 44 labour Acts have been repealed in the interest of the corporates… The State power is directly involved in attacking the poorer sections, workers and peasants. These are the two producing classes, others are consuming classes… The former is suffering, but the sympathy for these sections (the poor) is reducing… As a last resort we go to the judiciary, and in the last 5-10 years, since the neo-liberal policies, you see that the judgments in favour of the exploited people, poor people, workers is being reduced. The mental make-up is being changed in favour of neo-liberal policies. Corporates are dominating the minds of well-off people. But the workers are still fighting. Over 26 crore workers participated from all over India in the last strike. When there are attacks, reaction will also develop. They are facing a very difficult situation. State power, national power, media, intellectuals, all are putting pressure against these toiling people. They are fighting against all odds to survive.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: But it is the political space vacated in West Bengal by the Left and by socialist parties in UP and Bihar that created the space for the neo-liberal policies that you are talking about…
Earlier, when opportunities were available for the Left and socialist parties, they could not utilise it properly. The weaknesses were there. They realised that they should consolidate what they achieved and take it further. The mistakes and weaknesses were seen. Now, we understand that we need a relook, we need to rectify our weaknesses, and we have to be more practical and objective in our understanding. That thinking is now dominating Left and progressive circles.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Is the international attention that the farmers’ movement has got actually hurting the protest? It has become a security question, people are talking about Khalistanis…
This is a ready-made prescription of the government — security… The government declared war against the farmers when they started coming. They encircled Haryana, they said we are sealing the borders. Have you seen, after Independence, any state sealing its borders to other states? Even during the Khalistani problem, the Punjab border was not sealed. The government sealed the border and attacked farmers in this cold weather with water cannons… Nobody is understanding our problem. Everybody is giving us advice, but nobody is ready to listen to us. But there is no other way (apart from protests).
PARTHASARATHI BISWAS: In Maharashtra, the Shetkari Sanghatana has not supported the present movement. They have welcomed the de-regulation of APMCs and many of the farmer producers’ companies are making considerably good money after the market cess was abolished for trade outside the market. In Maharashtra, there isn’t a groundswell of support for the ongoing movement, unlike the protests two years ago. Why is the movement limited to the northern parts of the country?
Unlike earlier, the farmers are now suffering directly. Their interests are in danger. Why do you think despite the cold, at the start of the sowing season, they have left everything to protest? The government is using the pandemic to destroy us. In Maharashtra too, there is support. These new laws will destroy the farmers all over the country. It is a death knell for farmers. Today, one section will get attacked, tomorrow others will face it. Gradually, it will spread to the whole country. These Acts are not for Punjab, Haryana or Maharashtra. These are for India. I mentioned how the government and the media tried to show that it is a Punjab movement, but that is not the case. The movement is there across the country, only the degree, scale is different.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Can you tell us about some of the leaders who have been most receptive to issues of farmers in the past years?
(Late CPM leader) Benoy Kishna Konar was there. There was Sundarayya (who led the peasant revolt) in Telangana. In Maharashtra, Godavari Parulekar took up issues of farmers and tribal communities… No government in the country in the past has formulated absolute pro-farmer policies. There have been small cosmetic changes, some benefits here and there… But farmers have never been at the centre of agricultural policies. That is
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: Over the years, which agriculture minister have you found most easy to reach out to and communicate with?
(NCP chief) Sharad Pawar was a little sympathetic to the cause of farmers. When we went with our issues, he listened… They have made some small changes, but our demand is for overall policy.