At ground zero: Determined farmers protest at Delhi borders

Braving cold weather, official antipathy and media hostility, lakhs of farmers arrived at the national capital’s borders to oppose farm laws.

Published : Dec 15, 2020 06:00 IST

Volunteers   serving  langar food to farmers at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on December 4.

Volunteers serving langar food to farmers at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border on December 4.

Farmers are making history at the borders of Delhi. For the first time since neoliberal reforms were ushered in in the early 1990s, a protest of this magnitude and duration is being witnessed in the country. The unique feature of the protest is that there has been no waning of the farmers’ enthusiasm despite falling temperatures. 

The farmers are resolute and determined regarding their singular demand—the repeal of the three farm Acts, namely the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. The proposed Electricity Bill, 2020, is also not acceptable to the farmers, who have genuine apprehensions about it.

Also read: Agricultural reform or battering ram? 

A march that began on November 25 from Punjab, led by Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) units, cut across Haryana, braving water cannons, trenches and tear-gas shells, only to be stopped at the borders of Delhi. That march has now swelled in size and continues to grow as more and more farmers join the protest.

The BKU was joined by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), Swaraj India and other farmer outfits along the way. All these organisations are part of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Samiti, a broad front of several hundred farmer organisations.

Pan-India protest

Lakhs of farmers have literally pitched tent with their tractors, trolleys, bullock carts, and trawlers at four major entry points to Delhi and support for them is pouring in from the rest of the country. The protest has gained international traction too, resonating in Canada and the British Parliament. On December 11, farmers from Tamil Nadu arrived to join their counterparts.

Although parallels are being drawn with the 1988 siege of Delhi at Boat Club by Mahendra Singh Tikait, the popular farmer leader from western Uttar Pradesh, the present mobilisation by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body of the protesting organisations, is a far bigger one and has a greater pan-India character than any peasant protest in recent years.

In Haryana, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government tried its best to stop the farmers coming in from Punjab. Deep trenches were dug to prevent tractors from going through. The farmers filled those very trenches with mud and moved forward. But then the authorities hit them with water cannons and tear-gas shells, visuals of which shocked the nation.

When it became apparent that the march would reach Delhi, the Central government, through its emissaries in intelligence, told the farmers that it would begin a dialogue only if they abandoned their march to the Capital and instead assembled at an open ground in Burari in outer Delhi. The farmers rejected this proposal, stating that the Burari grounds were like an “open jail”. The Centre then asked the Delhi government to open the stadiums to house the protesters, but the Delhi government refused, saying that the farmers had a democratic right to march to the Capital. This was when all the entry points to Delhi were blocked.

Braving hostility

Up in arms against the three farm laws enacted by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, the farmers have so far braved cold weather, an indifferent government, a mighty police machinery and a hostile mainstream media that has labelled them as violent, anti-national, stubborn and politically motivated. Political party representatives have consciously stayed away in order to protect the protest from additional calumny, even though they back it in spirit.

The farmers are apprehensive that the existing system of procurement and minimum support price (MSP) would be dismantled under the new regime of farm laws that pave the way for the entry of large private traders and corporate interests in a big way.

The permission granted for the Change of Land Use (CLU) to the Adani Group (Adani Agro Logistics Private Limited) by the Directorate of Town and Country Planning at Panipat, Haryana, on May 7 for the setting up of a warehouse (for agro produce) is a case in point. The permission was given even before the farm laws were enacted and when the entire country was in lockdown mode. The CLU document, a copy of which is with Frontline , shows that the government has allotted a total of 90,015.623 square metres of land in the revenue estate villages of Naultha and Jondha Kalan in Israna tehsil of Panipat district. 

Inderjit Singh, vice president of AIKS (Haryana), told Frontline that in the absence of State procurement, the MSP will be rendered redundant, which would also disrupt the food supply chain. He said: “The announcement of MSP and the procurement of the kharif is not proof that MSP will continue forever. The government will not formally announce the abolition of the MSP but it will become redundant once the APMCs become redundant and have to play second fiddle to the private mandis. Once state procurement stops, there won’t be any MSP either. The state also will not have the political will to regulate the rates of the private mandis. It is like asking a private airline or a private hospital to reduce their rates.” 

On why the farmers rejected the government’s proposals of December 9, he said: “There was absolutely nothing new in the December 9 communication. In fact, the move has further angered not only the protesters but the entire peasantry in the country. That is why the protests intensified.”

He added that the corporate sector had already taken root in agriculture “but the Narendra Modi regime, over the last six years, has been the most anti-farmer government we have seen. These contentious Acts are nothing but the total facilitation of the unbridled entry of corporates into this sector.”

Swelling protest

Frontline spoke to a cross section of farmers at the three siege areas—Singhu and Tikri on the Delhi-Haryana stretch and Ghazipur on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border—to assess their mood. Armed police personnel have heavily barricaded all the three major entry points to Delhi, and in places like Tikri they have used huge cement blocks and cranes. 

Even though the government managed to pass the Bills in both Houses of Parliament, the manner in which it was done, especially when Rajya Sabha members from the opposition were suspended for demanding a division of votes, raised more questions than answers. In any event, farmers had already expressed their disagreement with the laws ever since the ordinances were promulgated in June.

The months of July, August and September were riddled with protests, mainly in Punjab. The protests picked up momentum after the farm laws were passed. In October, the very first meeting of the government with major farmer organisations from Punjab took place. The outcome was unsatisfactory. The next meeting was held on November 13, which again was inconclusive.

Although the protests began in Punjab and Haryana, they soon spread to Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand, dispelling all notions that it was an agitation confined to north India.

The all-India “Bharat bandh” call on December 8 elicited widespread response, which was the reason why Union Home Minister Amit Shah called the farmers for a discussion the same day. Many AIKS leaders were arrested in BJP-ruled States.

Ramesh Chhikara, a protester from Sonepat, Haryana, said: “The media said there were no farmers from Haryana. Here we are, from Kaithal, Kurukshetra, Sonepat, and Karnal. At the Tikri protest you will find farmers from Rohtak, Bhiwani, Jhajjar and beyond.” He added: “There is an MSP and an MRP (maximum retail price). The MRP is given to the trader while what we are asking is a legal guarantee for the minimum. The government says we don’t understand. We will explain it to all the Members of Parliament why we are against the farm laws.”

swelling protest.jpg

Ramesh Chhikara illustrated his argument with an example: “A 50-gram packet of potato chips costs the consumer Rs.20, whereas the farmer receives only Rs.5 for a kilogram of potatoes. It is the government’s responsibility to check hoarding and regulate the market so that both the farmer and the consumer get reasonable rates. If the new farm laws are implemented, everybody will suffer, including consumers.” He added: “The people who have been elected have called us all kinds of names—Maowadi, aatankwadi, algaavwadi, ULFAwadi (Maoists, terrorists, separatists and ULFA supporters). This is not the way.” He was referring to some BJP leaders and sections of the media who had described the protesters as Khalistanis and used other such terms.

Many young farmers who Frontline spoke to drew parallels with the anti-CAA protests where the protesters were labelled anti-nationals by a section of the media. Kuldeep and Ramandeep, who are young farmers from Patiala, echoed what most farmers fear: “For the first two-three years we will get good rates from the private mandis but once the APMC [Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee] recedes into the background, they will stop giving us those rates.” They also said that assurances of an MSP made little sense without legal backing. 

Manjot from Gurdaspur, Punjab, said: “When the government fines us for stubble burning, why can’t it include a penalty for those who buy at less than the MSP? We don’t have facilities to store fertilizers and seeds. The farmer who has more has 100 acres of land can sell his produce wherever he wants. He can transport. We are small farmers. We cannot do that.” Manjot also said that farmers in Bihar and U.P. had to sell paddy at Rs.800-900 a quintal at the market rate while in Haryana and Punjab farmers received Rs.1,828, which was the MSP. He added: “Even at the mandis we never get the MSP rates, but it is still better than U.P. or Bihar where there is no MSP at all. If the private traders are given a free run, we will have to sell our produce at arbitrary rates.” The taxes paid by the farmers to the APMCs are used for boosting infrastructure such as roads, water tanks, etc.

Jitender Singh, a national-level kabaddi player from Khanna tehsil in Ludhiana, said: “If we say “Bole so nihal”, they say we are Khalistanis. They think that the winter cold will break our movement. They don’t know that Sikhs commemorate the sacrifice of our Sikh martyrs like Guru Gobind Singh in the last week of December, out in the open. We are used to the cold. Farmers have brought provisions to last them for six months. We are not going back without the laws being repealed.” Yet, it was also a fact that some people had fallen sick owing to the cold and unsanitary conditions.

‘Section 288’

At the U.P.-Delhi border at Ghazipur, there is a banner that says: “Section 288 is imposed here”. Asked what it meant, the farmers said it was a response to the prohibitory orders under Section 144 imposed by the administration. A group of farmers from western U.P. said: “We prohibit the entry of the police in our area of protest. 288 is double of 144.”

They were perplexed that the government and a section of the media were labelling the farmers’ protest a “Punjab farmers” issue. Nitish Chaudhary, a BKU activist from Sisauli in Muzaffarnagar, said: “We held a mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar in support of the protest in Punjab and Haryana. We told them that whenever they would decide to march to Delhi, we would be with them. The government always wants to divide us as Hindus or Muslims. They are calling the farmers Khalistanis. But that is not working anymore.”

He added: “Our biggest mistake was we voted for the BJP. The BJP never implemented what it said in its own manifesto. They said our incomes would double; with these farm laws, they are guaranteed to get halved. The dues owed to us by the sugar mills are pending for the last one and a half years. If they cannot ensure payments from local traders, how can they ensure from big corporate entities? This government is fond of digital technology. Why don’t they make our payments digitally then?”

It was at Ghazipur that a farmer’s video with the statement “rotis cannot be downloaded from Google” went viral. Nitish Chaudhary asked why, if farmers were free to sell anywhere under the new farm laws, were farmers from Shamli and Saharanpur prevented from selling paddy in the Haryana APMC mandis. He added that the MSP for sugarcane was the same for the last three years. The maximum rate that a farmer received for any vegetable was Rs.10 a kilogram, according to him.

Gaurav Tikait, son of Rakesh Tikait, the Uttar Pradesh BKU president, told Frontline that the Centre should have consulted farmers before enacting the laws. Only 6 per cent of the produce was sold at the MSP, while the remaining 94 per cent was bought by private traders and that too at arbitrary rates. “The mandis have been weakened and privatisation is not going to help the farmers.” Rajan Jawala, a small farmer from U.P., said that the communal divide in western U.P. had harmed farmer-peasant unity. He and his friend Vishal Balyan, both in their early twenties, said that even the centrally declared rate for sugarcane was not paid by the U.P. government.

Danish Khan from Kannauj said that if the government gave an assurance that farmers could sell their produce in Tamil Nadu and cover the transport costs for the same, the farm laws would be acceptable. He said: “Where will a farmer who produces only 40 quintals of paddy go to sell it? Let the government give us answers. We will head back home if satisfied.”

Pargat Singh, who moved from Punjab to Hardoi in U.P. as the land he and his brothers had inherited was insufficient, said: “It took a minimum of three years to prepare the land in Hardoi. And then there are the uncertainties of weather. It is a risky affair. Every farmer had debts to clear and every sugar mill had outstanding dues owed to the farmer.”

Ranjit Yadav from Lalitpur district arrived at the Ghazipur border with 50-60 farmers. He said it was not easy to reach the Delhi-U.P. border as the police detained them. He added: “There is a huge water shortage in Lalitpur. Farmers have committed suicide as well. Rather than our incomes getting doubled, our input costs have doubled.”

While fertilizer had become more expensive, farmers had to purchase urea from the black market. The Modi government claims to have stopped the black-marketing of urea, but it turns out that it is still in practice in Lalitpur. Ranjit said: “For everything we have to agitate. For fertilizer, power, seeds. But we must thank Modiji for unifying all the farmers on the farm laws.”

Aar paar ki ladai hai ” (it is now or never), said farmers at the Tikri border, on the Delhi-Haryana stretch leading to Rohtak. At Tikri, a sizeable number of farmers are from Haryana although there are quite a few from the districts of Punjab such as Moga, Ferozepur, Muktsar Sahib, Barnala and Sangrur. Farmers from Hanumangarh in Rajasthan have also arrived. Tarsem Singh from Sirsa, who has been at the Tikri protest site since November 26, said: “We hope something will come out of this. There are weddings in our villages but we can’t attend them.” 

Several organisations, such as the All India Truck Operator Welfare Association, have put up volunteer camps with supplies of food, medicines, etc. There are stalls of the Zamindara Chhatra Sabha, an organisation that lives by the principles of Chhotu Ram, the legendary farmer leader of provincial pre-Independence Punjab. Vegetables are being handed out to farmers who are camping at the site. A local doctor makes an announcement from the public address system cautioning protesters to look out for symptoms that resemble influenza.

Ravinder Dabas, a volunteer, said that there were 20,000 trolleys attached to the tractors of farmers sitting on protest. stretching up to a length of 30 km on road. He said: “The farmers do not have to buy anything from the shops. Everything... milk, vegetables, toothpaste, etc., is made available. There are dry rations that will last for up to six months.”

Farmer unity

Everyone agrees that the farm laws have managed to unite all the 32 jathas or organised groups of the BKU in Punjab. They are also thankful that the people of Punjab and Haryana got united in the process. “The Punjab Jutt and the Haryanvi Jat have become one,” said farmers at Tikri. Ravinder Dabas said: “The government thinks that it can deal with the farmers like it did with students and with the anti-CAA protesters. What they did with them was also very wrong. But they will think twice before attacking farmers.”

The farmers also said there was nothing much in the farmer welfare schemes of the NDA government. Gurjant Singh, a member of the BKU (Rajewala) unit, considered as the biggest jathebandi or following, told Frontline that the farmer insurance scheme was a non-starter. He said: “First of all, everyone has to pay the premium irrespective of whether the crop has been sown or not. Second, no individual compensations are given. The village and not the individual plot is considered as the unit. So, only if the entire produce in a village gets destroyed will compensation be given. A farmer works 24 hours. He doesn’t get any overtime for his work unlike salaried jobs. The nature of compensation has to be different.”

Also read: Farmers’ dasara protest against new laws 

He added: “This is a law we did not ask for. Why give medicine to a fit person? This is a big social movement. We were not sure whether Haryana farmers would support us, but they did. Hum jeet ka jashn mana ke jayenge [we will leave after celebrating our victory].” 

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