By Saheli Chowdhury – Dec 28, 2020
The present situation
The protests began on September 23 as thousands of farmers and agricultural workers of Punjab started blocking railways and major roads in protest against the three farm bills that had been presented in the Parliament at that time. Protests also started in the neighboring state of Haryana spearheaded by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), one of the leading organizations of AIKSCC, which the state administration tried to repress severely, even imprisoning leaders on false charges. Two months later, on November 26, farmers from Punjab started their “March to Delhi”, and on the way they were to be joined by protestors from the neighboring states. As they tried to enter Haryana they were stopped by police barricades on the bridge between the two states, and tensions escalated as Haryana police used tear gas and water cannons on the farmers on the cold winter morning. The farmers, who had come equipped with tractors, trucks and road-rollers, finally managed to break through the barricades and continue on their way. As they reached the outskirts of Delhi, where the first rallies of farmers and farm workers from Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had arrived, they again faced police, paramilitary, barricades, barbed wires, trenches, tear gas and water cannons, causing some to comment that Delhi was appearing more heavily guarded than the India-Pakistan border. The Home Ministry even wanted the state government of Delhi to turn over the stadiums under its jurisdiction to be converted to temporary jails to detain the protesting farmers, which was turned down, with the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal declaring that “the farmers are not terrorists”. Finally, after a lot of tussle and threats, the protestors were allowed to start their demonstrations at “designated sites”. Since then, hundreds of thousands of farmers and their allies have been blockading all major roads to Delhi, braving the cold wave that has gripped entire northern India, and their numbers are swelling every day as new people are joining. There are women and children also, though much smaller in number compared to the men.
Despite provocations, the protests continue to be peaceful. At all the protest sites in and around Delhi, the protesting farmers have built “cities within a city”, complete with tents, community kitchens, food banks, solar panels, water geysers to combat the cold, toilets, libraries, and other necessities and amenities of life. There are also primary medical clinics run by real doctors, and an ambulance service. All this has been the result of community organizing as NGOs, local residents, students’ organizations, organizers of local gurdwaras and mosques have participated in the construction of these “cities” and are providing help and funding, like they had done for the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors last year and earlier this year. Sikh organizations from around the world have provided funds too, according to various reports. The farmers had already come equipped with stocks of food to last two months, six according to some reports, and their stocks are continuously being replenished by their allies both in the city and in their native places. There continues to be huge police presence around the protesting farmers’ camps, trying to “separate” the city from these “cities” and to “maintain law and order”. However, according to some reports, local residents carrying food or clothing for the protestors are being allowed to drive upto the edge of these “cities”.
On December 8 a national strike was called by trade unions and social organizations in solidarity with the protesting farmers. Recently, farmers have also started a relay hunger strike at various protest sites around Delhi. Farmers and agricultural workers of far-flung states in the south and the east who have been unable to go to the national capital due to curbs on movement for the pandemic, have been organizing in their home states. By now hundreds of protests have occurred all over the country. In the southern state of Kerala, organizations pertaining to the platform of AIKSCC started a protest on December 12, to be continued indefinitely. On December 16, over 50,000 farmers rallied to Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal, in support of the farmers protesting in Delhi, and the rally was joined by students’, women’s and youth organizations and the Left parties of the state. On December 20, close to 2000 farmers from Maharashtra under the banner of AIKS started a march to join their counterparts in Delhi. On December 26 they were stopped at Shahjahanpur at the Rajasthan-Haryana border by the Haryana state police, and since then they have been organizing a sit-in demonstration on the highway.
The demonstrations have not been without losses, either. Until the time of writing this, thirty-three protestors lost their lives due to cold, exhaustion, illness and accidents, including a religious leader who took his own life as he “failed to tolerate the plight of the farmers”. Homage was paid to them all over the country on December 20. These incidents have only strengthened the resolve of the protestors.
The government and the BJP, for their part, have tried to undermine the protests and malign the protestors by calling them ‘anti-nationals’, ‘terrorists’, ‘separatists’, and declaring that the protests have been ‘infiltrated by the far-Left’ and ‘paid by Pakistan’, like they did in case of all previous protests in the country, but this time these moves have been mostly ridiculed. Trying to fracture the protests along religious lines has failed too. The subservient media also has drawn the ire of the protestors for peddling government propaganda, with demonstrators at multiple sites displaying posters naming and shaming the media houses. Some volunteers have started a bilingual biweekly newspaper named “Trolley Times” to cover the protests (trolley means modified tractors).
Until now, multiple talks between the protest leaders and the government have failed, as the government continues to stubbornly cling to the farm laws and only wishes to tolerate some “amendments” to them, while the protesting farmers demand a complete rollback. The general secretary of the AIKS and a leader of the organization in West Bengal, Hannan Mollah, who is present in Delhi, has expressed his irritation over the “insincerity” of the government and its “complete refusal to listen to the country’s farmers”. “They are probably thinking that if enough time passes we will get tired and the protest will dissipate,” he said. “But this time we are not returning until our demands have been met.” Several demonstrators at different protest sites have expressed similar sentiments. “We will remain here until 2024 (time for the next parliamentary election) if the need arises,” reiterated a protestor at a site at the Delhi-Haryana border.
State governments headed by non-BJP parties, for their part, have tried to adopt positions against the farm laws. A number of states have declared that they will not implement the laws, citing the constitutional provision that agriculture is a state subject. The government of Punjab became the first in the country to pass bills against the laws at the state legislative assembly. The Legislative Assembly of Delhi passed a resolution against the laws in a special session of the assembly on December 17, during which the Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tore copies of the laws in a show of solidarity with the protestors. The government of Kerala tried to convene a special session of the state legislature to adopt a resolution against the said laws, but the governor of the state (who is a representative of the central government in essence) has denied permission for it. It is expected that the government will pass a resolution in the regular session scheduled for January if unable to convene a special session. Along similar lines, the Supreme Court of India, on December 17, refused to allow the central government to evict the protestors, declaring that the right to protest peacefully is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of the country.
The demands and the reasons
The demands articulated by the protestors are simple: repeal of the three farm laws and the amendment to the electricity law (that seeks to remove subsidies to electricity used for agricultural purposes), and assuring the minimum support price (MSP) to farmers as recommended by the National Commission of Farmers – better known as the Swaminathan Commission (after the renowned agro-scientist who headed it). The commission had presented its report in 2004 but none of the successive governments has discussed it in the Parliament. The ruling party and the national government have flip-flopped, failed, and outright lied about the implementation of the MSP. In fact, the MSP issue has been a catalyst for the current protests. In 2014, on the campaign trail for the parliamentary election, BJP (at that time in the Opposition) had promised that if they came to power they would implement the major recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission within twelve months. Within twelve months of coming to power, they informed the courts that those recommendation could not be implemented because that would lead to “distortion in market prices” [of crops]. In 2016 the then Agriculture Minister denied ever having made any promise like that; in 2017 the government discarded the Swaminathan Commission in favor of the “Madhya Pradesh model” (a model that led to huge protests and police firing on protestors in the state in 2017), and in 2019 the then Finance Minister lied and said that the government had already implemented the MSP recommendation. What they did implement was nothing but a manipulation of the original recommendation. On top of that, only a tiny fraction of the country’s farmers – 6% according to government data – receive that MSP.
There is also a demand for convening a special session of the parliament dedicated to the agrarian crisis, similar to what was demanded by the Kisan Mukti March two years ago. Another demand that is expected to come up in the course of the movement is the waiver of farm loans and making a better agricultural credit system available to farming families – preferably through public or cooperative banks, because in this case also the government does not have a good record. When agricultural debt waiver schemes were announced, those came with a lot of conditions that deprived most farmers from accessing the schemes, while the bulk of the compensations went to banks and agribusinesses and not to the agriculturists themselves.
At the Kolkata rally on December 16, a middle-aged man, a potato farmer from Hooghli district (famous for potato cultivation and also infamous for farmer suicides in recent years), expressed his apprehensions to me: “The PM says that we can sell our produce to anyone anywhere in the country. Very well. Now tell me, who has both the money and the means to do that? I don’t own a truck, not even a matador (smaller vehicle for carrying goods). Neither am I able to rent one, it costs a lot – and then you know the price of petrol (gasoline), diesel – rising every day. If I get the news that some company is buying potato at a high rate in Tamil Nadu (state in the extreme south), can I take my product and go there? No. But the cold storage owner can – and it will be he, and people like him, who will benefit from the new laws. He will buy potatoes dirt-cheap from us, and go and sell it at higher prices elsewhere, because he has the means to do that.” This is exactly what P. Sainath means when he says that the new farm laws will only strengthen the grip of the middlemen on Indian farmers, and is exactly what is already happening in West Bengal, Bihar and many other states.
A friend of mine, a college student who hails from a family of rice cultivators in East Bardhaman district (called the ‘granary of Bengal’ for its role in rice production, and the region worst affected by farmer suicides in the state), adds to this: “It will be very much like the Jio thing (referring to the telecommunications company Reliance Jio owned by the billionaire Mukesh Ambani). Just like they first achieved a near monopoly by offering cheap rates (on calls and internet), and now that they have the market under control, they are increasing prices and even dictating the country’s telecom policies, similarly the corporates will offer good rates on crops for two-three years and then they will control even what we eat.” He is not wrong, especially given the fact that Reliance already engages in contract farming in parts of the country and has expressed support for the new farm laws, together with the Adani Group that wishes to “tap into the country’s agribusiness potential”. With their declarations the reality that it is the corporations that are running the government is exposed by now, which led farmers and others to brand the current government ‘Ambani-Adani government’ and call for a boycott of products of those companies.
At the same time, many scholars and activists have pointed out that when the largest capitalist economies like the United States and countries of the EU provide billions of dollars in subsidies to their agricultural sectors, why should the agricultural economy of India be liberalized to corporate interests? In the present situation the farm laws that are needed should have looked very different from the ones that the government has delivered.
But what about the pandemic? Are the protestors – by now numbering a few hundred thousand – sitting on roads in and around Delhi for a month and will be sitting indefinitely, not afraid of contracting the infection and dying? “We are already dying,” retorted some protesting farmers to the Delhi police personnel who had tried to warn them of COVID. “If we do not die of the virus we will surely die of poverty.” Many have expressed similar sentiments, hailing the current uprising against the farm laws as a battle for the lives of common Indians. It may sound extreme, but it is true as the new acts would also lead to widespread food insecurity, for they are very likely to disrupt the already weak public distribution system (PDS), according to apprehensions expressed by the renowned economist Prabhat Patnaik and D. Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). India has consistently slid down the Global Hunger Index (in spite of neither experiencing war nor economic sanctions) and is placed much behind its poorer neighbors in the subcontinent. Calculations of food availability and consumption data show that both per capita food consumption and per capita food availability have decreased during the neoliberal era, falling below the same for 1960s or ‘70s, prompting some economists to conclude that India is living through an invisible famine. The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data paints a dismal picture of chronic malnutrition and wasting in especially women and children, and it has to be kept in mind that the data of the survey was collected before the pandemic; the next phase of the survey (to be conducted in 2021) is expected to show a worse image. Moreover, in the last few decades India has experienced an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a minuscule corporate elite, with the top 10% of the population owning 77% of the national wealth. In 2017, 73% of all wealth generated in the year went to the richest 1%, while the poorest half of the country (67 million people) had only 1% increase in their wealth. All this results in the situation that close to 800 million people have to depend on the public distribution system – “rations” as it is called in India – for food grains and edible oil (number provided by the government of India in its first pandemic package). This system has already been dismantled continuously over the last three decades. With the proposed dilution of the government’s procurement markets (APMCs) as mentioned in the new farm laws, it is feared to collapse entirely.
This fear is not an exaggeration, say the people suffering acutely from the situation. “We, the growers, are also consumers of food,” explained a coordinator of the AIKSCC in my district, South 24 Parganas (West Bengal). “A single person cannot cultivate all types of crops. Many of us do not even cultivate food grains (main constituent of our diets) or vegetables; some grow cash crops which are not even food (like cotton), so most of us are net purchasers of food items in the market. We are the ones being harmed both ways – we get next to nothing on our produce as most of the times we are forced to sell at a loss, and then when we try to buy what we need the high prices send most things out of our reach.”
The rural crisis is no longer limited to the countryside, it has become a social crisis now, a national crisis. Hence, as P. Sainath says, “It is time for non-farmers to stand up” – to stand with the farmers of the country.
Featured image: Women raise slogans during their protest against the farm laws in Bathinda, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. Credit: PTI Photo