In the peak of winter when the night temperatures across north India are close to sub-zero, at Ghazipur, about half kilometer of one side of the National Highway 24, right on Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, a tented city has come up blocking the stretch for traffic. Water-proof tents shelter the farmers who are aghast at the three controversial laws passed hurriedly by the Narendra Modi government; community kitchens serve delicious and piping food not only to protesters but also to people living around. A bag-full of raw peanuts has just arrived; it’s being roasted in a big kadhai over a burning fire; those overseeing the arrangements make sure that the people camping there should not miss their favourite winter snack in the harshest period of the winter.
Women farmers, mostly Punjabi-speaking, have joined men in the preparations for dinner; they are chopping cauliflower and potatoes and kneading wheat flour. The vibrancy of the place can make those unfamiliar with the issues involved in thinking they have landed at the venue of a small-town fair; others may even attribute the vibes of happiness and elements of luxury to the foreign funds etc. yet the reality is different.
Anywhere in the world, farmers are very proud and self-respecting people like no other community. For this reason, many poor farmers in India choose to end their lives on being unable to repay the bank loans after a crop failure and not beg for a waiver. Also, the farmers never get involved in any politics, for the farming takes much of their time and energy.
The Narendra Modi government’s tryst with them began at a wrong note. The three farm laws that seek to dismantle an old marketing system in favour of corporate companies, and, eventually keep the farmers at the mercy of the big businesses, were drafted without holding consultations on the ground. The Bills were passed in a jiffy while such Bills dealing with 60 per cent of the population and complex issues are often referred to the Select Committee of Parliament for deliberations and to avoid adverse fallout.
When the farmers, who, by no standards, are the richest and the influential people in India, should have been consulted as the government wanted to bring in reforms in the sector. The matter required sensitive handling as against the crude and authoritarian ways of the Modi government. Heavens would not have fallen if the issue was debated threadbare and consultations held with farmers before going ahead with the laws that would change their world and create insecurities. At the most, reforms and changes would have taken another year or a two to happen, but we could have avoided confrontation and the present crisis.
Again, the three laws were hastily passed in the Parliament, thanks to the brute majority of the ruling party and an insipid and highly divided Opposition. This inept and insensitive handling of the farmers’ issues didn’t stop there: it lingered on till they were forced to come on the roads to show their might and unity. At Ghazipur protest site, one can meet farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and even Bihar.
The protesters began gathering on the Delhi borders from the second week of November and yet the government took its sweet time in initiating a dialogue with them. What hurts the farmers most is when senior ministers and functionaries of the BJP call them Khalistanis, ‘tukde-tukde’ gang, and Maoists, euphemisms for anti-national and subversive elements, prompting others in the NDA to warn the government against such loose talk against ‘annadattas.’ It may be true that initially some random vested interests had infiltrated at Singhu border protest site but using this as an alibi to discredit farmers by senior minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was simply preposterous. That is one of the reasons for the hardening of stand by the protesters. Tempers cooled only after Rajnath Singh and several regional leaders intervened; otherwise, the narrative would be akin to the one used for the protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The Union Minister for Agriculture, Narendra Singh Tomar, is conducting talks with the protesting farmers. Apparently, not much progress has been made in breaking the deadlock over the controversial laws in the seven rounds held so far. The farmers are insisting on the repeal of the three laws while the government is ready to make a few amendments.
The reason for the protesting farmers not to be cajoled by the pep talk of the Modi government is the track record of BJP governments. As the farmers from western Uttar Pradesh joined the chorus of protests, it brought in a new element in the agitation – the inefficiency and pro-business leanings of the BJP governments. Their presence raised the plight of sugarcane growers under the regime of Yogi Adityanath government in India’s largest State. It’s due to their hard work and toil, India is the largest producer of sugar in the world, yet the plight of farmers remains pitiable.
The private mills that procure sugar under a price fixed by the State government are bound to pay the farmer within 14 days of procuring the product; yet the outstanding dues run into almost Rs. 22,000 crores. While 50 lakh families are dependent on sugarcane farming and have been demanding an urgent resolution to the delayed payments by mill owners, the Yogi government simply added to their woes.
In an extraordinary order, the U.P. government asked the farmers to accept a barter system in which each farmer would lift 100 kilograms of sugar from the mill in lieu of pending payments. The farmers not only rejected it but also realized the BJP governments have no affinity to their cause; they would rather provide solutions to the problems faced by big businesses. More importantly, the BJP has no out-of-the-box idea to help change the conditions of the farmers as its idea of growth veers around helping big businesses flourish.
At the time of writing, the farmers are getting ready to go to Mr. Tomar for the eighth round of negotiations. With their last meeting ending with the Minister’s terse remark that repealing of the laws was impossible and they could go to the Court on this, there is little hope of an early resolution of the crisis.