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How Farmer is Farmers' Current Agitation
|by Dr. Jaipal Singh|
Of late a remarkable trend is emerging in India to hold the national capital or parts there of ransom or captive even for the silliest reasons in the name of genuine demands, or shall we say at times wilfully engineered agitation. In a democracy, a peaceful opposition or agitation is a valid and legal means to question the actions of the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public that lead to rectify the mistake of the ruling government and party. At the same time, the opposition whether it is from the political parties or public led by some leader, celebrity or eminent people, they are also equally responsible for maintaining public decorum and best interest of the nation. In the beginning of the year, some interested groups, political parties and anti-national elements held the national capital and parts of the country at ransom in the name of protests against the Citizens (Amendment) Act, 2019 creating confusion, chaos and communal conflict and now a section of farmers have assembled to choke the access to the capital joined by same political parties and anti-national elements in the name of the opposition of the recently passed bills on reforms in the agriculture and farming sector.
Although the year 2020 is likely to remain registered in the history and psyche of people in India and world as an unfortunate and traumatic pandemic across the globe on account of the novel coronavirus paralysing normal life, economy and employment, India shall also remember the period for introducing long awaited crucial reforms in the agriculture and farm sector during the period. The Indian Parliament simultaneously passed three agricultural bills on 27 September 2020, which collectively seek to provide farmers with multiple marketing channels and a legal framework to enter into pre-arranged contracts among multiple other improvements. The three bills which have become laws after the promulgation of the relevant Acts, are 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. A group of farmers of the Indian northern states of Punjab and Haryana are on the forefront of opposing these reforms supported by the main opposition party Congress, left parties as also some forces already gained notoriety for their anti-national activities.
The Laws under Reference
1. Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020: The most significant feature and underlined spirit of these laws is that the farmers can now engage trade and commercial activities of their agricultural produce outside the physical markets as notified under various state Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) laws. In other words, it has overriding effect on all state-level APMC acts with following main features:
2. Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020: The Act seeks to empower the farmers with a foundational structure for engaging in contract farming, whereby they will have the facility to enter into a direct agreement with any buyer even before the sowing season with a price assurance so that the farmers could sell their produce at the pre-determined prices/rates. The Act has following key enabling features:
3. Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020: The third set of laws is essentially an amendment to the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 in vogue, which seeks to limit the powers of the government in regard to the production, supply and distribution of the key commodities. This inter alia has the following key features:
Apart from the above, the new laws also aim at removing apprehensions or fears of private investors regarding the regulatory influence in their business operations and giving enough freedom to produce, hold, move, distribute and supply, thereby harnessing private sector/foreign direct investment in agricultural infrastructure to the maximum extent.
Criticism to New Agricultural Laws
Immediately after the bills were passed in the Parliament in September 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the bills as a watershed moment in the history of Indian agriculture, which will empower the millions of farmers. It is on record that various political parties, particularly leaders of the previous UPA government, are on record of repeatedly talking of such agricultural reforms in the past and such promises indeed appear to have been fulfilled with the notification of the three Acts. Perusal of the contents of the aforesaid Acts too does not suggest any provision harmful to the interests of the farmers except that this will necessitate crucial changes in the existing system at the implementation or compliance stage.
However, after the notification of the new laws, a section of farmers particularly in Punjab and Haryana states, and some opposition political parties started criticizing it as corporate friendly and anti-farmer and threatened agitation if the laws were not repealed. One of the contentions was the demand of MSP as the mandatory provision, on which the government’s response was that the government is committed to the same but it was neither part of any law in the past nor it is in the current bills. To begin with, the Shiromani Akali Dal, a partner of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, withdrew their participation in the government in protest while the bills faced strong protest from the opposition parties including Congress, Left parties and Bahujan Samaj Party among others.
While non-inclusion of the statutory support in the bills for the MSP remains a major issue, those who have opposed the bills cite other concerns such as uncertainty about how the reforms would really work, the effect on middlemen, loss of states’ revenue and low bargaining power of the farmers vis-à-vis sponsors, etc. One of the main reasons why the farmers of Punjab and Haryana are particularly opposing it is that currently the bulk of wheat is procured in these states at MSP by the Food Corporation of India and state agencies. Another reason cited by them is the deregulation of APMCs in Bihar as back as in 2006 has not resulted in any significant improvement in infrastructure and increase in the income of farmers in that state. Incidentally, even the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh, supposed to be pro-government due to political affiliations, had registered its opposition for hurrying the bills in the Parliament; instead, they wanted it to be referred to Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture for the detailed examination.
Although stray and minor events of protests have also been reported from various states but the same is spearheaded mainly by the farmers of Punjab and Haryana. About a month back, a large number of protesters marched from these parts towards the national capital Delhi and authorities’ attempt to persuade them and even use of light force such as water cannons did not have any impact. Surprisingly, this legislation and issues now raised are purely internal yet have received wide publicity and attention abroad in countries like US and Canada. Some time back, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a statement in favour of the agitating farmers in India which is seen as interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country. Paradoxically, Trudeau’s has acted under the influence of the Sikh lobby domestically when his own country has been among the most strident critics of the MSP and other agriculture policies of India at the WTO forum in the past.
Agitation Hijacked by Third Parties
It has been nearly a month now that the farmers mainly from Punjab and some parts of Haryana have blocked the major roads and threatening to block railway tracks too leading to the national capital to press their demand to the Centre for repealing these laws. They have clashed with the police, defied barricades and withstood occasional water cannons and tear gas. None the less, the government had allowed the farmers to enter Delhi and assemble at the Burari ground for their peaceful protests. However, the farmer unions refused and, instead, the Sindhu border near Delhi has become their focal point of the protests and stray violence with huge gathering with occasional incidences of atone pelting by the farmers on the police, raising swords, breaking barricades and even attacking the policemen with sticks and rods.
The current farmer’s agitation has raised certain very disturbing and alarming concerns as is evident from the videos, images and textual posts circulating on the social media and on-camera postures and utterances before the mediapersons. In some posts, protesters are seen raising slogans in support of Pakistan and Khalistan by raising swords and other weapons while simultaneously condemning India and Prime Minister Modi. Some women were shown on-camera publicly shouting “Modi, tu mar ja” (death to Modi) and “Modi teri kabra khudegi” (Modi shall be buried). Such ugly incidents only suggest that some anti-national elements too have managed inroads in the farmers’ agitation and are trying to hijack the agenda though the former leaders strongly deny it.
Whatever the farmer leaders say but it is a fact that a protester among them was seen in full public view threatening Prime Minister Modi will meet the same fate as that of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Clearly, this is a language of the Khalistan extremists which have apparently made their entry in the current farmers’ agitation led by influential Sikh leaders from Punjab. In yet another picture, some protesters were seen carrying the posters of the Khalistani terrorist Bhindranwale, who was killed during the Operation Blue Star carried by the security forces in 1984 to flush out such elements hiding in the Golden Temple. One could also locate the Khalistani flags in hands and such banners on the tractors, vehicles parked at the agitation site. Official sources believe that the radical elements from the ultra-Left elements along with separatists have made inroads that may induce incidents of violence, arson and damage to public property in the coming days.
From the activities going on some main access points to the national capital, it appears that the protesters are planning for a long haul in their conflict with the Union Government. Yet another noticeable point is that this does not appear to be an agitation of small and marginal farmers contrywide; while the rest of country is relatively peaceful, these gathering boasts of affluent farmers from Punjab and Haryana in large numbers as can be seen from the congregation of the luxury vehicles, tractors and other sophisticated equipment at the site. Also, in the guise of this protest, the political parties - the Congress, Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi Party being at forefront - too are trying to forward their own political agenda. Apparently some urban naxals, ultra-leftists, and Kashmiri and Khalistani separatist elements too are trying to take advantage of the farmers’ protests in vitiating the atmosphere. In a nutshell, somewhat Shaheen Bagh like situation is precipitating at the farmers’ assembly points that may lead to a serious law and order problem if solution is not found soon to their demands.
If the media reports and accounts of the eye-witnesses are to be believed, the farmer's agitation sites are equipped with all types of machineries and manpower including chapati/poori making machines in bulk on a war footage to feed the gathering day and night. Reportedly, tonnes of food stuff available at the site can feed a large crowd for the months together if the agitation is to continue for long. This reminds a similar situation at the Shaheen Baug, Delhi some time back where the participant women, children and men were provided food and shelter round the clock for several months including daily cash incentives to the participants. Reports suggest that the lavish food items including costly dry fruits, butter, and other milk products, etc. are being served at the Sindhu border site. Also, thousands of clothing items such as fancy overcoats to fight the ensuing cold have been stocked with thousands of tractors and expensive vehicles parked at the site with banners. In a strange contrast, video clips have surfaced from the agitation site too with some individuals complaining on camera for not been paid by the organizers as assured. While the possible links with anti-national elements appear quite worrisome, one could derive satisfaction and solace too that Indian farmers too are now wealthy and resourceful enough to sit on dharna without worrying for any farming work a sustained period.
Pros and Cons of New Agriculture Laws
From the various stipulations made in three sets of laws, prima facie nothing appears against the interests and welfare of the farmer class particularly in view that the existing procurement system and MSP has not been eliminated yet counter arguments are put forth against the new measures. Some such possible advantages and disadvantages are summarized below.
These are clearly foreseen and intended benefits under the new laws.
These are the apprehensions expressed by agitating farmers and critics of the government.
Rationale of Farmers’ Main Demands
Here follows a brief analysis of the farmers demands and their rationale, some of which would appear quite unreasonable or even mystifying even at the first glance to an unbiased and reasonable person:
1. Make Minimum support Price (MSP) and State Procurement of all crops a legal right
This is based on the recommendation of the Commission on Agricultural Cost and Prices (CACP) in 2018 after the Union Government had the MSP for many crops. As such the government does not has storage capacity to hold already procured produce and hire godowns/cold storage facilities from the private sector as also huge amount of it is wasted for the same reasons. Making it a right now, it will not only be against the spirit of market competition depriving farmers of the intended benefits but also deter private players to participate in procurement and trade
2. Accept Recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee on MSP
The National Commission on Farmers, chaired by Prof. MS Swaminathan, had submitted five reports from 2004 to 2006 inter alia addressing various issues of farmers including land reforms, irrigation, credit and insurance, food security, employment, productivity of agriculture and farmer competitiveness, which remains a reference point till date on various issues. According to it, the government should raise the MSP to at least 50% more than the weighted average cost of production, also known as the C2+50% formula. The earlier governments committed but shown hardly any sincere intent or substantive measures to implement it. The present government has constantly increased MSP on many crucial food grains and has even released data showing increase over the previous government rates. For the marketing season 2021-22, the government has already notified rates in September 2020 that includes the highest ever increase in MSP on lentil, followed by gram, rapeseed and mustard. Also, the government had declared in December 2019 about its resolve to implement nearly 200 recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee, including MSP, in a phased manner.
3. Repeal Commission on Air Quality Management in NCR and Adjoining Ordinance 2020
The aforesaid Commission was set up by the Union Government in November 2020 with an objective to curb or minimize the problem of air pollution in the NCR region. It is now in everybody’s knowledge and concern how the NCR is engulfed by thick smog every year in winters causing serious health hazards. While the sources of pollution are many but it is aggravated in winters largely due to the burning of stubble in the adjoining areas, particularly in Punjab and Haryana. The step taken is for the health of citizens in NCR and overall betterment of the country but the farmers have raised a retrograde demand to repeal it rather than participating or contributing their bit for improvement of the air quality. Despite the express need of curtailing it by all available means, the selfish interest of a small section of farmers seems so saddening and sickening.
4. Reduce Diesel Price for the Agricultural Use by 50 Percent
In this country, different sections of populace are always found pressing various concessions without regard or concern that for every subsidy or freebie the government also needs additional resources. As such agriculture and farmers are exempted from income tax and a host of subsidies on fertilizers, power, agricultural equipment, agricultural infrastructure, seeds, irrigation, credit and export, etc. are available. In addition, dozens welfare schemes including periodical cash incentives are in vogue. At some points, farmers too need to understand that the taxpayers in India are a very small percentage and the resources of the government are limited.
5. Withdrawal of cases against Farmer Leaders, Poets, Intellectuals, Lawyers, Writers, Human & Democratic Rights Activists all over India; those who have been jailed in false cases, should be released
This demand is really strange and ambiguous in the context of the farmers agitating for own cause. Any person of common prudence would wonder why they should be sympathetic or mix their cause with the people convicted or detained by law for various civil or criminal offenses. In fact, the very demand casts reflection on the motivated nature of the movement and the forces and resource behind it. Hypothetically, the Union Government can be cornered to withdraw cases against some people but the larger question would arise who is competent to grant pardon and decide that their prosecution is based on false cases against them. After all, the duty and power of granting bail, adjudicating and discharging the accused rests under the purview of the judiciary which is constitutionally not obligated to act under the powers of the Union Government or even Parliament. In fact, such a demand is a poor reflection of the farmers's own caiuse and intent.
6. Repeal the Three Laws Passed by the Parliament
This demand is stated to be on the forefront and non-negotiable from the perstective of the agitating farmers. Such a demand is based on the apprehensions expressed in the foregoing paragraphs mainly under the disadvantages column. They also apprehend that the MSP and APMC would be discontinued which even the Prime Minister has personally denied recently in a televised address to the agricultural community and farmers of the nation. The position as of now is that the MSP and APMC would stay for those who wish to avail it but simultaneously farmers will have opportunity and choice to explore and accrue benefits under the new laws.
It is not that the agitating farmers have not marched towards Delhi in the past and attempted to block the access to the national capital for their demands but the unique feature about the current agitation is that it has been organized this time nearly on the Shaheen Bagh protests pattern with the participants appearing to be readied for a long haul with lavish arrangements of food, shelter and other stuff, wide international publicity with sympathizers abroad and presence of some anti-national elements and sentiments among them. In such case, it is difficult to say how farmer is the farmers' current agitation and real motives as of now, and one has to wait and see how things unfold in near future and what remains the Union Government's response to it.
By promulgation of the aforesaid Acts, the government has introduced the long-awaited reforms largely in favour of the farmers, which are also commensurate with the international norms. While the government has given option to the formers to seek more favourable terms and prices for their produce under the new laws, they have neither discontinued MSP nor APMC markets as of now that means the former can still choose between two options. The government has also expressed their willingness to consider amendments, if required, in the legislation. It is true that any new system has (unfounded) fears and apprehensions but it doesn’t mean that fresh reforms and initiatives should not be taken. Moreover, laws can also be challenged and their constitutional validity could be examined by the higher judiciary of the country. When various redressal mechanisms are available, any demand for repealing laws passed by the Parliament is unjustified. Also the association of the ultra-left and separatist elements with the farmers’ agitation shall not be tolerated by a sovereign democratic country like India.
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