THE three farm Bills and the manner in which they were forcefully passed in Parliament have caused a political uproar in election-bound West Bengal. The controversial laws have become a rallying point for not just farmers but also for people from various walks of life who braved the COVID pandemic and took to the streets in protest across the State.
The day after the new legislation was pushed through in the Rajya Sabha on September 20, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called for a united stand by political parties that are opposed to the BJP. “We extend our full support to the protest in Delhi by different opposition parties…. We are inviting people from all walks of life to join us in protest,” said Mamata Banerjee while announcing a prolonged agitation by the Trinamool Congress in the State.
According to Mamata Banerjee, the pieces of legislation not only have robbed farmers of their rights and made them vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of middlemen and large landholders, but may also bring in a famine in the country in the near future. “On the one hand there is the crisis of the corona pandemic, which they [the Union government] could not control, and now they have created another crisis—a food crisis,” she said.
Pointing out the danger of poor farmers going in for distress sales, Mamata Banerjee said: “Some will be committing suicide; some will die of starvation. There is corona on side and, and on the other side is this Bill which is ‘morona’ [a pun on the Bengali word meaning death].” Sounding her battle cry on social media—“We won’t bow down & we’ll fight this fascist Govt in Parliament & on the streets”—Mamata Banerjee orchestrated a series of protests from September 22. First there was the Trinamool Mahila Congress, the women’s wing of the party, staging a dharna in central Kolkata, followed by a rally organised by the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad,the students’ wing, and then protests by peasant organisations affiliated to the Trinamool. The ruling party has also been staging agitations in different districts.
Even though Mamata Banerjee was among the first to condemn the legislation, extend solidarity with the Shiromani Akali Dal, which left the ruling alliance at the Centre in protest against the laws, and call for a prolonged protest movement, it was the Left’s agitation programme throughout the State on September 25 that had the biggest impact. According to Amal Haldar, West Bengal secretary of the AIKS, the peasant wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), several lakh people took to the streets throughout Bengal in protest. National and State highways were blocked in well over a 100 places across the State. In Kolkata, the Congress also joined the Left parties in a rally.
“Torrential rain in certain parts of the State made it difficult for many but still they came, particularly people from the poorer sections of society. Had the weather been better the gatherings would have been even bigger. We were quite surprised by the response we got,” Haldar told Frontline . According to him, the gathering was a spontaneous reaction, as neither the CPI(M) nor the AIKS barely got enough time to spread awareness among the people. “This huge turnout was a big blow to the BJP. But this is not the end. We are planning a massive convention in Kolkata soon, where we will announce our next plan of action,” said Haldar.
The success of the Left’s response lay in the fact that within a short time it was able to reach out to the people and make them aware of the implications of the legislation. “We have explained to the people that there will not be any MSP. There is no provision for that in the law. Once big corporate houses enter the scene, they may initially pay more, but sooner or later the farmers will face distress if there is no protection for them. Small and medium farmers will be completely at their mercy. Moreover, if corporate houses, governed by the lure of making profit, shift their interest at some point from paddy and potato and decide that strawberries and cotton are more lucrative, it can bring in a famine,” said Haldar.
Amendment of the APMC Act in Bengal
With the Assembly elections round the corner in 2021, the Central laws have given Mamata Banerjee the much-needed handle to attack the BJP, its main threat, with. However, the non-BJP opposition parties in the State, namely the CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress, have alleged that Mamata Banerjee’s protest programme was tepid and more of an eyewash. Pointing out that the Trinamool government had already made provisions for the entry of corporate houses in the agriculture sector with its amendment to the West Bengal Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation) Act in 2014, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and West Bengal State secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra said: “Essentially what the BJP did at the Centre, Mamata Banerjee has already done at the State level. Trinamool, in fact, almost showed the BJP the way. As we keep saying, there is no difference between the BJP and the Trinamool as both follow the principles laid out by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh].”
However, in the amendment brought by the Trinamool, there is no provision for contractual farming, and, as State Agriculture Minister Ashish Bandopadhyay said, the control for agricultural products rests with the State government. “The Central laws allow corporate houses to buy agriculture products from farmers without any official licence. According to our [State] law, private or corporate houses cannot buy products from farmers without proper licence,” Bandopadhyay reportedly said.
The West Bengal Pradesh Congress has also accused the State government of going soft on the Centre. According to Pradesh Congress general secretary and party spokesperson Amitabha Chakraborty, the Trinamool’s stand on the issue remains ambivalent in spite of its loud protestations.
“Why is the State government not bringing about legislation to protect farmers as Congress-ruled States are doing?” he asked. Chakraborty pointed out that the Congress and the Left had appealed to the Chief Minister to bring about an all-party resolution against the Central laws but Mamata Banerjee had not responded (as of September 29). “What the Congress wants to know is if there is any tactical understanding between the BJP and the Trinamool on the issue,” he said.