End the harassment of farmers now

Exemptions granted to farming and related activities during the lockdown must be followed in practice

Updated - April 16, 2020 01:13 am IST

Published - April 16, 2020 12:05 am IST

A farmer in Satara, Maharashtra.

A farmer in Satara, Maharashtra.

Drafting orders without caring for implementation seems to be the nature of governance during the period of lockdown . An order dated March 28 said all agricultural, horticultural activities and those relating to harvesting, transportation, procurement, mandis, farming operations and the like are exempted from the lockdown. The order was made so that “harvesting would continue uninterrupted”. The exempted categories included “agencies engaged in procurement of agriculture products, including MSP operations; mandis; farmers and farm workers in the field; custom hiring centres related to farm machinery; manufacturing and packaging units of fertilizers, pesticides and seeds; and intra- and inter-state movement of harvesting and sowing-related machines.”

The order went on to say that “this decision has been taken with a view to facilitate unhindered activities related to agriculture and farming so as to ensure essential supplies and that farmers and common people do not face any difficulty.”

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In a press release on March 27, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordinating Committee (AIKSCC), in a representation to the government, had asked the police not to stop peasants and said “there should be no harassment and violence against peasants, farmers, vendors and transporters.” The committee demanded that all harvested crops, milk, poultry, meat and eggs should be procured and that regulated markets should operate at requisite strength, failing which, the panel feared, village-level procurement and supply “will rot and ruin the producer farmers.”

Harvesting winter crops

Similarly, on April 1, the AIKSCC, in its letter to the Chief Minister of Punjab, warned that “these are the peak days of harvesting winter crops, wheat, barley, pulses and seeds; but all the farmers/workers are shut behind the doors. Sir, who will harvest the crops? What will be the fate of vegetables/fruit growers particularly the high value perishable crops, these can hardly be stored. With no means to transport, god knows what will be their fate. Imagine the fate of milk producers and of poultry. The unfortunate peasants are forced to spill milk in the canals. The poultry farmers don’t know what to do with their products. The landless labourers and their families have absolutely no work. Who will provide them food on their plate?”

In Madhya Pradesh, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) wrote to the Chief Secretary that despite the lifting of the lockdown, “all mandis at district level are closed,” and complained that when farmers sent tarbooz (water melons), oranges and grapes to the mandis, the gates were closed and they had to return on foot. Hence, the traders were refusing to come to the fields to collect their produce. The NBA found it ironic that migrant labourers were facing starvation while agricultural and horticultural produce was rotting in the fields.

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The All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS), in its letter dated April 4, to the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, complained that “farmers have suffered losses in their mustard crop which could not be harvested in time and the local police have stopped the peasants from reaching their fields and harvesting and transporting the crop.” It warned that “we are looking at a very severe crisis in the coming days if this attitude continues. It will lead to a major crisis in food availability and may result in large numbers of hunger deaths.” The panel pointed out that five lakh migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh work in Punjab. However, many of them ran away due to the police.

In Odisha, the panel pointed out that MGNREGA has completely stopped, forcing lakhs of rural workers into distress. “Everything can wait” it warned, “but not farming as a season lost means a year is lost.”

Assaults on forest dwellers

Equally ominous are the assaults on tribals and non-tribal forest dwellers by the police and officials in all the tribal areas of the country. Forest produce is by nature inherently seasonal. Officials have interfered with the collection of non-timber forest produce, as allowed by the Forest Rights Act, causing hunger and distress to millions of tribals.

Overzealous policemen and officials have lathi-charged farm workers and interfered with the movement of agricultural produce to the mandis. If harvesting is interrupted, if transportation of produce is halted on account of vehicles with passes not being available, if farmers and farm workers are lathi-charged on their way to work and if the mandis do not operate at full strength, there could be an unprecedented food crisis.

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The judiciary must carefully review its approach of meekly following the executive while the latter makes blunder after blunder. The lockdown was introduced irrationally without ensuring the continuation of provisions statutorily mandated under the National Food Security Act, 2013. Consequently, the anganwadis were closed in panic and supplementary nutrition for children below 6 years and for pregnant women, lactating mothers and adolescent girls came to an immediate stop. Chaos continued until the government issued an order, dated March 30, acknowledging “that in many States/UTs [Union Territories], the anganwadi centres are closed”. Hurriedly, patchwork activities began, which resulted in provision of take-home rations, instead of hot, cooked meals.

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Tens of thousands of those below the poverty line suffered terribly. Similarly, the mid-day meal, which reaches millions of school-going students, was abruptly discontinued. The provision of ₹6,000 to every pregnant woman and lactating mother, mandated under the Maternity Benefit Act, also virtually came to an end. Imperial in its announcement and in its execution, the lockdown caused untold pain to the poor.

A hastily imposed lockdown

This is not to say that some form of a lockdown was unnecessary; however, the harshness and arbitrariness and lack of thought and preparation in its execution was certainly avoidable. It is typical of governments run dictatorially and with lack of transparency that when mistakes are made, they turn out to be gigantic and irreversible. Further, to stifle criticism, we are now told by no less than the Solicitor General that it is not in public interest to highlight the human suffering and that the government’s point of view should be accepted without demur because the crisis demands that everyone falls in line. What the learned law officer fails to understand is that Indians may be poor, and sometimes gullible, but they are not sheep to always fall in line with a military-like command. They have reserves of democratic resistance that will in the coming months perhaps surprise this government.

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Starvation deaths on account of hunger and merciless police beatings have been reported from across the country. The judiciary must now shift track. For some time, the courts have deferred to the government in view of the unprecedented crisis. But now, with the crisis spreading to agriculture, the judiciary must abandon this hands-off approach.

Colin Gonsalves is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court

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