Farmers' resistance to the farm laws hardens

Print edition : November 06, 2020

At a “rail roko ” protest by farmers at Devi Dass Pura village near Amritsar on October 9. Photo: PTI

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi drives a tractor during the party’s “Kheti Bachao” rally, at Sanaur in Punjab’s Patiala district on October 6. Photo: PTI

Farmers continue to agitate against the new farm laws and plan to use the Navaratri festivities to make their voice heard.

The agitation against the three contentious pieces of legislation relating to agriculture passed by the Union government in the first Parliament session held amid the pandemic continues as farmers persevere with protest marches to Central government institutions, human blockades, large gatherings and rallies. Punjab continues to be the nucleus of the agitation with strong movements in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. State governments led by opposition parties have also been initiating steps to seek legal redress in various courts including the Supreme Court.

(The three laws are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act.)

In a unique move, farmer unions of Punjab plan to use the Navaratri festivities as a platform to expose the Narendra Modi government’s double-facedness. Instead of the traditional “Ravan Dahan” on Vijayadashami, this year there will be “Modi Sarkar Dahan”.

Leaders of farmer unions indicated that Modi’s effigy would be burnt instead of Ravan’s. The union leaders pointed out that this amounted to using the Sangh Parivar’s own tactics to hit back at the anti-farmer policies of a Sangh Parivar-controlled government. Farmer unions of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh will also reportedly adopt similar tactics through the Navaratri festivities between October 17 and 26.

Also read: COVER STORY | Farmers in Uttar Pradesh protest against farm laws amid grave agrarian crisis

On October 19, a special session of the Punjab Assembly will be held. The ruling Congress and the principal opposition, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), will join hands in the session to launch a political attack against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The session is expected to pass legislation aimed at negating, in Punjab, the impact of the Centre’s controversial farm laws. A number of Punjab government officials revealed to Frontline that the State Law Department was working on a model law sent to Congress-ruled States by the Congress high command. A number of farmers’ organisations were being consulted to fine-tune the planned law.

The Union government has been compelled to respond, however half-heartedly, to the farmer unrest. The Centre convened a meeting on October 14 to discuss the impact of the Acts. However, the meeting ended in a fiasco as the representatives of all the 29 farmer unions from Punjab walked out. They pointed out that though Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar was expected to attend the meet, only Agriculture Secretary Sanjay Agarwal came. Talking to Frontline, Dr Darshan Pal, a member of the coordinating committee of the 29 organisations, pointed out that the very manner in which the meeting was conducted belied the government’s show of concern. “There were more than 40 of us, but only 10 were called into the meeting room. As soon as we reached the venue, we were given a file with copies of the farm laws. But there was no meaningful discussion on withdrawing the Act or even revising it. What was the point in calling us for talks then?” Darshan Pal asked.

The unions submitted a 10-point charter of demands to the Agriculture Secretary during the meeting, asking for a repeal of the farm laws and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. The charter also demanded that the government should legally ensure procurement of farm produce on minimum support price. Later, farmer leaders assembled at the gates of Krishi Bhawan in New Delhi, where the meeting was held, and tore up copies of the contentious farm laws.

Also read: Farm Acts | Agricultural reform or battering ram?

Opposition rallies

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president Akhilesh Yadav and former Union Minister and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Jayant Chaudhary held rallies at different locations in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in October. Rahul Gandhi took out a three-day Kheti Bachao Yatra (save agriculture campaign) in Punjab and Haryana. This included tractor rallies in which Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Congress State chief Sunil Jakhar kept Gandhi company in Moga and Ludhiana. Gandhi promised to scrap the “black laws” the day his party came to power at the Centre. He described the Central government as a “kathputli” (puppet) at the hands of the Ambanis and the Adanis. The Adanis, incidentally, have been granted permission to use the State godowns.

On October 8, the RLD convened a massive rally in Muzaffarnagar attended by thousands of farmers from western Uttar Pradesh. The S.P. joined the rally, with one of its senior leaders, Dharmendra Yadav, heading the S.P. delegation. Jayant Chaudhary, who spearheaded the rally, said that the spate of promises Modi and his party colleagues made to farmers right from the 2014 election campaign and through the next six years were essentially tools of deceit. “Whoever cheats farmers will face retribution. No government can withstand the might of the infuriated farming community,” Chaudhary said.

In his tractor rallies in Punjab, Rahul Gandhi said the new laws would dismantle the minimum support price regime and the Food Corporation of India’s procurement system. “The Congress will stand with the farmers in their fight and will not move back an inch,” he said amid thunderous applause. Later, as his contingent tried to enter BJP-ruled Haryana, it was initially denied permission, but then the State government relented and a small gathering was allowed. Rahul Gandhi talked of potential unemployment that a scrapping of the mandis would cause. “Lakhs of people work at the mandis. Where will those people go if mandis are closed?” he asked.

Also read: Farm Acts | Who will pay the price?

The farmers cheered him on, but a note of caution was also perceptible. The noted kisan leader Ajmer Singh Lakhowal said: “The farmers have forced all political leaders to take a stand. It was their strong stand that forced the hand of the Akali Dal. Rahul Gandhi leading a tractor rally sent a good signal to farmers, but this battle cannot be won with a single rally. If the government does not relent, his rally will remain a token one.”

Lakhowal, who has been a chairman of the Punjab Mandi Board, asserted: “The farmer is not leaving the mandi. We are ready to fight on this issue with any government. The farmers will not allow any representative of the Centre to enter a village in Punjab.” Thousands of farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh continue to occupy rail tracks. Lakhowal pointed out that the farmers know that it was going to be a long struggle. He said: “Nothing is going to be gained by short-term agitation. We have to have a countrywide agitation. We are getting good traction in Karnataka. When other States also started demanding MSP, Modi brought in the new laws. With the new laws, the small and marginal farmers will be crushed. Our goal is to ensure that the small farmer should stay in profit. It will not be easy, but where is the choice? We know how multinational corporations entered the fertilizer market across the world. Now, they are targeting the godown and the public distribution system. Next will be the farmers’ land. We have to protect our land, our granaries.” Clearly, it is this larger understanding that guided the farmers as they continued the agitation through October. And the expectation among the unions is that the plans to convert the Navaratri festivities into an agitational platform will add a new, tempestuous, twist to the movement.

Also read: Farm Acts | Small peasant in peril

The Bharatiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda)’s leader Jagmohan Singh said: “Farmers are sitting on railway tracks… it is not likely to be a small protest or a token gesture. It may not be over in a matter of days or weeks. The government prepared the agriculture Bills like a parantha [shallow-fried flat bread] and the President signed on it, like putting butter on the parantha. It is such a huge thing for farmers. It is not like the Simon Commission during the freedom struggle. We cannot say “Simon go back” and hope everything will be fine. It will be a long struggle. Northern India will have to lead the way. There will be table talks along the way. At times, the agitation will have to be suspended, too, but ultimately there will be a clash with the Centre. We will fight it out. Hum achcha struggle denge [we will give a good fight].”

Left leaders support the agitation. Jagroop Singh of the Communist Party of India (CPI) said: “We are all in it together. We feel there has to be agitation, there has to be protest. But what after this? Nobody tries to find out the reasons for the new laws. We oppose the new laws and call them a step of the Modi government. But who is behind it? Finance capital is facing a danger. There are no customers for taking finance capital. In India, 1.75 lakh units are closed. Now, when you revive them, from where will you get the finance? Nobody is speaking about it. The new farm laws are part of the finance capital challenge. If the agitation does not take the right route, there will be a grave danger to the State. After a month, there will be sowing in Punjab. Then the kisan leadership will have to show great wisdom in tackling the new requirements. Else, the price to be paid will be too steep. The very existence of small farmers is at stake.”

Also read: Contract farming as a means of ushering in corporatisation in agriculture

According to Jagmohan Singh, the minimum support price benefit is not enjoyed by more than 39 per cent of small and marginal farmers. “We started a struggle in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh in 2017. In that struggle five farmers were killed. After that, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee was founded. Initially, farmers from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu came forward. Now the same sangharsh committee is leading the fight against the new farm laws,” he said.

The government claims that the MSP has been hiked for the past six years in Punjab. While there has been substantial increase in a few years, the increase in many years is only nominal. In 2012-13, during the second United Progressive Alliance tenure at the Centre, there was a 9.8 per cent increase in the MSP of wheat. But the following year it increased by 5.1 per cent. In 2014-15, the first year of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, it increased by just 3.7 per cent. In 2020-21, it has risen by 4.6 per cent. However, in 2021-22, the rate of increase is projected to be just 2.6 per cent. Jagmohan Singh said: “The government announced the rate for wheat in September itself. It is the lowest in the last 10 years.”

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