Loss of faith in the government due to its perceived failure on multiple fronts regarding agrarian issues in the last 11 months have now boiled over with fears of a corporate takeover in the guise of three new agriculture laws, passed in September.
On November 27, the Union government stopped thousands of protesting farmers from entering Delhi. Hours later, the government relented and allowed their entry to the capital city.
Since November 27, tens of thousands of farmers — mostly from India’s agrarian states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — have camped at various border points of Delhi in protest.
At the epicenter of this protest are the three farm laws passed by Parliament in September and the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020. The three laws are:
- The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020
- The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020
- The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020.
It has been 11 days since the sit-in protest started, even as more farmers from other states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala have moved towards Delhi. Besides Delhi, simultaneous protests are happening at many places across the country, demanding the repeal of the laws.
There have been five rounds of talks between the government and farmer unions till December 7, 2020 but all have failed to make a breakthrough.
While the government agreed to make some amendments in the laws, farmers have made it clear that they would accept nothing short of a repeal of the laws. Only then could a discussion on further reforms take place, they said.
The government’s offer to amend these laws has been rejected by over 40 farmer union leaders who have been talking to the government on behalf of farmers, sitting on five different borders, with a set of five major demands since November 26.
At the outset, the fears are that the new laws, especially the first two, will result in phasing out of the traditional mandis (wholesale grain markets) and the guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) paid by the government and would leave the farmers at the mercy of corporates and multinationals.
On the other hand, the Cent has been reiterating that the reforms will free the farmers from the monopoly of the middlemen and traders and give them freedom to sell their produce wherever they want to.
The laws, it says, are a step towards ‘One Nation One Market’. While Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar has repeatedly assured farmers that the Union government would not do away with MSP, it has had little effect on assuaging the farmer community as well as the Opposition.
Earlier, Union Minister for Food Processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the Cabinet on terming the Acts as ‘anti-farmer’.
But since these reforms were introduced in June, developments in different states have gone against the government’s intended ‘One Nation One Market’ spirit.
In the BJP-ruled states of Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, the chief ministers passed diktats aimed at discouraging farmers from other states from selling their crop.
During the peak kharif procurement season in October, the Manohar Lal Khattar government banned the farmers of non-basmati paddy (which is procured by government) from Uttar Pradesh (UP) to sell their crop in the state — an odd development at a time when the new laws aim for a pan-India market and farmers’ freedom to sell anywhere.
This left many paddy growers in UP in the lurch as every year, many of them sell their crops in APMC (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee) mandis of Karnal and Kurukshetra as they don’t get an assured MSP in their own mandis.
The government later said only those farmers who were registered with Haryana’s online registration portal will be allowed to sell. Ironically, Khattar has been one of the most vociferous supporters of the new laws in the face of the protests by farmers in the state.
Similarly, a few days ago, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said the state government will only buy the crops grown in Madhya Pradesh. If anyone from other states tries to sell their crops in the state, their trucks will be confiscated and they will be imprisoned.
Changing geography of protests
Since Parliament approved the farm laws, farmers have staged at least 20 protests across 16 states (excluding Punjab, Haryana and UP) between September 25 and December 6. The recent protests against the three farm bills are a culmination of rising dissent among farmers in the country.
This, however, is not the first instance of farmers clamoring against the Centre’s ‘unjust’ policies: At least 51 major protests were reported across 22 Indian states in 11 months between January and December 6. These include five country-wide protests in January, May, August, September and December.
The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) called the first large-scale protest against the three laws way back on August 9, 2020. The protest, with the slogan Corporate Bhagao, Kisani Bachao (Drive away corporates, save farmers), saw participation from 250 farmers unions under the AIKSCC banner.
The beginning of the year was marked by the largest-ever strike on January 8, 2020: An estimated 250 million workers, employees, farmers and rural laborers came out on streets to protest against the Union government’s economic policies and divisive politics.
The protest was against the government’s alleged failure on multiple fronts, including providing freedom from indebtedness and implementing effective crop insurance and disaster compensation in the face of drought, floods and unseasonal rains, among other issues.
Over 200 farmers and agriculture workers’ unions had supported it by observing the day as Gramin Bharat Bandh and the supply of all perishable and essential commodities to the national capital was disrupted.
Punjab has been the frontrunner in these protests: Farmers there have protested regularly against the farm bills and Electricity Bill, 2020 since May. But the agitation there has only recently seen a comeback: The state did not record any agrarian agitation between 2016 and 2018, according to the latest data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
The geography of farmers’ protests is widening. The country reported 37 protests in 15 states in 2018, according to the State of India’s Environment 2018: In figures. The year 2020 may break these records, it seems.
A look at media reports and the data provided by the NCRB as of 2018 indicated that new states have been registering farmers’ protests. For example, according to the latest data, Andhra Pradesh did not report a single agitation by the farmers in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
But in 2020, the state has reported at least four protests so far. Similarly, Goa did not report any incidence of agrarian agitation between 2016 and 2018, according to the NCRB. But the state reported incidences of protest by sugarcane farmers in February 2020.
Distress among farmers in the North East, too, has been on the rise. In Assam, agrarian agitations increased by nine times between 2016 and 2018. In 2018, the state reported 37 cases of agrarian distress as compared to just four in 2016, according to NCRB. Manipur and Tripura, with no recorded protest by farmers from 2016-2018, reported agitations in 2020.
A sector that beat COVID-19
Even as they were protesting from January onwards, the farmers of India were also doubling up their efforts to produce even more food than is expected of them.
On November 27, the National Statistical Office located near Parliament, released its report on the novel coronavirus disease pandemic-contracted economy for the second quarter that also marked the first half of the current fiscal.
Of the eight major sectors that are used to calculate the gross domestic product, only the agriculture sector reported growth; the rest contracted up to 30 percent.
For the first half of the fiscal, the agriculture sector, in fact, reported the highest gross value added to the economy among the eight sectors. This is the highest in the last three years.
To put it in simple terms: the agriculture sector added Rs 834,897 crore to the economy, while the other sectors added much less than what they used to in normal years like last year.
Also, on that day, news trickled that the acreage for the rabi (winter) crop was higher by four per cent compared to the last season. Just before this, the country had already witnessed a record-breaking production in the kharif (monsoon) season.
When all these events and developments are inferred together, a clear picture emerges: There is a correlation between higher crop production and farmers’ protests.
The three new agriculture laws passed by Parliament have only added to this rising trend of farmers demanding a fair price for their produce and an assured market.
This article first appeared in DownToEarth. Click here to go to the original.