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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 Counter

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. The provision of allowing traders to stockpile produce gives them the power to manipulate market prices of crops, adversely affecting the farmers' income.