Analysis

The Punjab Farmers Resort to Ill-Timed Agitation

The Punjab farmers are up to it yet again raising doubts and questions in the psyche of many sound and logical thinking men of this nation about the timing and true intention of agitating farmers. On the last occasion, when the federal government enacted laws for introducing the long awaited crucial reforms in the agriculture and farm sector in September 2020, which inter alia sought to provide farmers of the country with multiple marketing channels and a legal framework to enter into pre-arranged contracts along with multiple other improvements, the very Punjab lobby of farmers with partial support from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh had put the national capital under cease and ransom for months together until the government decided to withdraw and annul the progressive legislation perhaps largely owing to their political compulsions. Undoubtedly, this was a retrograde measure whereby the government buckled under the pressure of the agitating farmers’ lobby and their political supporters nationally and internationally, compromising the larger interests of the marginal and small farmers of this great nation.

During the recent years, a remarkable trend has emerged in India to hold the national capital region (NCR) under cease and captivity even for the silliest causes citing it as genuine demands of the affected groups or masses. Unable to challenge the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) led present central government for the last two terms with genuine and viable programs and policies, the opposition parties and their followers in the media, elite classes and common people have so often supported such disruptive moves for their own petty interests creating confusion and chaos in the country. Fortunately, learning from the previous episodes, the central government has been vigilant and cautious this time till now in ensuring with the support of the friendly neighboring state governments that the agitating farmers and disruptive elements among them do not succeed in reaching the national capital thereby disturbing the overall peace and order in the national capital region as it occurred on the past several occasions.

Background & Agitators’ Current Demands

In September 2020, the Indian Parliament had enacted three bills; namely, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill of 2020. While simultaneously retaining the existing MSP regime as an option, the government opined that these laws would minimize their involvement in agriculture with time creating greater opportunities for the farmers and private sector, the agitating farmers had apprehensions that the greater role of the private sector would harm their interests making them vulnerable to businesses. As the agitation escalated in the year 2021, opponents including political parties, a section of media and interested groups too supported it and all out efforts were made to internationalize it, with even alleged links and involvement of the anti-national forces such as Khalistanis, Maoists, and Pakistani ISI backed pressure groups, etc.

Immediately after the bills were passed in the Parliament, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the bills as a watershed moment in the history of Indian agriculture that will empower the millions of farmers. In fact, various political parties, particularly leaders of the Congress led previous UPA government were on record of repeatedly favoring similar agricultural reforms in the past sans implementing it on ground but now they chose to criticize and oppose the very agricultural laws ushering in such reforms. On a careful examination, the author did not find any provision in these laws harmful to the interests of the farmers in any way. However, the opponents opposed it on the plea that the new laws were corporate friendly and anti-farmer. With the growing agitation, one of the demands put forth was to make MSP as a mandatory legal provision, on which the government’s response was that it was neither part of any law in the past nor it was possible in the current bills. With the stalemate continued with occasional violence, the government finally chose to revoke the three agriculture laws in November 2021.

During the current spell, the Punjab farmers are leading the agitation with the following chief demands besides pressing the point that the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations of 2004 to 2006 shall be implemented in toto:

  • The government must enact laws guaranteeing Minimum Support Price (MSP) for all the crops, which according to them would protect their income and provide stability in the agricultural markets.
  • The government should provide debt waiver to farmers with all debts above Rs 10,000 to be waived; currently such debt is at a staggering total of about 18,4 lakh crores.
  • Higher compensation to the farmers for the land acquired for the developmental projects, inter alia including the reservation of 10% of residential plots on the developed lands to the families affected by land acquisition.
  • Agitating farmers have also demanded that the government should announce withdrawal from the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreements as also the imposition of a ban on all Free Trade Agreements (FTA) as, according to them, they adversely affect their livelihoods.
  • The Electricity Amendment Bill 2020 should be scrapped to stop the growing privatization of electricity and ensuring the state governments to pay subsidies on time.
  • Financial security with guaranteed income and minimum wages along with a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price (MSP) for All Crops.
  • Some of the other demands include justice for the alleged Lakhimpur Kheri violence against the farmers, pension for the farmers and farm laborer's, compensation to the families of farmers lives during 2020-21 agitation with employment for one family member, MGNREGA employment with minimum daily wage of Rs 700 to the rural workers and 200 days of work, formation of a National Commission for Spices, protection for the land, forests and water resources belonging to the tribal communities, measures to improve seed quality with penal provision to companies producing fake seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, etc.

Here it may be relevant and interesting to cite MS Swaminathan Report of 2006 because the farmers’ agitation and demands from time to time invariably referred to and linked with it in the context. The National Commission on Farmers (NCF) was constituted by the Congress former PM Manmohan Singh led UPA government in November 2004 under the chairmanship of Professor MS Swaminathan to address various complex issues, including suicides, faced by the farmers of India. The NCF is now more popularly known as the Swaminathan Report on Farmers and its terms and references were based on the common minimum programme agreed by various constituent parties of the UPA government. The Commission had submitted four reports from December 2004 to April 2006 and the fifth and final report was submitted in October 2006 containing suggestions for the faster and more inclusive growth of the farm sector and farmers. During their regime of ten years from 2004 to 2014, the UPA government did not implement its recommendations on the plea of lack of resources (funds) and now a section of farmers supported by the erstwhile UPA constituents (now in opposition) are fighting lock, stock and barrel with the present NDA government for its implementation in toto.

Nature of Protests

In the current phase of the agitation, mainly the formers from the Northern Indian State of Punjab are participating. According to their claim, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) is comprised of over 150 farmer organizations and is a non-political body of farmers, which is also backed by supposedly yet another 100 farmers’ unions. The Morcha has given a call for “Delhi Chalo” (Go to Delhi) march for a peaceful protest against the central government to press for their common demands, allegedly led by Jagjit Singh Dallewal of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) and Sarvan Singh Pandher of Kisan Mazdoor Morcha (KMM). Some other significant key figures of the earlier agitation in 2020-21, namely Darshan Pal, Rakesh Tikait, Joginder Singh Ugrahan, Balbir Singh Rajewal and Gurnam Singh Charuni have not been active this time sans few statements in favour from some of them.

The “Delhi Chalo” movement started on 13 February from Punjab and ever since the agitating farmers have made several attempts at various points in large groups in their endeavor to force enter the national capital to press for their demands. In this process, they have had prolonged confrontation with the jawans of the security establishments and are believed to have enough stock at the points like Shambhu and Khanauri borders for a long and sustained haul. More than a kilometre-long convoy at certain points include large numbers of tractor-trollies and trucks carrying huge supplies suggesting the agitators have indeed geared for a long and sustained haul. Informal conversation with certain journalists and agitators indicates that the agitating farmers have mobilized enough stock for about six months like what they did in 2020-21.

During the first few days, there was a massive confrontation between the agitating farmers and the security forces at Shambhu border, with the farmers trying to breach the multi-layered security. However, the state administration working in synergy with the central government was well prepared this time which is apparent from their successful resistance of every push made by the farmers. Somewhat similar situation existed at the Khanauri border too with the agitators hell bent to reach the national capital by hook or crook. As a precaution, barricades were also placed at the Gazipur and Tikri borders in Uttar Pradesh and internet services suspended by the administration in the bordering districts of Haryana. One of farmer leaders shared with journalists that no matter what it takes, they will make their way through the security cardon to reach Delhi. By the morning of 15 February, quite a few women groups were also seen joining the crowd at the Khanauri border. However, despite many attempts and enthusiasts waiting for a window to breach the security barricades, they have not succeeded so far.

Ironically, the entire convoy of the agitating farmers have been guarded by a huge Punjab police force and commandos inside the state territory. The state government is comprised of the Aam Admi Party which is in vehement opposition to the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party at the Centre. So as it appears, under the direction of the state government, the Punjab police have not made any attempt to confront the security establishment at various points of the Haryana – Punjab border but they have not stopped or made any attempt to control unruly crowd either bent upon to force their entry in Haryana with Delhi as final destination. In addition, the Punjab government has also deployed a fleet of ambulances for taking the injured agitators to the nearest hospitals in the event of clashes and confrontation with the security establishment.  Besides, a few mobile unit hospitals have also been deployed by them converting ambulances at the border to help out the sick formers and meet any emergent situation.

Some rather worrisome development midst the agitation includes the engagement of heavy machinery such as the JCBs, Poclaines, Tippers, Hydras and other earthmoving equipment at the Haryana – Punjab border, with an obvious intention and potential threat for forced removal of the concrete and barbed iron fencing erected by the security establishment. On their part, the security establishment has created layers of the concrete barrier and wired-fencing to stop the undesirable entry of the e territory of Haryana. Consequent to the Haryana government’s request for not allowing such machinery at the border, the Director General of Punjab Police has issued instruction to their relevant law-enforcing officers to halt the transportation of aforesaid heavy machinery to the Punjab-Haryana Border at Shambhu and Khanauri fearing the deterioration of the law-and-order situation in both the states.

There have been many attempts by the agitating farmers to break and bypass security cardon and consequent confrontation and clash between the two sides since 13 February 2023. At times, the police had to use water cannons, tear gas shells, and probably rubber bullets too, to control the frenzied and violent crowd. The Farmer leaders claim that a young former Shubh Karan Singh, aged 22 years, died owing to police excessive force on 21 February 2024. On the other hand, the Haryana police too have made statement that three police officers have so far died on duty owing to excessive stress and illness while dealing with the unruly agitators. However, the agitators have not so far succeeded in penetrating the security barricades; consequently, they have revised their strategy of taking buses and trains to reach Delhi besides making announcement for the countrywide “rail roko” (stop trains) movement on 6th and 10th March. The border areas are said to have been literally under sort of a blackout with the stoppage of electricity and internet at certain points , where the farmers were noticed using local cutters and cables to draw electricity directly from poles.

In the context of the alleged death of a farmer, while the agitating farmers claim that the young farmer protester Shubh Karan Singh died after being injured during a clash when the police at Khanauri border shot him. According to their version, he was rushed to the Government Rajindra Hospital in Patiala where doctors declared him dead with injury on head by a rubber bullet. However, the police categorically denied any report of the death owing to police action. According to the Jind (Haryana) police version, the police personnel were surrounded at the Dara Singh-Khanori border where the farmer protesters mixed chilly with stubble and burnt it creating their own tear gas smoke. Then under the cover of smoke, they attacked the police with sharp weapons (swords) and resorted to heavy stone pelting, some of them even using spears and machetes. In the ensuing melee and violence, at least twelve policemen were seriously injured and to control the situation and disperse protesters, the police ultimately used tear gas.

It is not that the central government have been unresponsive to the formers’ agitation. So far, they have invited the farmer union leaders for the table-talks and four rounds of negotiations have been held. However, the government proposals were summarily rejected by the union leaders stating that they will not stop agitation or compromise until the MSP is legalized, extended to all crops and other demands met by the government. After the 4th round talks, the Union Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda made announcement that the government was ready to discuss all the issues like the MSP demand, crop diversification, stubble issue, and so on in the fifth round and that the only way to solution  could be a meaningful dialogue wherein both sides patiently listen to each-other with open mind considering our resources and constraints.

Reactions and Responses

There is not even an iota of doubt about the networking and influence of wealthy farmers of Punjab nationally and internationally. During the last agitation in 2020-21, the Indian farmers’ issues, with the chief demand of summary withdrawal of the three agricultural bills, had received wide coverage and support both nationally and internationally. Moreover, the agitation too was more broad-based with farmers of Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh too having joined it along with vocal support from certain other parts of the country too, a large number of them succeeding to put the national capital under nearly cease for months. However, this time it is largely the Punjab farmers who have participated in agitation and their attempts to march to Delhi have been foiled so far by the alert security establishment at various points of the Punjab-Haryana border. This is a crucial election year with parliamentary elections due in the next two months and the agitation has not received same coverage, publicity and impact this time.

Hitherto fore, the opposition parties of India have supported farmers’ agitation citing their demands as genuine while simultaneously criticizing the government as being anti-farmers. The Wayanad (Kerala) MP Rahul Gandhi, top leader and prime ministerial candidate of the Congress, reacted to the protests asserting that if his party comes to power following the parliamentary elections, his government would provide a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price (MSP) to every farmer as per the Swaminathan Report. In a telephonic conversation with an injured farmer, Gandhi also accused the Modi government of having a dictatorial attitude towards the country’s food providers (farmers). Ironically enough, he is leader of the same political party which appointed the said Commission and headed the government from 2004 to 2014 but didn’t implement the recommendations of the said report citing lack of resources.

According to reports, a member of the Congress party’s farmers wing had earlier pooled about six lakh rupees from his supporters to buy gas masks and some medicines to counter and neutralize the effect of tear gas shell on the agitators by the police. It’s not just the Congress party, instead, India’s many other rather hostile opposition parties simply unable to match or outshine Prime Minister Modi’s national and international appeal and yet in search for a narrative to counter and dent his image have also rallied behind the agitating farmers. This is also apparent from a recent report by the London based international news agency Reuters with the caption “India's farmer protest fuels opposition hopes of denting Modi's appeal”. According to them, although the farmers’ protest is confined to the breadbasket state of Punjab but their (farmers) complaints of falling incomes resonate more widely largely reflecting the perceptions of India’s huge rural hinterland that Modi and his party have done little to improve farmers’ living standards. Such reports from a large section of left-leaning Western media are neither new or nor surprising in view of their long-lasting bias particularly against the present Modi government.

Incidentally, most critics of the Modi government whether they are opposition politicians or so-called elite intellectuals-liberal are arguing about falling incomes of the farmers and widening gap of urban-rural living standards while supporting farmers agitation. Fact is that no other government has ever so holistically focused with the multiple schemes to address nearly all aspects of rural living, inter alia including electricity, water, infrastructure, sanitation, health, crop produce and employment generation. Even the earlier repealed three farm laws were largely pro-farmers, retaining the option of the existing MSP regime, more particularly keeping the interests of about eighty-five percent lot which is comprised of small and medium sized land holding. On the other hand, the agriculturists of Punjab are already comprised of a large number of wealthy farmers and intermediaries compared to farmers in the other parts of the country.

The aforesaid averment could be easily validated with a few ground realities and facts. The agitating farmers are stated to have managed a crowd of about 10,000 people and over 1,000 tractors besides unspecified number of trucks, trollies, other vehicles and heavy machinery. It could be anybody’s imagination or guess about the magnitude of money and other resources needed for the prolonged sustenance of such a huge crowd. A large number of tractors and trailers have been converted into makeshift homes by covering them with tents and tarpaulin sheets and the community kitchens set up with continuous supplies from the nearby villages and markets. Even luxurious vanity vans have been reported from the agitating farmers which are fully equipped with all kinds of modern equipment and gadgets such as air conditioner, modern beds and toilet, LCD, fans, geysers, cupboard, induction cookers, and so on…erstwhile known for use by celebrities. This certainly raises questions if they are justice seeking poor farmers or a politically motivated affluent lot.

Here are some glimpses from the protest sites. According to reports, Sukhpal Khaira, a farmer and Congress leader from Punjab was seen saying, "We have not been able to defeat Modi, but we have created some disruption for the right reason." Many farmers and opposition leaders were found hopeful that the protest will spread beyond Punjab like in 2020-21 denting Modi’s popularity. A key leader of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), Sidhupur faction convenor, Jagjit Singh Dallewal was seen in a video stating that they want to bring down Narendra Modi's graph (i.e. popularity) which soared due to the consecration of the Ram Mandir, and also that their protests offer a window of opportunity to achieve this objective – an averment instantly supported by a prominent Congress leader justifying that the farmers too have right to express political views.  Naturally, some BJP leaders have countered this with averments that the Modi government is committed to helping the poor and making every effort to address farmers’ concerns while some even feel that the protest is politically motivated.

Government Proposals to Resolve Stalemate

By any logical and well-meaning person, this also needs to be kept in view that the UPA government which had appointed the Swaminathan Commission, never acted to implement recommendations despite having ten years of continuous reign at the Centre from 2004 to 2014 on the plea of the lack of resources (funds) and now the same leaders in opposition with parliamentary elections due in few weeks, are inciting farmers with tall promises of fulfilling their demands of MSP on all crops, even legalizing,  and meeting other demands after election. In fact, it was the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi led NDA government which has paid serious attention on the plight of farmers of the entire country and taking all necessary steps keeping in view the available resources and constraints since it came in power in May 2014.

The agitating farmers’ demands inter alia include extension of MSP on all agricultural produce as per the formula suggested by the Swaminathan Commission. The earlier governments had committed but shown hardly any sincere commitment 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 from time to time. Also, the government had declared as back as in December 2019 about its resolve to implement nearly 200 recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee, including MSP, in a phased manner. Just for the sake of illustration and better appreciation by the readers, the comparative hike in MSP of certain core food grains is indicated here:

Sr. No.             Item (Per Quintal)       2013-14      2022-23
1.                     Paddy (Rice)                1310.00      2015.00
2.                     Wheat                         1350.00      2040,.00

In percentage terms, the aforesaid increase in MSP for paddy is 56% and Wheat 49% during nine years. Similarly, the corresponding increase in MSP for the items like Sunflower, Soyabean and Groundnut has been 72%, 88% and 46% respectively during the same period. Currently, Government announces MSPs for twenty-two (22) mandated crops and Fair and Remunerative Prices (FRP) for the Sugarcane at all India level recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices (CACP) after considering the views of concerned State Governments and Central Ministries/Departments. The 22 mandated crops include 14 Kharif crops viz. paddy, jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, tur (arhar), moong, urad, groundnut, soybean (yellow), sunflower seed, sesamum, nigerseed, cotton and 6 Rabi crops viz. wheat, barley, gram, masur (lentil), rapeseed & mustard, safflower and two commercial crops viz. jute and copra. In addition to that, MSP for toria and dehusked coconut are also fixed on the basis of MSPs of rapeseed & mustard and copra respectively.

Following the fourth round of talks between a government panel and agitating farmers, the central government has proposed a 5-year plan for the procurement of pulses and maize at the Minimum Support Price (MSP). For the knowledge of the readers, the MSP is significant because it serves as a security measure assured by the government to farmers about a guaranteed price for their harvest, shielding them from market uncertainties. With this proposal, the government has acknowledged the significance of pulses and maize in the agricultural landscape, and their willingness for the procurement of a fixed quantity of pulses and maize at MSP over the next five years. This, in turn, is likely to lead to the fostering of the agricultural sustainability, curb the tendency of the exploitation of farmers by the intermediaries besides fostering agricultural sustainability to a considerable extent. However, the agitators are not only insisting an unconditional MSP for all crops but also a lawful statutory provision to that effect. The farmer leaders insist that the Modi government should circumvent Parliament for now and bring up an ordinance granting a legal guarantee to MSP.

Is Legalizing MSP Justifiable?

The minimum support price or MSP of commodities in the minimum price fixed by the government at which the farmers would expect to sell their produce for a crop season. As such government agencies procure certain items from farmers at these prices and whenever the market price of a particular commodity falls below MSP, the government agencies step in support and procure the crop from the farmers. Thus, in a way, the MSP for the produce of farmers serves as a kind of safety valve or insurance when the market prices start falling below the price fixed by the government. As per the prevailing practice, the Cabinet Committee of Economic Affairs of the Central Government approves MSP for various crops based on the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). As already mentioned, 23 farm commodities cereals, pulses, oil seeds and few commercial crops are covered under MSP. The CACP is just an advisory and not statutory body and recommendations are not binding on the government but now the agitating Punjab farmers are demanding that the MSP should be mandated by Law.

By promulgation of the three agricultural Acts in 2020, the government had introduced the long-awaited reforms largely in favor of the farmers, which were also commensurate with the international norms. While the government had given option to the formers to seek more favorable terms and prices for their produce under the new laws, they have also retained MSP and APMC markets as option for the farmers to choose between two as per their convenience. The interesting part of it is that almost all key leaders of the Congress and other opposition parties had spoken from time to time in favor of the farming sector reforms to make it more market oriented and farmer friendly during the last two decades including a period of ten years of the Congress led UPA government. Several speeches and utterances to that effect of many opposition leaders including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other top leaders are on record. But now, while in opposition, they have taken U-turn along with other opposition and find the same reforms detrimental to the farmers’ interests.

While resorting to reforms later withdrawn following 2020-21 agitation, the government had specially focused on the interests of the marginal and small farmers accounting for over 85% in the country with a land-holding of less than five hectares. In the existing system, an overwhelming majority of them do not have adequate awareness and facilities to directly approach APMC markets on MSP and are exploited by the middlemen for their produce. Although political parties including the ruling BJP are shy to raise such issue for political reasons but one of the chief reasons why the farmers of Punjab, and some from Haryana and Western UP, are on the forefront of such demands is that currently the bulk of wheat and some other crops is procured by the FCI and state agencies in these states, and many affluent farmers with large land-holdings are also profiteering as intermediaries (middlemen) in these states.

The welfare of the farmers needs to be gauzed from a larger spectrum and not merely from the protectionism point of view in terms of MSP and APMC market. Ever since the Modi Government came in power in 2014, not only the MSP on major items of produce has been significantly increased but also a plethora of progressive measures taken in terms of providing and augmenting quality seeds, insurance, markets, savings, neem coated urea, soil health cards, micro irrigation, direct subsidies, FPOs (Farmers Producers Organizations), liberal crop loan, and so on to overcome the difficulties and challenges faced by the small and marginal farmers of the country, besides augmenting infrastructure, housing, sanitation, water and electricity and health services. Most of the developed countries have already resorted to market reforms in agricultural sector and it is of common knowledge that in a free-market economy, the prices of goods and services need to be based on the market forces and not to be decided by the state, except in certain exceptional contingencies. If the state undertakes the regulation of such prices, the market equilibrium is bound to get disrupted in the long term, a bad choice for the inclusive growth of the nation.

End Note

So far, several sessions of negotiations held between the agitating farmers and government on 8th, 12th, 15th and 18th February 2024 have remained unproductive. Farmers’ demands, approach, statements and timing of the agitation itself raise many pertinent and serious questions. If they are keen about a settlement, they should also try to understand the financial and other constraints of the government. Their approach, statements and ill-timing suggest that the protests have a clear political overtone and objective too and by putting quite a few unsustainable demands like MSP for all crops and legalizing it for all time to come, and then being adamant about it, they consciously desire to dent and tarnish the image of the Prime Minister Modi, BJP and government as being anti-farmer with the parliamentary elections due in the next few weeks. Besides, they are probably under impression that this is an opportune time when the ruling party and government can be coerced to accept their demands. A far more appropriate and honest way for protesters could be to vote for the change of the government rather than resorting to such agitation time and again putting even common public at tremendous inconvenience if they are not satisfied with the working of present political dispensation. Then the type and scale of heavy machinery, resources and manpower that have been mobilized by the protesters for a long and sustained haul at border points clearly suggest that this cannot be afforded by the poor and resource-less farmers as claimed and the bulk funding and other resources are most probably from hitherto fore unidentified sources

17-Mar-2024

More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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