Farmer Protests

Uttar Pradesh: Brewing storm

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Farmers of the Bharatiya Kisan Union during a nationwide farmers’ strike in Prayagraj on September 25. Photo: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

The farmers’ protest in Uttar Pradesh, the biggest political demonstration since the anti-CAA protests, may lead to a downswing in the BJP’s political fortunes.

Uttar Pradesh is one of the four States in north India, along with Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, that saw widespread farmers’ protests in the wake of the passing of the three farm Bills. After the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, the farmers’ agitation against the Bills is the biggest political protest in Uttar Pradesh. The anti-CAA protests were brutally suppressed by the Yogi Adityanath government. But the farmers’ agitation cannot be dealt with in the same manner as the farmer is not just “a common man” and can alter the ruling party’s fortunes, says Dr Sudhir Panwar, academic and president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch, a collective of farmers and activists that addresses agrarian issues.

Political parties in Uttar Pradesh, with the exception of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the Congress, have so far stayed away from the farmers’ protests. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.) issued a statement on the protests but did not launch any demonstration. S.P. chief Akhilesh Yadav tweeted: “The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in the garb of passing the farm Bills through voice vote in the Rajya Sabha has throttled the voice of farmers and the opposition, and for a few selected capitalists, it has cheated the two-third population of India. By indulging in loktaantrik kapat (democratic pretense), the BJP has passed its own patan-patra (ruin), and not the farm Bill.” Workers of the party sent a memorandum to Governor Anandiben Patel through District Magistrates demanding that the anti-farmer and anti-worker Bills should not be implemented in the State.

The reason for political parties staying away from confrontational politics could be the fear of violent repression, said Panwar. “Just look at Madhya Pradesh. The farmers agitation was going well but the moment political parties got involved, the movement was painted as politically motivated. Moreover, violent repressions are the order of the day. Sometimes it is more important to change the public perception on the ground than to launch protests,” he said.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has called all those opposing the Bills anti-farmers and the State administration has denied that farmers in Uttar Pradesh are protesting. Praising the new laws, Adityanath tweeted: “The passage of Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 is a new sunrise for the agriculture sector. Today is an unforgettable day for our annadata (food provider) farmers. Congratulations.”

Political parties not coming forward to take up their cause has not stopped the farmers from coming out on to the streets. From Bijnor, Muzaffarnagar andSaharanpur to Ghaziabad, Noida, Hapur, Meerut, Shahjahanpur, Rampur, Mainpur, Agra and Mathura, farmers organised and took part in Chakka Jaam or kisan curfews. They blocked several State and national highways, bringing traffic to a halt. The presence of heavy police contingents at these places made the situation tense. The protests were, however, limited to western Uttar Pradesh, where wheat and sugarcane are grown in abundance. Eastern Uttar Pradesh witnessed a few protests here and there, the reason being that the region already suffers from a lack of leadership and most farmers trade outside the MSP regime, according to Panwar.

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), along with other organisations, mobilised thousands of farmers to hold a Bharat bandh. It affected life in western Uttar Pradesh.

On September 14, hundreds of farmers marching towards Jantar Mantar in Delhi to join agitating farmers from Punjab and Haryana were stopped at the Delhi-Ghaziabad border. Undeterred, they held their protest under a flyover there.

Dharmendra Malik, national spokesperson of the BKU, said: “The BJP government had promised to double farm income, during the elections. Instead of fulfilling that promise, the government has slapped us in the face by proposing to end its responsibility altogether with regard to farmers’ incomes. These Bills have got nothing to do with the improvement in the income of farmers, 80 per cent of whom are small and marginal. But the Bills will strengthen agri-business and corporate control over our food systems, with no scope of justice for the farmers and consumers.” He said the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 would create a situation of one country, two markets. “The government is saying that the APMC [Agricultural Produce Market Committee] system will continue. But it is anybody’s guess that faced with two systems, one with regulation and taxes and the other without them, the private player, agent, and the businessman will ensure only the latter thrives. This will eventually make APMCs meaningless.”

The BKU demanded an immediate withdrawal of all the three anti-farmer Bills, which have since been signed into law by the President of India. They also asked for legislation to be brought in to secure the minimum support price (MSP) of all crops, including fruits and vegetables. Any crop purchased at less than the MSP must be included in the category of punishable crimes, it said.

“The government is presenting these Bills as a big step towards agricultural reforms in the guise of creating ‘One Nation, One Market’. The BKU considers these Bills as bringing in company rule in the agricultural sector…. Farmers are living in fear that these laws will make them captive of companies and corporations. Marketing, storage, and import-export, when brought out of the legal purview, can never be in the interests of farmers. Farmers are already suffering under the World Trade Organization [WTO]-rigged regime. Agricultural reforms such as the enactment of MSP legislation can stop excessive exploitation of farmers by middlemen and companies and this step will also increase farmers’ income,” the BKU said.

Chaudhary Rakesh Tikait of the BKU said that the ruling party was intoxicated by its majoritarian power. “For the first time in the history of Parliament, in an unfortunate incident, three Bills relating to farmers were passed without debate. None of the parliamentarians was allowed to ask questions. This is a black day in the chapter of Indian democracy. If the members have no right to ask questions, then why is Modi ji constructing a new Parliament by wasting Rs 900 crore of public money during a pandemic? Today, the Indian government is trying to snatch the MSP from the back door, after which the farmer will be destroyed. Without a fee for purchase outside the mandis, farmers will become redundant and the government will gradually withdraw from crop procurement. A country’s agriculture cannot be strengthened by leaving the farmer to the mercy of the market. The BKU will fight this battle with all its might. If the government chooses to be dogmatic, the farmer will also not step back.”

Only time will tell whether the Uttar Pradesh farmers’ anger will translate into an electoral dent in the BJP’s fortunes. For now, the BJP has four more years to assuage the farmer’s concerns before the next general election. Meanwhile, the food sector would become lucrative for big businesses who would thrive even as the APMCs and MSPs would become redundant, said Panwar.

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