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.

‘Govt Wants Farm Sector To Go Telecom Way’

Dr Sumit Kaur, a 24-year-old dentist from Jalandhar, Punjab, tells LokMarg why she took time off from her practice to lend her voice in favour of farmers at Singhu-Tikri border

You know why farmers are drawing increasing support from national and international groups? That’s because their fears and demands are valid. People across the social spectrum are lending support to this movement because it would completely change the way farmers have lived their lives so far. The very dialogue that the government is having now could have been held before when the Bill was being drafted.

Once farmers give in, we fear things will go from bad to worse. I am a dentist living and practising in Jalandhar (Punjab) and I took leave from work to register my voice at the protest site. I reached the Singhu Border on Delhi outskirts on the night of December 5 and protested with the Kirti Kisan Union at the site. If the protest ‘needs more teeth’ I will ensure that it happens with my voice.

We are a family of farmers and thus consider this to be a landmark moment for us. Many people are not realising what has been going on, but they will understand it when due to these laws, the prices of food items shoot up. The new laws allow stocking of essential commodities and that doesn’t bode well for the poorest of poor.

ALSO READ: ‘Not Afraid Of Police Baton Or Water Cannon’

Does the government and those who question farmers ever pause and think why people are putting their lives at risk and choosing to protest the Bills even during the pandemic? It really must mean so much to people that are choosing to come out on the streets.

A protester at Singhu border holds a placard that says farmer is the backbone of a nation

Few realise that the agriculture sector will soon go the telecom way if the government implements these laws. Like (Reliance) Jio, they will first give lucrative deals to the farmers and then when they have a solid client base, the corporates will create a monopoly to impose their will. In India the land holdings are anyway too small and large families depend on small pieces of land. If the safety net of even the MSP is taken away, where will the poor go? And at a time when most migrant labourers have returned home in wake of the pandemic and there are no jobs in sight, what can an average person do apart from farming?

I am glad so many people, including some world leaders, are supporting the farmers. They are in fact supporting the soul of India. I do feel saddened by people who are trying to tar this movement with separatism. There wasn’t a single anti-national or separatist slogan chanted during the protests and I was a witness to it. Then we have Bollywood celebrities like Kangana Ranaut who has a take on every matter. She said, “ ₹100-100 me protesters available hain.” She should watch her words.

WATCH: ‘Shoot Us In The Chest, We Won’t Turn Away’

The agricultural sector needs serious structural changes but not in the areas that the government thinks. These reforms should be disucussed with agriculture experts, senior farmer leaders and also ordinary citizens at every level.

Some critics say that the protest is untimely as the country is already reeling under the pandemic crisis. I wish to tell them: Vaccine ke bhi pehle roti chahiye. Vaccine asar kare uske liye bhi roti chahiye. (You need food before the vaccine. You need food for the vaccine to work). Everyone needs farmers in order to simply exist. It’s time the government in power and the average man learnt to respect farmers. They are the backbone of this beautiful country!

Dr Sumit Kaur at the protest site on Delhi border

‘We Are Prepared To Die, Let Govt Test Our Mettle’

Digambar Singh, a farmer from Bhadana, Punjab, says Narendra Modi machinery underestimated their resolve in putting up a brave fight against Central laws

Iss bar to aar-par ki ladai hai (It is a do or die situation this time). Just how much can the farmer bear? Some things are better left out of the purview of corporates. We are sons of the soil and we understand the land and its needs much better than corporates. The land we till is our mother, and not a profit making machine, even though we all like to earn well.

When I set out from Bhadana (Punjab) to reach Delhi for protest against the Central Agriculture Laws, I was sad to see that midway in Haryana, the roads had been dug overnight so that we couldn’t reach the protest sites. Heavy concrete barricades had also been placed to block us. Farmers were also being badmouthed. Tear gas, water cannons, lathicharge… but our resolve was firm. Nothing is going to stop us this time.

The government says the various laws are for our benefit and will open up bigger and better markets for us. But if I am a farmer who grows his crops in Punjab, should I go and check out the bigger, better markets in, say, Karnataka or should I be busy sowing the crops? There is already a system in place (adhatiyas) for purchase of our crops and the farmers have been reaping its benefits because of a guaranteed MSP.

ALSO READ: ‘A Farmer Isn’t Afraid Of Police Baton, Water Cannon’

Digambar Singh with fellow protesters at UP Gate protest site

Why try fix a thing that isn’t broken in the first place? You may improve on the existing processes but why do a complete overhaul and that too without proper dialogue with the parties concerned. Farming requires groundwork but the new laws are silent on MSP.

At present I am at the UP Gate (Delhi-UP Ghazipur border) with fellow farmers to register my protest and if the government is going to ignore our voice, then we will also ignore their voice during elections. Fir satta se bahar jane ki taiyari kar lein wo (They better be prepared to stay out of power in that case). Farmers across the country have been committing suicide for many years now and this year the Coronavirus has wreaked a deadly blow to our income. This is the time to protect farmers and let them know they are valued.

The nights here are cold, but we are well-prepared. We have brought rations to last us for a few days and we have also brought bhattis along to cook the food. Let’s see for how long we will need to protest. Sometimes you have to muster up all the strength you have to survive. We are not scared of Coronavirus even though we are taking all necessary precautions.

Our kids have lost precious study time, as rural households don’t have easy access to online learning. Our old parents are suffering. I hear the hospitals are in bad shape due to the pandemic pressure. Par jab marna hi hai to kyu na ladte mara jaye (But if we are destined to die, we shall put up a brave fight?). If the government really wants to help farmers, why not do it directly by strengthening the health and education systems in rural, agrarian zones?

WATCH: ‘Shoot Us In The Chest, We Won’t Turn Back’

Protesters have been camping at Delhi’s Ghazipur border for more than a week now

When The Farmer Fights Back

Iconic moments captured on camera often express a historical event which shakes the conscience of the civil society for all times to come. Captured in a fleeting flash, they remain etched in public memory: the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula, then nameless, shot by Steve McCurry in June 1985 in a Pakistani refugee camp, celebrated on the cover of National Geographic; one thin man standing in defiance against a row of tanks at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 1989; earlier than that, naked children running from a napalm bomb during the Vietnam war; and Che Guevara’s dead body somewhere in a jungle in Bolivia, shot dead by CIA mercenaries.

In contemporary India, as thousands of farmers wait steadfastly at the Delhi-Haryana-UP borders, deciding their next move, some images have already captured the imagination: A dignified old Sikh farmer, totally non-violent, with flowing white beard, in a white kurta -pyjama and jacket, being threatened by a young, wiry cop, belligerent, aggressive and remorseless, his fingers clenched around a rod, his body tensed up with machismo and power.

There are other iconic images too of the struggle:  a young protester jumping from a trolley to a police water cannon vehicle, switching off the tap showering dirty water on a cold day on farmers, and jumping back. (He and his father have reportedly been charged now for murder)

Many endearing moments have arrived yet again: women and men cooking in community kitchens on the highway; women driving a convoy of tractors in protest; and farmers giving food and water to grateful cops.

The last image would have been appreciated by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. This is because the cops, many of them children of hardworking farmers from humble rural backgrounds, had earlier gone all out against the peaceful protesters. They had drenched them with water, in this cold, teargassed them, threatened them with lathis, dug medieval war-like trenches, brought in iron barricades, sand and mud trucks, huge cement slabs, sand bag walls, ship containers, barbed wires, and an endless row of cops in full gear, ready to charge.

REFERENCE POINT: Making Sense Of Central Farm Laws

The farmers have been protesting in Punjab and Haryana since September. November 26 was a national protest day organized jointly by farmer organisations and trade unions against the labour laws being unilaterally enacted by the Centre despite the economic collapse and mass unemployment of millions in the organized and informal sector. These might include draconian provisions like hire and fire, 12 hours work, mass sackings, major changes in pro-worker acts like the Inter-state Migrant Workers Act, Contract Workers Act, the Factories Act, the Industrial Disputes Act, etc, and changes in wages, safety and compensation, while contractors will be calling the shots with no regulations. These trade unions are also opposing unbridled privatisation of the public sector, including banks, railways and airports, whereby certain favoured industrialists of the ruling regime in Delhi are being brazenly backed.

Significantly, there are more than 250 farmers’ organization in the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, and they actually joined hands with the workers on November 26 all over the country, including in West Bengal and South India. The farmers march to Delhi from Punjab and Haryana, and also other Hindi heartland states like Uttarakhand, UP and Rajasthan, however, became the epicenter of this mass uprising, and it is not going to die down so soon.

Police used water cannons on protesting farmers

The question is, why the government is so adamant after pushing the three farm bills in Parliament without consensus? Why is it refusing to make the MSP a law? And why is it so rigidly refusing to budge, to negotiate with flexibility, using strong-arm tactics? What is that unsurmountable, one-dimensional pressure on the Narendra Modi regime that it is ready to alienate farmers, while choosing to block, barricade and brutalise them?

“The BJP government is toeing the line of corporate cronies,” said Vijoo Krishnan, speaking to Lokmarg. He is a top leader of the Left-led All India Kisan Sabha, which led the massive long march of farmers to Mumbai. “The intention of this government is total corporatization of Indian agriculture. But the resistance is unprecedented. Except for the BJP and RSS unions, all other workers and farmers’ unions have joined this resistance. Even state governments like Punjab and Rajasthan are exercising their federal rights in support of the farmers. Kerala has declared MSP for 16 agricultural products, and has protected the farmers during and after the lockdown. Besides, it is providing food to 90 lakh people, including ‘guest workers’ (migrant workers).”

Farmer leader J Hooda from Shamli, Western UP, speaking to Lokmarg at the UP-Delhi barricades, said: “The farmers have always known their sinister motives – to sell our land and agriculture to corporates. Modi is doing precisely that to favour his favourite industrialists. Now the farmers are not going to relent. Drop the farm bills. Make a new law on MSP.”

Hooda says the farmer makes huge losses in the open market, because it is based on market whims, unscrupulous private players and demand and supply ratio. Often, distress sale becomes a norm. Without government support in states, or a central MSP, farmers will be doomed. “They want to abolish local mandis. So where will we go to sell our produce – can we compete in the international market with massive, mechanized farming and huge multinational farmer lobbies? Why are they pushing us into the hands of unethical corporates who are now trying to capture Indian agriculture through the backdoor backed by the BJP regime?”

Indeed, while Punjab and Haryana (with UP and MP) are the biggest producers of rice and wheat, there are 23 crops, including cereals, pulses, commercial crops, on the list. India is 80 per cent agriculture – the food chain begins at the land of the tiller and ends long distances in metros and small towns. In this complex and long chain, thousands of people are involved: farmers, entire families, landless farmers and sharecroppers, small and middle farmers, local services and ancillary networks, small markets, shopkeepers, loaders, truckers, workers, mandis, mills and factories, small scale and big industries, and others. It’s corporate and government propaganda that only 6 per cent of rich farmers are benefitting from MSP. What about the millions integrated to the entire process till the food reaches your table? ask farmers.

Argues Vijoo Krishnan: “MSP ensures at least that much for farmers if public procurement is there. In states where there is no effective public procurement, farmers get paid even below the MSP. For instance, while the MSP of paddy is around Rs 1860 per quintal in Bihar, Odisha etc, farmers are forced to sell at Rs 1000-1200 per quintal.”

ALSO READ: ‘MSP Must Be Fixed For All Crops’

Farmers are also arguing that even the MSP, based on state averages, is arbitrary. Kerala pays many times more per quintal for paddy, and the crop produce costs vary from state to state. But the government refuses to usher in serious policy changes for large scale benefits to the vast rural sector, even while pampering and subsidising big industrialists and waiving off their debts etc, while facilitating lucrative contracts for them, like the privatisation of airports and railways, or the Rafael deal.

Farmer are angry that the government is shy on implementing the comprehensive Swaminathan Commission recommendations, including the guarantee of 50 per cent more than the stated MSP, among other reforms, like compensating for land, labour, seed, pesticides, fertilisers, diesel, electricity, water, tractors, machines, and other things needed for agriculture. They are asking why the government has not returned the GST to them on all the additional things they have used for agriculture.

Indian economy is in crisis because crony capitalism by profit sharks have ravaged it with no signs of recovery during the pandemic. Now they are greedily eyeing the post-independence public sector and agriculture. If the farmers are driven to the edge, for the benefit of favoured industrialists and powerful MNCs, then there is no option left for them but to fight back. That is why, as of now, it is a do or die struggle for the thousands of defiant and non-violent farmers, now steadfast at the borders of the capital of India.