One chilly winter morning, the news reported that the protesting farmers on the Delhi border had been subjected to water cannons by the police force, and callous act taking into note how most protesting farmers are middle-aged and aged men with brittle bones that might suffer from arthritis but refuse to give in to any exploitation. The ice waves that flow through the north in these winter months and the not-so-over pandemic was ill-considered when these protesting farmers were treated like terrorists. This barbarism is what it took for the farmers' struggle to come to the limelight. The tiller's of the soil have been objecting since August and first signs of protest were seen right after the laws were passed in Rajya Sabha in September.
This article objectively studies why the farmers are protesting, scrutinizes the laws in question, and covers the protest as it has unfolded up until now. Though it is outside the scope of this article, we shall take a look a why the government is so adamant in not wanting to alter their laws so that it suits the farmers better, given how the claim was always of 'farmer welfare'.
Farmer protests are not uncommon to the largely agrarian soil of India. The peasant guerilla wars of Telangana in 1946 maybe structurally very different from the ongoing protests, but they boil down to the same ground of resistance – exploitation of farmer's basic rights followed by the aversion of farmers to accept the sad treatment meted out to them. Independent India even saw the formation of Kisan Unions – now consolidated under Bhartiya Kisan Union to coordinate action plans and act as a non-partisan representative for farmers.
While the government – especially in the liberalizing economy – have never been too welcoming of farmers and their demands, at times blatantly ignoring the burgeoning suicide statistics among farmers, what is especially appalling about the way the NDA government is dealing with it is the black-painting of these farmers as some manipulative opportunists that are misguided and misled.
The protests had begun on a small scale in August 2020 when the bill was first introduced in the parliament. However, most sections of agricultural practitioners were confident that such a blind-siding bill that seriously affects the largest sector of involvement and employment, would never make it past the two houses of the parliament. Proving the anxious farmers wrong, the three contentious agricultural reform bills were passed in the upper house of parliament, i.e., the Rajya Sabha as well. Never mind the sheer unconstitutionality of the act with numerous legislators protesting the bill and the chair not acknowledging the dissenters present within the house. After the incident, MP Derek O'Brien of the TMC even reported an assault and that should suffice how these laws came into existence – by assaulting and disregarding rights and provisions in the law.
An obvious question here is why and for whom. Usually, mavericks and revolutionaries are flagged for wanting to circumvent the due process of law to want to do the right thing. Here, the acting force is Government itself and one wonders for what greater good is it discarding the laws it is a guardian of? Clearly, not for the farmers.
The answer to this sad question shall perhaps become clearer after studying the bills in question.
The Laws in Question
The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance Bill 2020, and Farm Services and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 were issued in the parliament to replace ordinances introduced during the lockdown (the August protest of the farmers – also known as the Tractor Protest - was against this). The first bill, i.e The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill aimed at liberalizing agricultural sale by opening it up outside the APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) mandis for farmers. This is a provision farmers have been opposed to since it renders them vulnerable in competition with MNCs. Moreover, dismantling the autonomy of APMC would be an end to the procurement of farmer's grains at the MSP (Minimum Support Price) – which sustains many small and medium farmers across the states. The second bill – the Farmers' (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of prize Assurance Bill 2020 while claiming the protection of farmers against price exploitation from the large MNCs, does not have any provisions for price fixation or enforcement of the agreed-upon prices upon the MNCs. This leaves farmers weak and vulnerable while ensuring perpetual impunity for the already all mighty corporations. Finally, the third bill - Bill for Farm Services and Essential Commodities removes cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions, and potatoes from the list of commodities. The Central Government intervention requires no justification at times of war, famine, price rise, and a catastrophic natural calamity. The Bill requires that any kind of intervention on stock produce should only have grounds for price rise.
While passing a resolution against these reforms, the Punjab CM Amarinder Singh said that these would undermine the food security on top of exploiting the already harassed farmers as it paves the way for price volatility and black marketing. The Punjab Assembly has passed three laws countering Center's moves and has become the first state in the country to reject the "black laws". States governments of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have passed the amended bills in their state assembly as well. While the farmers have been protesting against these bills in many other states, the states that have passed a resolution against the laws, either have agriculture as the main source of income for their people or belong to the party that constitutes the Opposition at the Center.
The Central government wanting to make laws upon agriculture goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism since that is the purview of States under 14 and 28 entries of Agriculture and markets respectively. The government has however contended that it is well within its rights since trade and commerce in food items is very much a part of the concurrent list.
Hence, the farmers have been protesting against these shady laws passed without even consulting the sector it affects the most.
A plea has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking the extraction of protesting farmers from the border areas of Delhi. A resident of the union territory sought an action of "immediate removal" on the grounds of an increased risk of infection in the pandemic. Moreover, since they have been blocking key areas in the capital, which has been prohibited by the Court (Shaheen Bagh Case) – an alternative site has been allotted to them. However, the farmers are yet to budge.
The Farmer's Demands
Farmers who had come to hold talks with the Government refused lunch served to them. This was a repetition of when they had respectfully declined the offer of tea with Cabinet ministers Narendra Singh Tomar and Piyush Goyal. "We have brought our own food and tea" – one farmer leader was quoted saying. Refusing to eat lunch made from grains that the Government had procured from these very farmers at a higher rate than the prevalent market rates was seen as a sign of self-respect.
While the Tractor Protest of August mainly saw farmers from Punjab and Haryana, farmers from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Kerala, and other states have expressed their solidarity with the protests and joined the farmers at the Delhi border. Over seventeen Kisan Unions all over India under the coordination of Samyukt Kisan Morcha and All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. International support has been pouring in in the form of Canadian Prime Minister Mr. Justin Trudeau expressing his support for the farmers and disappointment against the stance of the government. Others like British MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi and Priyanka Chopra have followed the suit. Transport Bodies such as All India Motor Transport Congress have threatened to halt operations – inclusive of 9.5 million truckers and 5 million automobile drivers.
The question that we set out to answer – "Who is the government serving through these laws?" may not have a simple and straightforward answer, though a point is clear – they wish to serve anyone but the farmers. A farmer herself, Dadi Mahinder Kaur has popularly christened these laws as "black laws" that aspire to strip farmers of their autonomy and dignity. It is not sufficient, however, to say NO to something unless there is an alternative substitute available. Let's take a look at what the farmers demand –
As of 3 December 2020, the farmers' demands include:
1. Repeal the three new farm laws
2. Convey a special Parliament session to repeal the farm laws
4. Assurances that conventional procurement system will remain
6. Cut diesel prices for agricultural use by 50%
8. Release of farmers arrested for burning paddy stubble in Punjab
9. Abolishment of the Electricity Ordinance 2020
10. Centre should not interfere in state subjects, decentralization in practice (cited from Wikipedia)
The recent developments include a consistent and consecutive failure to resolve since the Government has refused to repeal the laws or add a clause for MSP. After five rounds of talks, the government has sought more time and fixed the sixth round of talks on 9th December 2020. During the fifth round – the farmers had asked the government representatives to answer in "yes" or "no" if they would repeal the laws, after which the Union Agricultural Minister has sought more time. The agitating farmers had called for a "Bharat bandh" on December 8, which was supported by trade unions and sectors across the country, in which they had canceled the talks on 9th December – Wednesday. It has been hailed a wild success by trade unions across the nation.
The ongoing protests may stir up since farmers of four more states plan on joining their agitating counterparts. The farmers from UP, Uttarakhand, and MP may try to enter the Singhu Border from their respective states. Others that cannot physically join in their protesting brothers and sisters have taken out processions in their hometowns and districts - from candle marches to burning effigies, the pan Indian solidarity in resistance to the "black laws' - is heartwarming.
While it would be too soon to look for drawbacks in a movement as recent as Farmer's Protest of 2020, some have concerns regarding the representation. This movement is said to be helmed by a largely northern population and seeks to protect the interests of mostly medium and large farmers. Some even pointed out the resounding silence upon farmer harassment and suicides in Vidarbha, Maharashtra.
Quoting a protestor – "We are not here to wreak havoc or burn bridges. We're poor people and these laws seek to eat us alive. We request the government to listen to and side with us…" The Opposition, CM of Delhi, Punjab, and celebrities have expressed unequivocal support to the movement as the popular media continues to levy "Khalistani" smear paint. India and its democratic apparatus will have failed these farmers big time if it fails to register and work upon its descent. However, it indeed is a breath of fresh air to see a movement be as widely supported as Farmers'Protest 2020. It is an august reminder that despite all efforts to "divide and rule"- Indians will unite when their basic values are attacked.