By Arvind Kumar Singh
Indian farmers, when upset, are capable of shaking the very foundations of political power. Rajiv Gandhi, who came riding a massive mandate in 1984, faced the wrath of farmers led by Mahendra Singh Tikait’s Bharatiya Kisan Union in 1988-89. The Congress government never recovered fully, and lost the Lok Sabha elections in 1989. Now it’s the turn of Narendra Modi, who came back as prime minister for a second term on an improved mandate, to face the fury of farmers’ agitation.
The farmers from Punjab and Haryana came out in protest against the three new farm laws of the Central government. They are worried that the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act would leave them at the mercy of large corporates.
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The current protest, like the one in 1980s, is criticised as an agitation from ‘Kulaks’, or rich peasants. Critics say the spate of farmer protests was started by the rich farmers from Punjab. While the agitation was started by the farmers in Punjab, it has already garnered support across the nation.
The differences between the two movements are stark. There is no big leader like Tikait in the current episode, but the unity among farmer organisations in the current protest and the maturity and coordination they exhibit make it unique. Even small farmers who are part of the protest are coming on their own, and are aware of the issues.
In its six years, it is probably for the first time that the Modi government has gone into the defensive mode. The government had ignored all the protests from farmers since 2014, it is now holding talks with the protesters.
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As a journalist, I had the opportunity to watch the movement led by Tikait in 1988-89 from close quarters. On January 27, 1988, farmers under the leadership of Tikait laid siege to Meerut Divisional Commissioner’s office for 25 days. This made Tikait a significant figure and gave birth to a national body of farmers. Same year in October, a protest was organised at Delhi’s Boat Club lawns where lakhs of farmers occupied the entire stretch between Vijay Chowk and India Gate. The protest got worldwide attention and put so much pressure on the government that within a week, the Rajiv Gandhi government bowed down to the demands of the farmers. Next year, another mass protest by farmers was organised on October 2, which damaged the reputation of the Rajiv Gandhi government badly.
This current spate of protests was initiated by the farmers from Haryana and Punjab, who are much better off compared to their peers in other parts of the country. They first protested against the bills and later against the laws. It seems the government had no idea that its new laws will face such massive protests across the nation.
Initially, the Narendra Modi government tried to give a political colour to protests. In both the Houses of Parliament, the opposition demanded that the bills be sent to the respective standing committees. Some MPs were of the view that if the government wants a mass-scale reform in the farm sector, then it should take the opinion of the states as agriculture is a state subject. The government ignored the demands to make minimum support price (MSP) mandatory and ensure that the mandis continued to function. Some MPs said several farm products have been hoarded during the pandemic crisis and there should be strict norms to check hoarding. However, the government did not pay any attention and called the opposition agents of middlemen.
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The NDA government has been emphatic about its intention of doubling the income of farmers. It managed to garner the support of farmers through its schemes such as Soil Health Card, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi. However, this time around, the farmers have been doubtful about the intention of the government. The way the new laws were passed without proper discussion deepened their doubts. The BJP seemed to be in a rush to implement the laws that it even ignored the opinion of its oldest ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal.
The BJP government in Haryana did all it can to stop the farmers from Punjab reaching Delhi, but failed in its efforts. The Centre urged the farmers to go to the Sant Nirankari Ground in Delhi’s Burari area. The farmers rejected the offer, calling the place temporary jail. They demanded Ramleela ground or Jantar Mantar for protests. Meanwhile, the protest garnered massive support with several thousand farmers gathering across the borders of Delhi.
The protesting farmers are not illiterates like those participated in the earlier movements. They may not have degrees, but are empowered by education and technology. The opposition to the government’s farm policies is not restricted to Punjab alone. In the last few years, the country has witnessed massive protests by farmers of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh.
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The UPA government had announced Rs 72,000 crore loan waiver in 2008-09. The NDA government has also announced popular schemes such as PM-Kisan that offered 6,000 per year income support. More than 11 crore farmers benefitted from the scheme. Despite all this, farmers have suffered because of the soaring prices of farm inputs such as fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, fuels and also from GST on tractors. In the last six years, loan waiver has been offered to farmers of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. But these were not enough to mitigate the pain of farmers.
The agriculture price policy implemented in 1985-86 says that purchase on MSP is the constitutional responsibility of the government. Most of the purchases of wheat and paddy are covered by MSP. The MSP gives a sense of security to the farmer. However, there are a number of crops that are not covered under it. This creates uncertainty for the farmers. The trouble is that many farmers are unable to reach the mandis and get the benefit of MSP. The UPA government had formed a committee under the leadership of MS Swaminathan that suggested a number of measures to improve the lot of farmers. But its suggestions were not implemented in letter and spirit.
In India, close to 60% of the agricultural area depends on monsoon rains. This contributes about 40% of the total farm production. This region produces 88% coarse grains, 87% pulses, 48% paddy and 28% cotton. This is also the region that do not benefit much from the MSP. This has pushed the farmers of this region into deep distress.
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While the farmers are questioning the intention behind the three new farm laws, the Centre is going ahead with aggressive publicity blitzkrieg. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar, chief ministers of various states as well as MPs and MLAS have come in defence of the farm reforms. However, they have failed in dispelling fears of farmers regarding the MSP and the mandis.
The Union government is talking about ‘one nation, one mandi’ for farm products. This will not be an easy task. Not all farm produce has a long shelf life and their consumption is limited to areas near the places where they are produced. Close to 86% of the small and marginal farmers are forced to sell their produces at low rates locally. The policy should have protected these farmers, but it is felt that corporate interests are at the centre of the new laws. The farmers feel threatened by the three laws. They want them revoked and MSP for their crops guaranteed under the law.
It is interesting to note that the agitation is happening in the centenary year of the Awadh Kisan Sabha, the oldest farmers organisation in the country. Jawaharlal Nehru was present at the formation of the Sabha on October 17, 1920. Baba Ramchandra, Sahdev Singh and Jhinguri Singh led the organisation from strength to strength. The Sabha fought the British rulers. Now, after 100 years of the formation of this organisation, the country’s farmers have hit the streets. The government must dispel their fears and work towards a solution to their long-standing problems.
(Arvind Kumar Singh is a senior journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering India’s agriculture sector. He is the author of several best-selling books.)