MSP increase of 40 paise per kg raises hackles

Political overtones of the Muzaffarnagar Mahapanchayat, the clash at Karnal and renewed debate on MSP mark a new phase in the longest farmers’ protest in the world

Farmers in Karnal turned police barricades into beds
Farmers in Karnal turned police barricades into beds

Aas Mohd Kaif

The Government this week announced the ‘enhanced’ Minimum Support Price (MSP) for rabi crops. The announcement, coming days after the massive show of strength by farmers at a Mahapanchayat on Sunday, September 5 at Muzaffarnagar (UP), seemed designed to provoke and frustrate the farmers.

MSP for wheat was raised by 40 paise per kilogram (Rs.40 per quintal) and by 35 paise for barley. This, farmers say, would not even cover the cost of diesel which had gone up by Rs 25 per litre since the last season. MSP was also announced for Masur and Gram, which farmers allege, are not even procured by the government.

Farmers have been demanding not just higher MSP but also MSP for all crops. “MSP is effectively meant for just two or three crops and taken advantage of by farmers in just two or three states,” say farmers. If automobile manufacturers and car makers can raise prices following a rise in input costs, there is no reason why farmers should not get similar privilege, is the argument.

MSP increase of 40 paise per kg raises hackles

Meanwhile the government’s plan to allow big private corporates into the agriculture procurement market has hit a wall in Punjab, where warehouses have shut down following blockades by farmers, in Himachal Pradesh the Adanis have been running the procurement of apples smoothly. But the predatory pricing has given strength to farmers’ misgivings. Let companies procure but let there be a mechanism for a Minimum Support price, below which nobody can procure farm produce, they say.

In Himachal Pradesh Adani Agritech has offered farmers a price range of Rs 12 to Rs 72 per Kg this year for apples, lower than last year. Apple growers argue that since the premium brand of apples procured by the company is sold at Rs 250 a Kg in the market, apple growers are getting a raw deal. Even apple growers incur costs in packing and transporting the apples to the collection centre, they maintain and apprehend that growers would hardly make a decent profit.

Reacting to the steady supply of apples to the collection centres of Adani Agritech, despite the lower prices, apple growers say that most small apple growers have no option but to give their apples to the company. While the company has three collection centres in Simla itself, the APMC Mandi is at Solan.

The announcement, some farmers believe, was designed to tease the farmers and provoke them into violence. Farmers, agitating at the borders of Delhi for the last nine months, have been peaceful so far and have been successful in sustaining the agitation to the surprise of the Government. Who are funding the farmers is the questions that people within the Government routinely raise while BJP leaders accuse separatists and foreign powers of instigating the farmers.

In the face of allegations that Pakistan and China are funding them, farmers have maintained their cool so far. But they do seem to be reaching the end of their tether. The Government wants them to become violent so that force can be used freely to disperse the protesters.

Days after the Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar, farmers clashed with the administration at Karnal in Haryana. A protest against the visit of the chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar turned ugly when Haryana Police used water cannons and canes to beat back the farmers. One of the farmers hit by ‘lathi’ passed away though the Karnal administration maintained he had died of a heart attack.

But what upset, indeed incensed the farmers more, was the video clip of Ayush Sinha, an IAS officer posted at Karnal as SDM. In the clip the SDM can be heard telling a group of policemen to break the skull of protesting farmers. Carried away by the role play he repeats his instruction and demands that the policemen confirm they have understood what the instruction was.

A defensive District Magistrate agreed that the SDM’s ‘words’ were inappropriate but pointed out that at the check post where the SDM was deployed, there was no caning of farmers. The clash had taken place at a different point, he explained.

Agitated farmers, who have borne the brunt of Haryana Police for the better part of the last nine months, some observers believe, over reacted and demanded the dismissal of the officer. While the SDM was shifted out of Karnal, chief minister Khattar ruled out any disciplinary action against the officer, who is said to be related to an RSS ideologue and BJP leader Demanding action against the officer, farmers laid a siege at the Karnal Collecorate since Tuesday. The stalemate was still continuing on Thursday morning with farmers insisting on the officer’s suspension and Yan inquiry besides a compensation of Rs 25 lakhs for the dead farmer. With the state government firm on not conceding the demands, the protest, farm leaders feared, could get bogged down at Karnal. They had other plans in September to intensify the agitation, particularly in Uttar Pradesh where the assembly election is barely five months away. But the flashpoint at Karnal threatened to slow down the momentum.

“Let the government concede our reasonable demands or arrest us all. We are ready to go to jail,” asserted both Rakesh Tikait and Yogendra Yadav at Karnal. The state government of Haryana suspends teachers, employees, doctors every week at the drop of a hat, remonstrated Yadav, asking why an inquiry into the conduct of the officer was not being held

Under the central farm trade laws, the SDM would have adjudicated disputes between farmers and agri companies. Incensed farmers justify their protests by pointing out that with biased bureaucrats like the former Karnal SDM, farmers would never receive a fair deal.

There were two take-aways from the Mahapanchayat of farmers at Muzaffarnagar on September 5. One was the overt political message with farmers’ leaders calling for defeating the BJP in elections, more specifically Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh. The political overtones made observers wonder if farmers are about to turn into a potent ‘vote bank’.

That the prospect of farmers forming a political party of their own to contest in elections is getting traction is evident in the tentative online polls being conducted. The exhortation that farmers can never expect a fair deal from political parties unless they acquire voice and political clout is being opposed by a section of farmers who distrust politics and believe farmers should not fall into the trap.

What is clear is that farmers at least in western Uttar Pradesh will hurt BJP’s prospects in UP. Their anger at the UP chief minister was fuelled by the imperious Yogi Adityanath calling upon cane growers to start growing other crops. A large number of Indians were diabetic, said the chief minister while addressing a rally in western UP, and sugar was bad for health. Sugarcane growers therefore should look at other crops to grow, he advised. The advice, coming as it did in the wake of the state government’s failure to increase substantially cane prices and ensure timely payment, added fuel to the fire.

The other take away from the Mahapanchayat was the call for communal harmony. From the dais, leaders raised slogans of ‘Allah-hu-Akbar’ (God is great) and ‘Har Har Mahadev’. While TV channels went to town and asked why such slogans were raised at a farmers’ meet and why instead of farm issues, politics was discussed, both Tikait and Jaula confirmed that the slogans were raised traditionally at rallies of Bharatiya Kisan Union leader late Mahendra Singh Tikait.

Indeed the symbolism of holding the Mahapanchayat on September 5 was not lost since a similar Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar on September 7 in 2013 had turned the Jats of the region against Muslims and gave strength to the Muzaffarnagar riots.

Eight years later in Muzaffarnagar the Jats and Muslims seemed to have buried the hatchet. The gates of Takiawali masjid at Meenakshi chowk on the GT Road were thrown open at 2 am for Hindu and Sikh farmers who had arrived from Punjab. Gurudwaras routinely offer food and shelter to people in need, recalled Faizan Ansari, and the mosque did the same. Amir Azam who reached the mosque at 5 am recalled getting startled by non-Muslim farmers standing up with folded hands when others were offering namaz.

Langars had come up outside several Muslim dominated villages of Sherpur, Bahadurpur and Nirana. Puri-Subji, Halwa, tea and even fruits were being offered. And the common refrain was that Hindus and Muslims were divided for political gains as the colonial masters did. Said a Jat farmer from Haryana, “Our identity is we are farmers. Religion cannot divide us”.

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