Punjab and Haryana farmers have given a wakeup call to Modi govt

The protesting farmers are basically saying that minus the APMC and the MSP, big corporations will weaken the government’s procurement system and they will beat the mercy of the sharks

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter
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Sushil Kutty/IPA

This is maybe the third round of farmers stirring the pot against the three new agriculture laws which “have deprived them of a fair price and a dignified life”. The Modi government’s agriculture reforms have been opposed tooth and nail by large sections of farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh with counterparts from Maharashtra and several other states throwing their combined weight behind these far more proactive kisans of the northern states.

The Punjab and Haryana farmers brought their protests to Delhi on November 27 and the Delhi Police had a tough nearly 36 hours trying to corral the farmers into pens like cattle in a ranch of the American Wild West. The police would have done that, too, if the Delhi government had cooperated, but Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was not willing.

The Delhi Government refused permission to turn nine stadiums in the Capital into detention centres to hold the demonstrating farmers. The protesting farmers have been swarming the Capital from morning and nothing could be done about it. But, then, why should the AAP Government of Delhi deign to listen to the Delhi Police which takes its orders from the Union Home Ministry routed through the Delhi Lt. Guv?

Besides, a second reason, far more important and a relevant one, too, is that the farmers have the solid back of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which for long has fancied its chances in Punjab politics and wants to gain a foothold in Haryana, too, where Swaraj Manch kisan activist and once-AAP member Yogendra Yadav, very close to Kejriwal at one time, is a prominent grassroots player.

Both AAP and Yadav’s Swaraj Manch are backing the agitating farmers of Punjab and Haryana because of the high political stakes. The three contentious agricultural laws were enacted in September this year and have been receiving flak from the word go. The protests are mostly by farmers with large landholdings. The majority of farmers with landholdings of less than five acres have kept away. The small farmers are okay because the laws do away with the monopoly of the ‘Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC)’. They are happy not to have to deal with middlemen as long as they get a fair price in ‘mandis’ outside of the APMC.

But the Central Government has had to confront the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh who are grouped under a clutch of farmers’ organisations led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU).

The Delhi Police cannot do anything else but detain them, but were at a loss where to hold the thousands and thousands of farmers who have descended on Delhi. The police tried to put a halt to the farmers’ march by closing borders but failed.

A couple of surveys had revealed that many of the protesting farmers were not aware of the exact contours and provisions of the laws they were agitating against, but they rallied behind the call to protest because they believe that the three laws have together managed to deal a death blow to the fair and straight Minimum Support Price regime.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for whom the three agriculture laws are a major part of the legacy he wants to leave behind, has been tirelessly trying to allay the fears of the farmers regarding MSP, stating that the reforms do not harm MSP at all, but the protesting farmers just do not believe him, regardless.

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 are there to stay. That much is for sure. Unless there’s a change of guard at the Centre and the next government is elected on the promise that all three agriculture laws will be scrapped.

But even that cannot happen before 2024, which is a long way away from now and by then, time will have elapsed and what if the Modi Government takes steps to ensure the three laws take deep roots in the agriculture ecosystem that it will become difficult to scrap them, revoke any of the three laws, without major repercussions?

The protesting farmers are basically saying that minus the APMC and the MSP, big corporations will weaken the government’s procurement system and they will be at the mercy of the sharks. They want the government to continue to buy wheat and rice from them at guaranteed minimum support prices. They don’t want Amazon and Reliance to come shake up the place and shake them up, too, in the bargain.

They accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government of being overly big-business friendly and not bothered about the plight of farmers, big or small. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 was designed to “bypass” APMCs and shift trade to “outside” markets, out of the purview of government regulations and oversight.

The ‘farm reforms’, according to the Centre, have done away with “many ills”. But it’s a fact that most states were lukewarm to the agri-reforms recommended under the Centre’s earlier “Model Act.” The occasional state which agreed to deregulate failed miserably, like Bihar.

Those against the agri-reforms say the laws are an invitation to ‘big players’ to descend on agri markets and overwhelm small and marginal farmers, and “local” traders. The government, according to the critics, has willingly given up its regulatory authority and from now on it'll be fragmented markets with fragmented regulatory structures.

Also, the government refused to commit to legally guarantee remunerative prices; commit to maximum procurement of various agri-products; commit to market intervention; commit to agri-credit reforms for small and marginal landholders and commit to reforms in crop insurance and disaster compensation.

The anti-agri reforms lobby insists that the government should not have given up its authority to regulate. There should have been no blanket de-regulation. There would be “extraordinary circumstances” which would require government intervention and regulation. Regulatory powers have to be with the government. This lobby did not want the government to tinker with the existing set-up and walk away from responsibility.

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