In Punjab, singers, actors and retired High Court judges rally round farmers

It is a mass upsurge in Punjab with everyone rallying round the farmers’ agitation. Dismissing it as an agitation by middlemen or separatists is both incorrect and unfair

(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Sarbjit Dhaliwal

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans

Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,

The emptiness of ages in his face,

And on his back the burden of the world.

Who made him dead to rapture and despair?

A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,

Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?

Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?

Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?

These lines are from a lengthy ‘poetry of protest’, “The Man with The Hoe”, by Edwin Markham in 1899 and reflected the despair of the American peasant. This poem remained the theme song of farmers’ protests for years. More than a century later, this genre of poetry is finding resonance in Punjab and the neighbouring states.

Several songs and ballads have been written and sung in Punjab in recent weeks reflecting the prevailing mood. Punjabi artists, writers, lawyers, former judges, college teachers, children, youth, women and elders have rallied round the farmers and are actively participating in the agitation. Singers and actors have been expressing their solidarity, attending farmers’ meetings and singing songs to keep the morale up. It is a mass upsurge.

Farmers in Punjab have fought many battles earlier also but they never got such support from such diverse groups. They are also no stranger to long agitations. In the early 1980s, when Sidharth Shankar Ray was Governor of Punjab, thousands of farmers camped in Chandigarh for nearly two and a half months to get their grievances addressed.  As now, then also they had come to Chandigarh in tractor trollies loaded with ration, stoves and other wherewithal required to sustain the agitation. Whenever they plan big agitations, they move to the venue of protest like armies and never look back.

There is a reason for all social groups joining hands in the farmers’ agitation. The structure of Punjab’s economy is such that the farming sector continues to be its hub. Except six cities-Amritsar, Jallandhar, Ludhiana, Mandi Gobindgarh, Batala and Rajpura-no other town and city can sustain on its own. Survival of nearly 120 towns is majorly dependent on Agriculture. Good crop means good business in these towns. As it is feared that these three central acts would destabilize the agriculture sector, that fear has made all to join hands to fight a collective battle.

The unity at the level of masses is such that it has become a compulsion for all main political parties to support the agitation of farmers. In fact, one can see political parties trying to outdo one another to project themselves as real benefactor of farmers, who have wisely told them to stay away from them and are not allowing any political leader of any hue to speak from their stage. Farmers are fully conscious of the fact that tagging of their protest to any political outfit would take the steam out of it.

In Punjab buyers including FCI has to pay 3 per cent Market Development Fund (MDF) and an equal amount for the Rural Development Fund (RDF). This year, MSP of paddy was Rs 1888 per quintal. And the buyer had to pay about Rs 113 per quintal as tax plus 2.5 percent commission to the Aartiya (commission agent) described by BJP leaders as “vicholiya” or middlemen.

Punjab Marketing Board earned Rs 725 Crore by way of MDF and an equivalent amount from RDF this year on the sale of wheat crop and Rs 2200 crore from the sale of paddy. Total income to the Board under these two heads would be around Rs 4000 crore this fiscal year. Other crops in Punjab are cotton, maize etc.

The Mandi Board spends this money on the upkeep of 65000 km long rural road network and 152 permanent grain market yards in urban areas,283 rural grain markets and 1436 temporary market centres which are set up every year to cope with the rush of grains to markets during paddy and wheat harvesting. These markets handle nearly 330 lakh tons of food grains during rabi and kharif harvesting seasons and it is said to be the largest markeing operation of grains in Asia.

All rural, urban grain markets is linked with each of the 12300 odd villages via rural road network. All this would be in shambles with the setting up of private trade area as under central laws they are not to pay any tax such as MDF and RDF and other charges. 32000 commission agents, who are considered ATMs of farmers, if we go by the description of the BJP leader the late Sushma Swaraj, would lose an annual income of around Rs 1000 crore which they earn from the sale of food grains.

Commission agents provide money to farmers in case of health emergencies, marriage and other social functions. Punjab farmers apprehend that with drying up of the flow of money to the marketing board,  all infrastructure created over the last five decades would suffer for lack of maintenance; and it would leave farmers at the mercy of private traders as in Bihar, where farmers are not getting even half the MSP on crops such as maize in absence of APMC regulated marketing system.

Which explains why the agitation has evoked such support in Punjab, where the sentiment is volatile.

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