“The people of Punjab not only know how to farm, they also know how to protect their fields,” said farm leader Joginder Singh Ugrahan from the Tikri border, Delhi, where farmers are camping in protest against the Centre’s new farm laws. Punjab farmers’ unions are at the forefront in the fight, which have, for over two months, inspired protests in large parts of the country. The convoy of tractor trolleys and trucks — thousands of them — made its way into Delhi on November 25-26, equipped with food, blankets, stoves, utensils and all essentials, to last the farmers for months. “We are here to stay,” they said.
The government introduced three farm Bills — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 — in the monsoon session of Parliament. Together, these Bills proposed to relax restrictions on the purchase and sale of farm produce and on stocking under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, and outlined a framework on contract farming. They were introduced on September 14, passed in the Lok Sabha on September 17, and in the Rajya Sabha on September 20 . The President gave his assent on September 24 , and the Gazette notification was published on September 27. In a matter of less than two weeks, without democratic process and discussion, the farm Bills bulldozed their way into becoming laws.
Comment | Will the farm bills benefit farmers?
Dissent and debate
Agriculture sector reforms had been on the government’s agenda for the last few decades, with policy experts stressing the need to shift people from agricultural work to provide cheap labour in manufacturing and services sectors. But decent jobs were simply not there to allow a large-scale shift of the rural workforce. The only option was to get reduced to a perennial, casual labour force in unwelcoming cities. Several attempts, through reform commissions and committees to hasten this process, remained unsuccessful. But if the Centre could not accomplish that earlier, the government used the opportunity of COVID-19 to push the laws through. It was not only the farm Acts, but also the Industrial Relations Code, 2020, which changed the laws relating to trade unions, conditions of employment in industrial establishments, and investigation and settlement of industrial disputes. Parallelly, the disturbing suppression of basic rights and freedom through the use of the preventive detention laws and special legislations was further entrenched. The hubris that this process displayed was not lost on anyone.
Surjit Patar, the celebrated Punjabi poet who returned his Padma Shri in support of the agitating farmers, in his recent poem, ‘Eh Gal Niri Enhi Hi Nahi’ (It’s Not Only About…), wrote, “Hard labour never hurts, it’s the indifference; from neglect and apathy springs this mighty indignation”; “Change has to happen, but it is also the responsibility of those who are entrusted with policymaking to ensure that it does not happen at the cost of the most marginalised.”
When farmers from Punjab and Haryana reached the border in Delhi in a peaceful convoy, they were met with barricades. At the Delhi barricade, a senior police officer was seen addressing the farmers through a handheld speaker, “Why are you here? Don’t you know that Delhi is facing the pandemic?” A farmer was heard replying, “Didn’t the government know when they passed these three ordinances without any consultation in the middle of the pandemic?”. The police official again said, “There are 101 ways of getting your point across to the government. Why did you come to Delhi?” The astonished farmer replied, “You tell us just two ways of getting our point across and you can keep the remaining 99 to yourself.”
When the state has no other way to understand dissent but to criminalise it, what do the aggrieved people do? The farmers, it seems, have come to Delhi to ask precisely this.
In the several rounds of talks with the government in Delhi, when the farmers are insisting on a total roll-back, and not deliberation or amendments, they know what they are saying. Their decision is based on experience and extensive discussions around the laws.
The Union Agriculture Minister and other government functionaries claim that these reforms free the farmers from the clutches of middlemen and more than double farmers’ incomes. But farmers, as well as several experts, have the Pepsico contract farming experience in Punjab to convince them that contract farming benefits are not for the small and marginal farmer. In Punjab, based on 2015-16 data, more than one-third of holdings are marginal and small i.e., two or less than two hectares, another third is between two and four hectares, 28% between four and ten hectares, and only 5% holdings are large, i.e., ten hectares or more.The farmers also know that for small and marginal farmers, the option of transporting farm produce to lucrative markets is not an option — they do not have the means to go. They will have to sell it near their own villages to whoever is willing to buy it and at whatever price they are offered. They cite the Bihar experience, where the APMC system was abolished for farmers in 2006, to argue that when it comes to open market operations, all odds are stacked against marginal and small farmers.
The Hindu Explains | Who gains and who loses from the farm Bills?
The demand charter of the farmers includes demands of the peasantry, but it also relates to the interests of the urban and rural poor. All the farmers’ unions are calling for the unconditional repeal of the three agricultural Acts and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020. But many large unions are also seeking implementation of the Universal Public Distribution System (PDS) across the country. They are pressing for state regulation to end farmers’ exploitation by big traders and multinational companies in government-regulated agriculture produce markets. They also call for the release of intellectuals, activists and anti-CAA protesters all over the country and withdrawal of the false cases registered against them. On their platforms, they have raised these demands most eloquently — they say when intellectuals, student activists and human rights defenders are put behind bars, ordinary farm labour also forgoes her right to hold to account the state which has reneged on land reforms. When food becomes a commodity to be traded only under market conditions, the urban and rural poor who need food rations lose their right to food.
These most significant issues the farmers have raised with ingenuousness. Their movement has forged unity and has now strongly converged with other people’s rights. It is a fight not just for farm produce prices now, but also for justice and democracy, and above all, for dignity.
Navsharan Singh is an independent researcher