Farm Acts 2020: A breakdown in trust
As both sides refuse to cede ground, the ongoing protests by farmers to persuade the Central Government to rescind the controversial farm bills continues without a clear end in sight
On November 27, thousands of farmers faced the wrath of the Central Government when they tried to march towards Delhi through Haryana's Singhu border protesting against the three agriculture bills passed earlier in September. Facing lathi-charge, tear gas shelling and water cannon in cold winters at different borders of Punjab and Haryana, the farmers were expecting nothing less at the Delhi border.
A call was given by the farmers for a two-day protest (November 26-27), which became a full-fledged chakka-jam at a major national highway and has grabbed the entire world's attention. The farmers, majorly from Punjab and Haryana, are in protest, with a thousand others joining from different states. But why is it that a 70 year-old-man is facing tear gas shells for raising his voice? Why have our farmers come down on the roads in screeching cold?
Why are farmers protesting?
On September 27, 2020, the President passed three controversial agriculture bills, which saw an outrage from farmers associations in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. The bills namely — The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce, 2020, and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020 — were passed in the Parliament despite a major uproar from the opposition MPs. And even though the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) clearly was not in a position to win, the bills were passed.
Immediately, farmer organisations took out statements calling out the bill as 'anti-farmers' as these bills were regarded to be brought out to benefit corporate retailers. While major protests started in Punjab, with farmers blocking railway tracks and shutting down Ambani owned reliance gas pumps and shops, others took out regular rallies.
Explaining the issue with the bills, KV Biju, National Coordinator of All India Rashtriya Kisan Mahasangh in his book on the three ordinances said, "When the Government started the economic reforms, the argument for them was that the reforms will benefit the farmers a lot, but the free-market policy did not benefit the farmers. Further, its effect is haunting the farmers with as high imports, loss-making farming, and high rate of farmer suicides. Corporates are the beneficiaries of all these reform processions."
The protesting farmers have accused that the three ordinances have been brought in to benefit business groups like Adani and Ambani. Adani Wilmar makes the Fortune brand of edible oil and food products. According to reports, it sources around 0.5 million tonnes (mt) of agri-commodities, including rice, wheat, castor, soybean and mustard.
Angshu Mallick, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Adani Wilmar, soon after the bills were released had said, "We procure our agri-commodity requirement through mandis. The farm bills provide an option to farmers to sell their produce outside mandis and this is a welcome move."
On the contrary, a farmer protesting at Delhi-Haryana border had expressed his resentment with the bill. He said, "It is going to ruin us, while retailers will become the king, we will be left
with nothing. Retailers like Adani and Ambani will benefit from these bills as there is nothing about minimum support price."
Minimum support price (MSP) is the major demand that farmers want to be included in the bill. The minimum support price is an agricultural product price set by the Government of India to purchase directly from the farmer. This rate is to safeguard the farmer to a minimum profit for the harvest if the open market has a lesser price than the cost incurred. The farmers have said that they are assuming that this will be removed as nothing has been mentioned about recurring it in the bill.
They have also emphasised that the bills were not made upon the request of any farmers' organisations. "Farmers' request has been for MSP, according to the Swaminathan Commission C2 + 50 formula, loan waiver and to stop import as per Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Rather than implementing farmers' suggestions, the Government has been implementing corporate's suggestions, without even consulting any of the farmers' organisations," Biju added.
Besides MSP, farmers have also raised their concern about the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee also called APMC, which includes the mandi system. APMC is a marketing board established by a state government in India to ensure farmers are safeguarded from exploitation by large retailers, as well as ensuring the farm to retail price spread does not reach excessively high levels.
Farmers have said that the bill will bring out corporate farming and kill the mandi system completely. "The whole bill has been made according to Adani and Ambani. Secondly, the family farming that used to go on, the plan is to remove it completely. They want to bring in corporate farming. What they did is they did not put any provision of MSP. All mandis will fall down. We sell onions from Maharashtra in Delhi only. We are able to do this because the mandi is open, but what will we do if there is no mandi?" Shakar Dareka, member of a farmers association from Maharashtra said.
Through the mandi system, a farmer directly goes to any mandi and sells their crops for MSP. The Government has said that they want to end this middlemen system and make a farmer and the retailer directly come in contact with each other, but the farmers fear that the new rules remove many of their safeguards. According to reports, more than 86 per cent of India's cultivated farmland is controlled by smallholder farmers who own less than two hectares (five acres) of land each. They fear that they just do not have enough bargaining power to get the kinds of prices they need for a decent standard of living when they negotiate to sell their produce to larger companies. "They want to take away our land and leave us with nothing," Balvinder Singh, a protester from Punjab said.
A NITI Aayog's occasional paper titled 'Raising Agricultural Productivity and Making Farming Remunerative for Farmers' published in December 2015, points out, "The pricing policy has also discriminated against eastern states where procurement at the MSP is minimal or non-existent. With part of the demand in these states satisfied by subsidised PDS sales of the grain procured in other states, prices of wheat and rice in these states end up below what they would be in the absence of price interventions of the Government. The price policy has thus also created a regional bias in crop pattern as well as incomes of farmers."
The major demand by the farmers is the rolling back of all three ordinances immediately. For this, farmer organisations have demanded that the Central Government hold an emergency Parliament session and discuss it.
The protesters have said they will block all the borders leading up to Delhi if no concrete decision is taken soon. "We do not want any compromise here, we want them to just take back the bills without any demands," Prabhjot Singh, a farmer from Punjab said.
Meanwhile, the farmers are also against the proposed 'Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020'. They fear the growing privatisation of the power sector and don't trust the state governments to pay their subsidies on time, while experts believe that the opposition is largely "ideological".
"If a Central electricity board is created for every small work we will have to come to Delhi. If we have any issues we can just go to our district level and get our issues resolved. The subsidy is given to us by the state government and this is our right. In December 2017, we had come to know that the Indian Government signed the World Trade Organisation (WTO) provision, which will finish our mandis and farming sector will suffer a lot. According to the global market rate, we get the maximum rate, but after signing WTO that was to be ended, which is why this Government wants to end the mandi system. Every worker in the country is on the street due to this privatisation," Hajura Singh, farmer and 'Pradhan' of a kisan union said.
The farmers have refused to move until the Government listens to them. The protest has moved everyone in the
country, which has also been joined by different states besides Punjab and Haryana.
The farmers have cited the example of Bihar in its reasoning saying that the example of the state shows how harmful the so-called "free market" policies are for the community. "In 2006, Bihar Government abolished the APMC Act and stopped procuring farmers' produce at MSP which resulted in mass migration. After scrapping APMC Act, Bihar Government promised huge investment in agriculture by the private sector but nothing had happened and farmers were forced to sell their produce far below the declared MSP. Government has not organised a single discussion with any farmer organisation before making
these agriculture laws, this fact exposes the anti-farmer face of the Bharatiya Janata Party Government," farmer leader of a Punjab kisan union, Jagjeet Singh Dallewal said.
Solution in sight?
During a time when the world is fighting the pandemic, thousands of people are on the street trying to raise their voice on the issue. For two months, farmers have been protesting in Punjab with no major outcome. "We had no other choice but to come and sit on the roads. We had shut down almost everything in Punjab and we were ignored. We have come here for the long haul and if the Government does not listen to us, we are prepared to sit here for as long as it takes," a farmer from Punjab said.
As the majority of farmers protesting were from Punjab and Haryana, others too joined in. States like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, who have also been protesting. According to a recent report, the farm sector crisis, triggered by the vagaries of nature, continues to take the lives of landed farmers and farmworkers in Tamil Nadu. The National Crime Records Bureau report for 2019 says that 427 people engaged in agriculture in Tamil Nadu committed suicide, an increase of six per cent over the previous year figure. They include six landed farmers and 421 agricultural labourers. Among them, 294 were men and 133 women.
Farmers from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Gujarat have also joined the protest. As the movement only intensifies, the Central Government has started taking meetings with farmer union leaders, trying to come up with a solution. However, the farmers are determined and have demanded that the bills be taken back.
"We are all well aware of the pressure of the WTO on our Central Government to stop the procurement of MSP and to stop every kind of subsidy received by the farmers. This Government has taken many anti-farmer decisions in the last six years starting from land acquisition ordinance to the recent three acts," Madhya Pradesh farmer union leader Shiv Kumar Kakka said.
Hajura from Punjab meanwhile said that when it comes to farmers, the Government, whether state or Central, have always been running away from its responsibility since the time of Independence, which is why the country is standing at this crossroad. "Whether it is farmers, small-traders or shopkeepers, everyone is suffering. They have just given false promises through their manifesto," he added.
A farmer who sells his grain for Rs 4 per kg witnesses his own produce being sold at Rs 40 at a retail shop. "So much goes in farming, there is so much expense and if we do not get even half of what we sow, then it is injustice," a farmer from Haryana said.
According to Biju, globalisation and liberalisation only mean corporate facilitation. "These three ordinances are for corporate facilitation. Whether it is Indian or new foreign corporations coming as new zamindars, the option-less farmers and labourers will become slaves to these corporates," he added.
While farmers still continue their protest, all eyes have turned towards the crucial meetings held by the Centre. The farmers have meanwhile called for a nationwide bandh on December 8 as the central government fails to acknowledge their demands. The agitation has also intensified with kisan leaders warning the government of serious consequences.
Views expressed are personal