The Farmer, The Protest... and everything in between!
The Twitter Spat
Twitter was recently set ablaze by the spat between actress Kangana Ranaut and singer-songwriter Diljit Dosanjh. The insults hurled at each other and frantic translations of Diljit’s tweets from Punjabi to other languages by netizens epitomized the polarized circumstances precipitated by the three farm bills the government passed in September 2020. The spat began with Kangana misidentifying a protesting woman farmer by labeling her as Bilkis Bano, who became famous during the anti-CAA protests earlier this year. She insinuated that the protest was politically motivated and that anti-establishment elements were influencing the protestors. Diljit responded by sharing a video clip of the woman farmer and tweeted that her name is Mahinder Kaur. The vitriolic spat that followed was a clash of two disparate narratives. A clash that began because of the government’s vision of “liberating” the farmers.
So, what exactly are these new farm bills about?
The government passed these farm laws in late September amidst vehement opposition, with many alleging that these bills were passed unconstitutionally. Even political parties that usually sided with the government opposed the bill. Two of the three bills were passed by voice vote amidst ruckus in the upper house. The president approved all three bills, and they became laws. They were projected as major reforms that would bring a much-needed change in the stagnant agricultural sector. These bills promised to remove middlemen and enable the farmers to sell anywhere in the country.
Some salient points of these laws are:
Enable the farmers to bypass the government regulated markets known as mandis and sell produce directly to private buyers, thus opening up the sector to private players. Till these bills came into effect, the first sale of produce could only occur at the mandis of the APMC (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee). This bill allows them to sell outside these regulated markets.
Allow the farmers to enter into contracts with agri-business firms or large retailers at pre-agreed prices of their produce. This practice is known as contract farming and will allow the farmers to sell across state borders.
These laws also remove the previous restrictions imposed on hoarding agricultural stock. This will allow traders and other players to stockpile produce. Under the old rules, the practice of hoarding was a criminal offense.
A still from the farmer’s protest. Credit: Indian Express.
The protests against the enforcement of the farm bills are rooted in genuine concerns that the farmers had.
Their contentions with opening the sector to private players are:
Their primary contention is regarding the issue of Minimum Support Price, the assured price at which the government buys crops from the farmers at the APMC. The new laws allow private players to set up their mandis which are under no statutory obligation to pay the minimum support price for the produce. Since the new laws do not guarantee a minimum price for any product, farmers worry that the provision of MSP will be abolished at some point. It would be a big blow to farmers who grow the foods that are currently eligible for the MSP, many of whom are from Punjab and Haryana, the home states of a large proportion of the protesters out on the roads.
The enforcement of the laws removes many of the safeguards that the farmers had earlier. Since the majority of the farmers in the country own less than two hectares of land, they would not have any bargaining power over the cost of their crops when negotiating with big players.
The new legal provisions also state that to resolve disputes, farmers can go to government officials or bodies but cannot take this matter to civil court. This leaves them without any safety net as there is no independent mechanism to resolve their dispute.
The provision of allowing traders to stockpile produce gives them the power to manipulate market prices of crops, adversely affecting the farmers' income.
The political backlash was severe. Several opposition parties including the DMK, TMC, Congress, and BSP opposed the agriculture sector reform bills, saying they were against the interests of marginal farmers. Congress intensified its attack against the Modi government, terming the move as an attempt to defeat the Green Revolution. These bills also became a point of contention between regional partners and the BJP. The alliance between the Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP in Punjab broke because of these bills. Harsimrat Badal, the sole representative from the Akali Dal in the Modi government, resigned in protest from the Union Cabinet.
Police using water cannons to disperse the protestors.
The protests mainly began in the state of Punjab and Haryana around the time that the bills were made public. Many unions from these states began holding local protests. In Punjab, because of the escalation of the protests, railway services had to be suspended. After around two months of holding protests within their respective states, dissatisfied with the tepid response of the state governments to their demands, the farmers decided to pressure to central government by marching to Delhi. The local protest suddenly morphed into a Dilli Chalo campaign to force the government to repeal the three farm bills. On 25 November 2020, the protestors were confronted by the police at the borders of the city. The police used tear gas and water cannons, dug up roads and used layers of barricades and sand barriers to stop the protestors, leading to at least three farmer casualties. Amidst the agitation, on 27 November, media highlighted the actions of youth who jumped onto a police water cannon targeting protesting farmers and turned it off. The march on Delhi was accompanied by a 24-hour strike of 250 million people across India on 26 November 2020 in opposition to both the farm law reform and proposed changes to labor law. Between 28 November and 3 December, the number of farmers blocking Delhi is between 150 to 300 thousand.
The Negotiation Table
The Center allotted the date of 3 December 2020 for discussing the future of the new farm laws. After talks with the central government reached an impasse on 5 December, the farmers confirmed their plans for a national strike on 8 December. On 9 December 2020, the unions rejected the center's proposal to amend the laws, which included a written assurance of payment of minimum support price for crops. They reinstated that they would continue protesting until the government repealed the three laws. Several prominent personalities have also extended their support to the protest, with heads of state and parliamentarians from different countries urging the Indian government to accept the demands of the farmers. This protest has now morphed into a national movement that has grabbed the attention of the whole world. Many are claiming the central government's reaction to this protest will have a significant impact on elections in the future. How the Modi government will respond and resolve this situation will be interesting to see.