‘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.

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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?

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

Modi Govt’s Contempt For Parliament

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi entered Parliament for the first time after he led his party to a resounding electoral victory in 2014, he bent down and kissed the green-carpeted steps as a mark of respect to the “temple of democracy”.

But, for all purposes, the gesture proved to be a mere photo-op. For over the past six years the Modi government has been in power, it has systematically undermined this very temple of democracy.

Besides the fact that Modi puts in a rare appearance in the two Houses, his government has shown disdain for Parliamentary procedures and processes. The opposition’s demands for discussion on key issues are either not met or conceded with great reluctance. In the last session, the government refused the opposition demand for a discussion on China on the plea that it would jeopardize national security.

In a rush to push through its legislative agenda, the government avoids referring Bills to Parliamentary committees for scrutiny and has further curtailed the role of Parliament by taking the route of promulgating ordinances. Then again committees which usually witness bipartisan discussion are now openly divided along political lines.

In the recently concluded monsoon session, the government’s contempt for Parliament was on display when it did away with question hour which allows members to hold ministers accountable for their policies. Members were consequently deprived of their right to seek answers from the treasury, which often yields valuable information and insight.

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The final blow was dealt when the government rammed through the three contentious farm Bills and Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Harivansh Narayan Singh came to the aid of the treasury benches by ignoring the opposition demand for a vote on the legislation.

As a result, relations between the government and the opposition have touched a new low. Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu suspended eight members for unruly behaviour and the opposition responded by boycotting the session. The monsoon session was hurriedly adjourned because of the coronavirus pandemic but the opposition has now taken to the streets to register its protest against the “anti-farmer” Bills.

The bitter face-off currently being witnessed between the two sides has now become a regular feature. Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power with a thumping majority in 2014, its ministers and Parliamentary managers have made little effort to reach out to the opposition. The tension between the treasury and the opposition has been palpable since then. Among a host of issues, a major point of friction has been the government’s determined effort to avoid scrutiny of its legislative agenda by Parliamentary committees.

The purpose of referring Bills to these panels was to strengthen and improve the Bills by allowing members to study them in detail and also get inputs from experts. Since the committee meetings are not televised, the discussions have, so far, been conducted in a bipartisan fashion. A genuine effort is made to forge a consensus among the members drawn from different parties.

In addition, the present ruling alliance has also resorted to promulgating ordinances to circumvent in depth deliberation of a legislation. Between April and September this year, the government promulgated as many as 11 ordinances and not all were related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since ordinances have to be replaced by Bills within six months, there is virtually no discussion on these legislation when Parliament meets as most of them are rushed through. This also means the government can avoid referring these Bills to committees.

The Modi government constantly flaunts its success rate in the passage of Bills. Though it is a fact that a far higher number of Bills were passed in its first term as compared to the earlier Lok Sabha, fewer bills were referred to committees. According to PRS Legislative Research only 25 per cent of the Bills introduced were sent to committees in the Modi government’s earlier term as compared to 71 percent when the United Progressive Alliance government was in power. In the present Lok Sabha only 10 percent of the Bills introduced have been referred to committees.

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The functioning of standing committees has also been impacted by the open display of partisanship in the meetings. These panels usually function on a non-party basis but lately, members are being increasingly guided by their political affiliation. This was on display when the committee on home affairs took up a discussion on Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370. More recently, the standing committee on Information Technology was embroiled in a controversy when its chairperson Shashi Tharoor and a BJP member filed privilege motions against each other over their public remarks. The ruling alliance also used its majority in the Public Accounts Committee to stall a discussion on the PM Cares Fund.

When the Modi government came to power in 2014, it was hemmed in because it did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. But now that it is comfortably placed in the Upper House, it feels it is under no compulsion to defer to Parliamentary procedures and conventions. It also does not feel the need to consult the opposition. The ruling alliance has successfully restricted the role of Parliament to the passage of the government’s legislative agenda. The opposition’s right to question the government and act as its watchdog is gradually being whittled away.