The present farmers’ movement began to take shape in Punjab when the three ordinances were promulgated in the first week of June. These ordinances were converted into bills for the enactment of three Acts in Parliament and passed hurriedly, ignoring serious objections within both Houses and the opposition outside.
The farmers started a widespread mobilisation within Punjab — holding flag marches in villages, demonstrations in cities and dharnas in front of the houses of MPs and MLAs. They formed a front of 31 farmers’ unions in the state and held rallies in Chandigarh. They decided to remain completely peaceful in their movement. They also constituted a committee to hold talks with the government at various levels. They got these Acts translated into Punjabi and held extensive discussions between themselves and experts in the state and outside to sharpen their understanding of the gamut of issues related to the economics of farming and the implications of the new legislation. They also held meetings with the Punjab chief minister to do something to block the implementation of these Acts to save the future of farming and farmers.
During the Parliament session in October, one of the oldest allies of BJP, the Shiromani Akali Dal, came out in support of the farmers and its representative in the Union cabinet resigned. This forced the Punjab government to pass a resolution in the state assembly not to implement the laws. This resolution was supported by all political parties except the BJP and submitted to the Governor for approval. The approval of this resolution is still awaited.
The farmers started protesting in front of the houses of BJP leaders, toll plazas on highways, Reliance petrol pumps and shopping malls and occupied railway lines to block the movement of trains. The Government of India suspended the movement of goods trains to discontinue the movement of grains from Punjab, and coal, fertiliser and other goods into Punjab. This was done so that the farmer unions would be blamed for the blockade of all commodities.
The nature of the peaceful protest not only got the support of political parties but a wide range of people, including traders, commission agents, trade unions, teachers, writers, poets, singers, artists and lawyers. At this stage, the Punjab farmers began to contact farmers from other states to oppose the three laws. Initially, farmers from Haryana began to join them, followed by those from Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and others.
The Centre invited the Punjab farmers to Delhi for talks but they were met only by the agricultural secretary, not a Union minister, leading the farmers to walk out. This episode led to the government losing some of its credibility. But the farmers did not lose hope and faith in negotiations.
The farmers then thought of putting pressure on the government by moving their protest from the states to Delhi from November 25-26. As they began to move towards Delhi from Punjab and Haryana, the Haryana government began to put serious restrictions on their entry on the highways passing through its territory. When farmers tried to cross the barriers, the police used tear gas and water cannons to stop them. They were also lathi-charged at some places. But the farmers remained peaceful despite the provocations from the Haryana police. Rather, they provided lunch to the cops who lathicharged them.
The farmers contend that the Acts will be extremely harmful to agriculture. These laws, they argue, have been enacted to involve big players in the trade of agricultural commodities by amending the Essential Commodities Act 1955 and withdrawing the Food Corporation of India (FCI) from public procurement of foodgrain like wheat and paddy. This was also recommended by the Shanta Kumar committee. By removing the ceiling on stock holdings for wholesale traders, processors of agricultural produce and exporters, the government is preparing to withdraw from the procurement of foodgrain and hand it over to the corporate players.
The government is thrusting contract farming on farmers in association with corporates who represent crony capitalism and whose track record in contract farming is not up to the mark. This is also borne out by an earlier, very bitter experience of farmers in Punjab, and recently with the sugar mills, which did not pay them for 3-5 years.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement Act takes out the dispute resolution mechanism from the purview of courts and hands it over to the SDM (sub-divisional magistrate) and the DC (district collector) — who are perceived as being under pressure from their political masters. The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act allows any trader with a PAN card to trade in agricultural commodities anywhere in the country. They will be exempted from any tax, cess or fee charged under the Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act, which are used for rural development and market infrastructure. This is a fabulous favour to traders. This also allows many traders to operate in agricultural commodities trading and lure farmers and cheat them.
The government argues that these laws facilitate the farmers to sell anywhere in the country to get maximum prices. It is further argued that contract farming can provide predetermined prices to farmers contracted in advance. This will ensure them prices more than the MSP. This will abolish intermediaries between buyers and sellers, enabling farmers to get higher prices.
The government’s arguments are fallacious and based on theoretical propositions. The abolition of APMC markets and middlemen/commission agents in Bihar did not lead to better prices for farmers, who get prices far below MSP from traders who later sell in other states at higher prices and earn higher profits. Most farmers (86 per cent) in India are small and marginal who can sell in only local markets. The unquestioned trust which the government has in corporates is equally matched by the trust deficit of farmers who have had bitter experiences with them.
At present, there are wide differences between the government and the agitating farmers on the anticipated outcome of these laws. The positions are hardening every passing day, and the protest movement is only growing stronger. India’s farmers have lost much since 1991 because of the freeing of input prices and the collapse of health and education services in rural areas. This has been complicated by the degradation of soil and the environment, adding to diminishing productivity and increasing costs. The latest move to raise diesel prices has also hurt. The bill to amend the Electricity Act 2003 has created apprehensions in the mind of the farmers regarding the withdrawal of the power subsidy.
For the survival of farmers, the leadership demands the repeal of the three laws, and an assurance that MSP and procurement by FCI will continue. The government has the option to accommodate the farmers and dispel their fears over MSP and market clearance. This can help avoid a prolonged standoff.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 4, 2020 under the title ‘Let positions not harden’. The writer is senior professor at Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID).
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