Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy; it is estimated that at least sixty percent of the Indian population is employed in this sector which clearly makes it the key employer in the country. Agriculture today contributes fifteen percent to the country’s GDP!
The Indian farmer is the unsung ‘hero’ of the country. It needed the statesmanship of a former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to bring the farmers of the country into the limelight through his famous slogan, “Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!”
Whilst there are several big and rich farmers in India, the vast majority are poor, eking out their survival from small and uneconomic landholdings! Big or small they all contribute to producing the daily food consumption for India’s teeming millions!
Today the farmers of India are on the warpath- they are fighting back against laws and policies which are detrimental to their interests! Thousands everywhere have been protesting against three controversial Bills on agriculture reforms which are set to become law after being passed by the Rajya Sabha on September 20 in the middle of utter pandemonium.
The three bills are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. The last one was also approved by a voice vote in Rajya Sabha on 22 September.
On 25 September, over 265 farmers' groups took to the streets to block roads and carry out rallies and marches in a nationwide agitation against the controversial farm bills. The farmers were emphatic in stating that the protests will intensify, unless the bills are repealed. Opposition parties like the Congress, the RJD and the Trinamool, as well as ten central trade unions, have voiced their support for the farmers.
Last week, Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, an MP of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), one of the BJP’s oldest allies, resigned from the Narendra Modi Cabinet, in protest against the bills. Faced with the protests, Prime Minister Narendra Modi today hailed the farm bills as "historic" and hit out at the opposition for misleading the farmers. The government has said the bills will help farmers get better prices by allowing them to sell their produce at markets and prices of their choice.
Farmers, however, fear the loss of the price support system (MSP) and the entry of private players who, they say, will put small and marginal farmers at risk. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee General Secretary Avik Saha said that the protests were held at nearly 20,000 locations across India. “More than 265 farmers’ groups affiliated with the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee took part in protests today”, he said “additionally, around 100 non-affiliated groups also participated.”
What then are the key elements in each of these Bills?
1.The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance
Under this ordinance, the farmer can sell his finished crops to any merchant anywhere. There will be no compulsion to sell in APMC mandi of their own specific area. The government is putting this forward as part of “one nation, one market.”
2. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services
Under this ordinance, the farmer broadly signs a contract to sell the crops on the basis of the parameters set by his crop standards. It is believed that this may reduce the risk of the farmer.
3. Amendment in Essential Commodities Act 1955
The moneylenders and businessmen used to earlier buy crops at affordable rates and store them in large numbers, and engage in black marketing. The government enacted the Essential Commodities Act in 1955 to curb black marketing. But now, under the new amendment, agricultural products like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils and potatoes have been removed from it.
The condition, however, has been kept that the ordinance will not be applicable in the event of a national disaster or emergency.
Besides the farmers, there are several others who are critical of these new agricultural policies; the critics, who among others include agricultural experts, social scientists, civil society leaders say that these policies will lead to farmers losing out on guaranteed purchase prices for their crops, to the benefit of large corporations. Opposition parties held three rounds of protests in Parliament on the last day of the Monsoon Session of Parliament on Wednesday 23 September.
Congress MP and Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad had also met President Ram Nath Kovind and requested him to not give his assent to the three farm bills passed in Parliament and together with other opposition leaders have also asked that the bills be sent to a select committee.
The massive nation-wide protests by the farmers on 25 September are indicative of the anger and the resentment against the ruling regime. Assurances from the Centre that the existing system of marketing and pricing key agricultural produce—the mandis and Minimum Support Prices—will not be dismantled have not worked, and farmers of the region are feeling betrayed. Many are yet to recover from the body blow of the sudden lockdown imposed in March to control the Covid-19 pandemic. When they saw how the Modi government hustled its three farm bills past Parliament, it left them bewildered, especially the small farmers and share-croppers.
In the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019, and in recent Assembly elections, large numbers of farmers of this region reposed faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s larger-than-life image and voted for his party, the BJP. Now they are wondering why his government, instead of making minimum support prices (MSPs) mandatory for all crops, is liberalising their fields altogether. Even bigger farmers, those who sow wheat and rice, are not keen on the government’s idea of an “alternative” to existing mandis and wholesale traders. They feel traders and corporate buyers of their produce, if not even bound by existing mandi regulations, howsoever weak, would get monopoly powers to dictate prices.
The Bharatiya Kisan Union (the Indian Farmers Union), believes, “Due to these laws, farmers are in danger of becoming captive to companies. Law control, free marketing, storage, import-export, is not in the interest of farmers. The farmers of this country are also suffering because of the policies of World Trade Organisation. During the drought in Bengal, in 1943-44, 40 lakh people died of hunger due to hoarding of food grains by the East India Company.”
Farmers are being told the Centre will not tax non-APMC traders, but what is really happening is that state governments are being left with the old physical infrastructure of wholesale markets, in a year in which they have almost no revenue due to the Covid-19 lockdown (which was styled and imposed by the Centre). If states are also deprived of revenue from mandis, they will be weakened too. The additional layer of worry comes from the fear factor. One of the farmers states, “The farmers protests we see are the tip of an iceberg. Remember that small farmers would like to protest too, but they fear that if there is stone-pelting or another such event, there may be a crackdown. Farmers of Madhya Pradesh have already faced such a situation.”
The Twitter storm on 25 September also brought together a whole range of people under one banner.
The tweets included, “Recent Farm Bills will create inequality among farmers. The poor farmer, sharecropper who works in cities as casual labour to pay for inputs and grows food grain for his food will no longer be able to do so. He will lose this means of livelihood.”;,
“the biggest harm will come to the landless and poor farmers who take land for agriculture on share cropping basis and on rent. Once companies control operations, they will decide what crop is grown, they will sell costly inputs and buy all the crop”;
“Farm Bills will transfer agriculture into agribusiness, once companies control all agricultural operations, they’ll not only sell harmful GM seeds, chemical pesticides at will, they’ll promote methods of agriculture without caring for environment”;
” Farm Bills 2020 will destroy India’s Food Sovereignty. Once companies control all agricultural operations, they will dictate the cropping pattern, leading to food crisis and further dependence on developed countries for food”
The farmers are fighting back: but once these bills become law, it will no longer matter what the farmers think, and that is why they are protesting. The soldiers are at border fighting against the Chinese invasion; the farmers are struggling with their own unjust reality! In the meantime, the nation needs to cry in one voice, “Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!”
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist/writer Contact: email@example.com)