India is witnessing a historical struggle by the farmers against the three farm laws and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill. The struggle is unprecedented in more than one way. At the time I write this, around midnight, more than 1.5 lakh people – old, young, children, women, sick, persons with disabilities – have been sitting at the borders of the Delhi for the last seven days, under the open sky, in the biting cold of December.
There are more than 4,800 vehicles spread over 12 km at Tikri border on the Delhi-Rohtak Highway and another nearly 12,000 vehicles standing in a stretch of 18 km on the NH 1 (Delhi-Chandigarh Highway) at Singhu Border. Their determination and conviction for struggle are unique in their oppostion to the capitalist system.
These protesting farmers have fought police brutality including lathi charges, water cannons, tear gas and mass arrests on false charges with inspiring courage and braving the cold winter. It is shocking to note that the Haryana government went against the federal values enshrined in the Constitution by openly stating that they will not allow farmers from Punjab to cross into Haryana. However, the farmers won over all hurdles created by the police, including ditches dug across the highway, which exposed the Haryana government’s anti-farmer character.
People outside Delhi are rightly worried about the protests and the brutal assault on the protesting farmers. Many apprehensions and concerns have been cast about the sustainability of the struggle but the enthusiasm and determination of the protesters tell a different story. They are calm, composed yet determined with full mental and material preparation. Their vehicles are (mostly trollies) filled with rations and their hearts with courage.
Despite all uncertainties, they are firm, a result of their conviction for the cause. The pictures of agitating farmers raising slogans in full spirit and loud voice, aggressively breaking barricades, passionately overcoming all hurdles are attracting and inspiring people all over India but much more inspiration should be drawn from their patience and strong will power.
Also read: Farmers’ Protest: Land is not Just an Economic Affair, but an Emotional One Too
The youth are participating in large numbers and with full responsibility. This is against the general narrative that youth is not concerned about the land and not interested in agriculture. The youth of Punjab are fully concerned about their land, agriculture and struggles to defend it. Protesters are filled with anger against the government policies but have never resorted to violence, despite repeated provocations by the police.
What Do the Farm Laws Entail?
While the world struggled amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the governments of many countries adopted social welfare measure going against their neoliberal economy, the Indian government led by Narendra Modi left no stone unturned to push through its neoliberal laws to benefit the corporates. Along with the working classes and their hard earned rights, the whole agricultural sector is under attack and is being reshaped to benefit the corporate, leaving the farmers at the mercy of the market.
Going against all Parliamentary procedures and democratic values, the three farm bills were passed in the Rajya Sabha, through a voice vote. These three bills, ‘Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020’, ‘Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020’ and ‘The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020’, have now become laws.
A close look at these laws brings forth the worries and agony of the agricultural community. The Acts will put farmers at the mercy of agri-businesses, large retailers and exporters. These seek remove all regulation or controls on private players and agri-businesses. These Acts in itself are a direct attack against federal principles of our country and infringes on the rights of the state governments, as agriculture is a state subject.
Meanwhile, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been claiming that the 'Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020' has freed the farmers. With that, majority mainstream media reported the laws to be leading to ‘freedom’ of the farmers to ‘sell their produce to anybody at any price’. But, in reality it translates to ‘freedom to the corporates to purchase any produce from any farmer at any price’.
The new farm laws seek to do away with the Agricultural Produce Market Committees. APMC Acts were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s to put a check on the monopoly powers of large traders and big buyers who historically used their economic power and extra-economic means to buy grain from poor farmers at low prices. The APMC Acts introduced a system of auctions, which were designed to bring competition in the purchase of agricultural produce.
Also read: Ground Zero: Farmers’ Protest is about Corporate Takeover of Rural India, Not Just MSP
There are many limitations in its implementation but allowing the traders and big buyers to buy produce outside the notified markets directly from farmers would mean that the produce would be purchased without auctions and through bilateral negotiations between large traders and poor peasants. Such a system would be inherently biased against the interests of farmers who will not get remunerative prices. Further, the law nowhere mentions that the price should not be lower than MSP. It is not even guaranteeing the price given at APMCs. It does not even mention MSPs.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 is claimed to facilitate the contract farming where a firm or individual called sponsor lends inputs such as seed, fertilisers, credit or extension to a farmer (producer) in exchange for exclusive purchasing rights over the specific crop. It is a forward contract between sponsor (buyer) and producer.
With this law, the farming community would be left at the mercy of the market and the so-called sponsors will have sole monopoly on the produce of the farmers. The terms and conditions of the agreement would favour the sponsor owing to the present policies and the pathetic condition of the farming community. Most of the farmers are marginal farmers who would be rendered helpless.
While the name suggests price assurance but there is no mention of Minimum Support Price. The basis of fixation of the price is left ambiguous. It is open to varied factors in the name of price changes or other such criteria. It gives complete freedom to the sponsor to dictate the prices to the producer.
This Act also makes a provision to constitute a Dispute Settlement Authority, in which a Sub-divisional magistrate and three other members are the only provisions for dispute settlement. The Civil Court has been restricted to entertain any suit related to matters of this act. This is a mechanism which will always favour the sponsor rather than the farmer, especially small, and marginal farmers will be rendered helpless.
Finally, this Act will enslave the farmers eternally to produce as per the demand and requirement of the agri-businesses which mainly would be the crops best suited for export to maximise the profits.
Further, the amendments to the Essential Commodities Act (ECA) will remove commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes from the list of essential commodities. This will not only lead to a threat to food security but in the context of the above laws, also allow traders and agribusinesses to buy unlimited quantity directly from farmers and hoard even in times of emergencies. This was the single most important Act to prevent hoarding of essential commodities particularly in times of crisis such as the present pandemic. The consumers will be inevitably affected and we can visualise artificial scarcity, hoarding and black-marketing as well as price rise with such uncontrolled power to the agribusinesses.
These three farm acts will not only affect farmers but will have far-reaching implications on the lives and livelihood of agricultural workers to a large extent. The long-awaited question of land redistribution will take a new dimension. Tenant farmers, who come largely from agricultural families, will be directly affected. After adopting contract farming, they will not have access to any land as big corporates will have a monopoly in farming and they will enter direct contract with the landowners (producers) only.
With the corporatisation of agriculture, there would be more mechanisation, which will reduce working days for agricultural workers. With this more emphasis will be on the cash crops or crops more suitable for export than food grains. There will be a reduction in government procurement while promoting private purchasing in the absence of government market yards (dilution of APMC act) – a threat for national food security and directly affect the Public Distribution System, a vital aspect of ensuring food for all.
The enactment of the three farm acts and four labour codes denotes the surrender of the Modi government before big capital. The State has abdicated its responsibility on food security, guaranteed procurement of farm produce at remunerative Minimum Support Price (MSP) and provision of minimum wages.
The fundamental right of forming trade unions and collective bargaining of workers against exploitation is being subverted. These legislations need to be resisted tooth and nail, which demand mass and united resistance by people and people’s organisations.
With this aim, the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a platform of over 250 farmers and agricultural workers organisations called for a protest even as the threat of the pandemic is far from over. Nearly 30 organisations in Punjab are part of the state-level coordination committee.
Also read: Widespread Support in Maharashtra for Farmers’ Protest in Delhi
As the farmers’ struggle intensified, protesters occupied railway tracks and started indefinite sit-in in front of Reliance-owned petrol pumps and storehouse/warehouses of Adani in Punjab. While the farmers continued to wage a struggle for two months, the Union government conspired against this by stopping all trains to Punjab including goods trains even though the protesters cleared railway tracks after few days and they had shifted their dharnas outside the railway platforms.
However, the insensitivity of the Union government have forced the farmers to take their battle to the borders of the national capital. So far, the Centre has not been serious in its deliberations, instead trying to push through their agenda by claiming “non-existent” benefits of these acts.
Delhi Chalo to Delhi Gherao
The Delhi Chalo call was given by the AIKSCC, in coordination with the Punjab coordination committee, on November 26 and 27, coinciding with the general strike of the Central Trade Unions. Announced in September 2020, it was decided that due to the limitations of public transport amid the pandemic, only farmers from neighbouring states of the national capital will take part in the march, while others will organise protests in their respective states. Trade unions too extended their support to the farmers’ call, deciding to hold a march in Delhi along with the farmers on November 27.
On November 25, as farmers began their march from various parts of Punjab, the Haryana CM announced that they will not be allowed to enter the state borders. However, the farmers in Haryana broke the barricades within the state before the Punjab farmers entered Haryana.
Braving brutal atrocities by the police and after an extended struggle for over two days, the marching farmers finally entered Delhi after breaking all barricades, braving tear gas and water cannons, at different points of Punjab-Haryana. There are very rare examples in history when police have dug trenches on the road to stop farmers from marching.
Since then, the protesting farmers have been sitting at the borders of two national highways. The protesting farmers have blocked two more highways at the Delhi-UP border of Ghaziabad and Delhi-UP border of Noida. New jathas (protesting farmers groups) are joining the protest sites daily and many farmer organisations are joining the ongoing struggle. Amid all this, the Union government has so far maintained an indifferent attitude, with talks failing for two days. Instead the Centre has focused all its energy on dividing the movement, extending invitations to selected groups for negotiation talks. Nevertheless, the movement itself has unified the Indian rural people as never before.
Modi Government’s Attempts to Malign Farmers
In the meantime, the BJP-led government and its IT cell tried to portray the mass struggle as a conspiracy of Khalistan but failed miserably. Then came the claim that this is only the struggle of Punjab farmers with the twin purpose of dividing the movement and undermine the countrywide issue of farmers.
As it was a conscious decision to march only from surrounding states of Delhi, farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were only to take part in the march. It should be acknowledged that the major portion of the mobilisation is from Punjab and the intensity of struggle in Punjab and Haryana is much higher than the rest of India. The farmers from these two states are would be severely affected as the procurement infrastructure in these two states is very good.
More than 95% paddy farmers in Punjab and about 70% farmers in Haryana are covered under procurement operations while in other major rice-producing states like Uttar Pradesh (3.6%), West Bengal (7.3%) Odisha (20.6%) and Bihar (1.7%), the benefits from procurement operations are accrued to very less paddy farmers. Uttar Pradesh is the biggest producer of wheat but only around 11-12% of its production is procured by the government.
The government and the right-wing forces are also arguing that the farmers are misguided and protests are politically motivate by the Opposition, a lie parroted even by PM Narendra Modi. This argument falls flat, as the oldest ally of NDA, Akali Dal has left NDA and their single minister resigned from the Union cabinet over the farm laws.
In Haryana, the Jannayak Janata Party, which is an ally of BJP, has demanded the repeal of farm laws. Hanuman Beniwal, an ally of BJP was forced to raise his contention against the government. This is not a movement of one organisation or party but is a mass movement of farmers getting broader support from the public throughout India and abroad. The residents of Delhi are whole heartedly supporting the movement.
Local hotels and residents have opened their doors for the protesters. Different civic society organisations, organisations of students, youth, women, teachers, etc., have rendered their complete support and help. Despite the protesters having ample supply of ration and other eatables with them, locals have started langars at protest sites. To cite an example, one village of Rohtak, Haryana has sent 2,500 litres of milk to Tikri Border in a single day. Two teams of doctors one from West Bengal and other from Telangana, along with doctors from Delhi have started their camps at the protest sites.
While the people are uniting on the issue and standing with farmers, the elected Indian government seems to be having different plans. Different ministers under the leadership of Prime Minister are taking a position against farmers. Under the pressure of the farmers, the Union government was forced to start deliberations and pre-pone the negotiations from December 3 to December 1.
Also read: Farmer Protest: Stalemate Continues; Next Round of Talks with Centre on Saturday
The government was also forced to call the leadership of AIKSCC for discussion against their primary position of inviting only Punjab farmers’ leadership, a move aimed at dividing the leadership.
The first round of talks with the government on December 1 proved inconclusive as farmer leaders rejected the government proposal to form a five-member committee to look into the objections and study the concerns. They told the government that such committees have led to no results and outcomes in the past. The AIKSCC has given a call to intensify the farmers’ movement across the country.
The lines in the battlefield are drawn with two clear sides. On one side are the farmers and other forces who want to save the public sector, and on the other side is the BJP government and their corporate allies. BJP has redefined the slogan of Jai Jawan- Jai Kisan. While the jawan is at the border, saving the country from threats—which unsurprisingly have increased under the current regime—the Union government has forced farmers to sit on the border of the national capital.
This movement has exposed the BJP and its allies completely. It has also challenged the politics of Hindutva, which aims to divide people into religious and caste lines. The attack on the lives and livelihood have united people across the religions, castes, states and political affiliation. The only way to fight BJP and its politics is through people’s struggle.
Farmers are gearing up for the militant struggle in the coming days, the working class is joining in, and the public across sections are on the roads. The victory of the struggle is inevitable and this heroic struggle will be remembered for a long time.
(The author is the joint secretary of the All India Agriculture Workers' Union. The views are personal.)