Farmers’ Agitation Is Modi Govt’s Biggest Test

Forget the Covid pandemic; forget the economic downturn; forget election debacles or political crises. The biggest test that the Modi regime, soon to turn seven years old, has been subjected to during its ongoing tenure is the deafening protests by farmers against the changes that the Indian government has sought to bring about in the way farmers are able to grow, market, and price their produce.

In the last three months, protests by farmers have reached a crescendo. On January 26, which was India’s 72nd Republic Day, a group of angry farmers deviated from their designated protest route, tried to storm the historic Red Fort, and clashed with police. As that was happening, a few kilometres away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was presiding over the official Republic Day celebrations on Delhi’s Rajpath.

At least 70 farmers have died during the raging protests against three laws that the government has passed. And, the protests, which began in the northern state of Punjab, have now spread across the country. What makes the controversial farm laws and the protests against them such a big trial for Modi and his government? For an answer, let us first recapitulate the new laws and their impact.

The three new farm laws change decades-old policies regarding procurement and storage of farm produce. One law permits the setting up of mandis (or trading places) that are de-regulated from government control—that is, where farmers can sell directly to all traders at prices they negotiate rather than to only government licensed traders; another law permits farmers to enter into contract farming through deals with corporate entities and to grow whatever crops they decide to under contract; and the third allows traders to stock produce with less restrictions than at present.

The government’s rationale for these changes is ostensibly this: they will enable farmers to sell at whatever prices they want and to anyone they want to; and to be able to enter into contracts that could assure them regular and steady streams of income. From the ongoing protests, which have been escalating, it is quite evident that the farmer community has not bought this logic.

Farmers and their supporters feel that especially the smaller farmers whose incomes are meagre will be hit by the new measures. First, their produce volumes are too small for them to be able to negotiate prices with traders who aren’t regulated—thereby they would likely be exploited. Second, although the government has assured that the mandi system will not be dismantled, farmers fear that the new “unregulated” mandis will consequently do exactly that, and that small and medium farmers will suffer. Lastly, contract farming, they fear is a way of giving the corporate sector easy access to the farm sector.

Nearly 60% of 1.3 billion Indians depend either directly or indirectly on agriculture, which accounts for 18% of the GDP. But the farm sector is severely skewed. Almost 70% of Indian farmers own land that is less than 2 hectares (20,000 sq. m) in area. And as much as a quarter of Indian farmers subsist below the poverty line. Moreover, because of lack of alternative employment opportunities millions of Indians depend on the farm sector without really contributing to productivity.

Against that background, reforms in the agriculture sector are overdue. But changing the system of pricing and procurement of crops without other structural changes in the sector cannot be a solution. In fact, it could lead to further suffering for millions of Indian farmers. The farmers’ protests are a sign of how acute the problem is. And, for the Modi government, it is the most critical test that it faces in its tenure thus far. In 2016, Prime Minister Modi announced a sudden decision to demonetise large currency bills. Ostensibly, it was with the intent of limiting or detecting unaccounted money in the system. What resulted was: widespread suffering for small traders, daily wage earners and other large segments of the population that operate in the “cash economy”. Those with so-called unaccounted wealth went largely unscathed.

Demonetisation was certainly a critical test that the government faced. But its effects—on economic growth and on small businesses—were not nearly as serious as the impact of the new farm laws have been. Over the last few days, the clashes between farmers and the authorities have turned more violent, particularly in the areas surrounding the capital city of Delhi. The authorities resorted to blocking of Internet in various areas around the capital and neighbouring states—purportedly in efforts to curb social media interactions. Police resorted to tear gas and baton charges against thousands of protestors. Already, the ripples of what is happening in India have reached the world outside. And questions are being asked about the true value of democracy in a country that prides itself as being run on the highest democratic principles.

ALSO READ: The World Is Taking Note Of Indian Farmers’ Protest

The police and authorities’ action against famers’ protests have also spilled over to affect others. A freelance journalist, Mandeep Punia, who was covering the protests, was arrested on the border between Delhi and Haryana last weekend. He was granted bail after spending two days in custody and much outrage. Others have had cases filed against them for reporting or broadcasting news that has been considered “anti-government”.

But the more serious issue is that India’s mainstream media has almost been rendered toothless in recent years, particularly after the current government came to power in 2014. It does not require media experts to see how the majority of mainstream TV news channels and print publications largely avoid taking on the government and critiquing its policies. When they choose to do so the critiques are of the milquetoast variety, tailored not to ruffle the feathers of those in power too much. In any democracy, the role of the media as the fourth estate should be that of a watchdog. In India, at least when you look at it from a dispassionately distanced point of view, it may seem that the mainstream media is more of a lapdog.

For the Modi government, the farmers’ agitation has other possible consequences. The farm sector’s voters aggregate as the largest block during any election. And although the government at the Centre is safely ensconced for the next four years, there are crucial state elections that are due and those could be impacted by which way farmers decide to vote. Also, if the agitations escalate and food supplies are affected across India, they could have other economic consequences such as inflation and distribution bottlenecks. Already reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic, the economy could be hit further. For the Modi government the farmers’ agitation over the controversial laws could be something that could bring it to its knees.

‘Protest And Studies Both Important For My Future’

Jarmanjeet Singh, 21, son of a farmer from Amritsar is camping at Singhu border to protest against the farm bills. When he is not agitating, Singh is attending online classes in computer applications

We have been told by the Union leaders to stay here till the newly inducted farm bills are not repealed. Many of us have been relay protesters, who camp at the protest site for 15 days then head back to tend family and household matters for the next 15 days. This cycle has to be maintained to strike a balance for our present as well as our future.

We are a family of farmers. We have fields at the outskirts of Amritsar. While I regularly work at the farms to help my family, I am also pursuing my post-graduate diploma in computer applications (PGDA). My parents have high hopes for me. They want me to get a good job since farming is no longer a profitable vocation. For this reason, I have brought my study material to Singhu border as 15-day is a long period and I shall not want to miss my online classes.

ALSO READ: ‘Providing Food To Farmer Is Sacred Duty’

I am not a student of economics, but it is easy to understand why the farmers are agitated. It takes months of hard work and patience to grow a crop and we never get the right price for the product. If a person creates a product, he or she has to decide the price of the product in the market; however, this is not the case with the farmers.

Singh brought his study material to the protest site at Singhu border

We produce crops and the adhatiyas decide the price. The government’s promise of minimum selling price (MSP) is rarely followed. And when this system has established well, the government wants to bring in corporates to fix the price.

ALSO READ: ‘This Govt Underestimated Farmers’ Grit’

Very often, the farmer is not even able to extract the input cost of the farm produce. For, it is not in our hands to determine the market price. The demand and price fluctuate at an alarming level and in a bad season, we are unable to meet our basic necessities.

The growth in farming has virtually stopped and that is why my parents don’t want me to take up farming. Therefore, I am trying my best to strike a balance between my studies and the agitation. The agitation is as important as studies for a farmer’s family like ours. One holds our present, another our future.

I am a student and my parents are bearing all of my expenses. If the only source of income to my family is threatened, what shall I do? I will go home in some days and then will return after spending 15 days there. I have no idea how long the agitation will go but I am prepared to stay with my fellow farmers for a long haul.

Watch – ‘We Don’t Trust This Jumlebaaz Govt’s Word’

Agitating farmers at Singhu border tell LokMarg that ground situation about state procurement is different from what Modi government managers are speaking on the media. Haryana farmers list out their hardships in selling their millet and groundnut crops, their counterpart from Punjab say the current regime is working under the pressure of capitalists who want to establish monopoly in the agriculture sector

They have little faith in the verbal assurance from the government over minimum support price or Mandi system. “The very fact that the Centre is ready to amend the laws shows they have inherent flaws,” the farmers on the site say.

Watch full video here

Also Watch: ‘Govt Has Sold Itself To Adani-Ambani’

Also Watch: ‘Won’t Go Back Till Black Laws Withdrawn’

Watch – ‘Modi Govt Has Sold Itself To Adani-Ambani’

Agitating farmers at Singhu border say their massive protests have brought the NDA government down on its knees and first they will bring down Haryana government in a few weeks, and later the Union government if their demands are not met.

Haryana farmers are also angry that their electoral support had been taken for granted by dynast Dushyant Chautala and Khattar government. They feel betrayed by political class as well as the media for portraying the kisan movement as Khalistani movement.

The farmers say the government has sold itself to Ambani-Adanis. They are confident that the government will have to take back the laws as the protesters are ready for a long haul.

Watch full video here:

Watch Part I Of Farmers Voice: ‘Won’t Go Back Till Laws Repealed’

Watch – ‘Won’t Go Back Till Black Laws Are Withdrawn’

LokMarg visits Singhu Border where farmers from Punjab and Haryana have been holding sit-in protest against Central Agriculture Laws. The protestors are firm in their resolve to stay put till the time Modi government withdraws the ‘black laws’. These farmers are angry over what they call “false reassurances” on MSP and farmers mandis only after prolonged protests.

There is also anger and distrust over private participation in procurement of farm yield, which they say will harm both the producer and the consumer. Some even liken the current regime to British Raj in its nonchalance toward the care and condition of the farming community

Watch Part I of the video here:

Watch – ‘We Haven’t Heard Of Farm Laws Or Protests’

Farmers of Punjab and Haryana have intensified their protests against Central Agri Laws and are camping at various protests sites on Delhi border. However, scores of small farmers in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh have little knowledge of either the new Central laws or the ongoing protests, even though they say that farming is a non-profitable occupation and payments from the crop-buyers are erratic and below MSP.

These farmers complain of dwindling incomes but have no solution in sight for their hardships. Clearly, farmer leaders have failed to communicate their agenda to a broader spectrum of farming community.

Watch the full video here: