Currently the president of the Indian Sociological Society, Professor Paramjit Singh Judge taught at the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, for well over two decades. Social Change Through Land Reforms is among the many books he has written. As the farmers from Punjab and Haryana camp outside Delhi, Prof Judge explains the nature of the agriculture crisis gripping Punjab, why the three farm laws will prove disastrous to them, and the Narendra Modi government’s indifferent attitude towards their problems. Its indifference has been driven by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s belief that the farmers’ protest will not harm its electoral interest. Excerpts from an interview with Ajaz Ashraf.
What explains the Bharatiya Janata Party’s arrogantly indifferent attitude towards the ongoing protests against the three farm laws?
We must remember that the labour laws were passed before the farm laws. This suggests that the Modi government has been indifferent to both. In its model of development, there has been a total paradigmatic shift to a type of capitalist production in which agriculture is subordinated to manufacturing. The Modi government is insensitive to protests because it has come to the conclusion that it does not matter whether it works for the benefit of people. The Modi government believes that an election can be won by demonstrating its determination to take decisive decisions and implementing those. Never mind what the consequences of the decisions are.
Isn’t this bad news for Punjab, which is said to be facing an acute agricultural crisis?
There is no denying that Punjab’s farmers are facing enormous problems, some of which are of their own making. The three farm laws, however, cannot resolve those problems. To understand this, you have to track the changes in the pattern of agriculture in Punjab. From 1981 to 2011, the Census figures show that the percentage of cultivators and agricultural workers of the State’s total workforce has been declining. In 2011, the percentage of cultivators was around 22.6% and the percentage of workers was roughly 16.3%, which is to say that those engaged in agriculture constituted just a little above 39% of Punjab’s total workforce.
In order to understand the shift away from agriculture, a distinction must be made between ownership and operational holdings. As far as ownership goes, most people own marginal or small landholdings. Many from the landholding class have either gone to cities to do white-collar jobs or have migrated abroad, which continue unabated, or they are too old to cultivate their land. Those who cultivate have small landholdings and often lease-in land from those who have moved out of villages. In other words, the total number of people dependent on agriculture in Punjab has reduced considerably since 1981.
Punjab’s agriculture is predominantly characterised by monoculture. We have wheat-paddy rotation. The diversity in cropping has disappeared since 1967—the year of the onset of Green revolution. Over a period of time, many crops have disappeared in Punjab simply because of the market orientation of farmers. In the past, Bathinda and Mansa districts were semi-desert. When the canal system of irrigation reached there, these areas too became monocultural—and started cultivating paddy because of the easy availability of water. This is inimical for Punjab, which is likely to face an acute water crisis in the coming years, not least because the supply of electricity to Punjab farmers for irrigation is free and has led to the extensive exploitation of ground water. With the government providing minimum support price for wheat and paddy, the cultivation of these water-guzzling crops continues.
There is also the problem of overuse of pesticide. Punjab’s urban middle class is not buying wheat produced in Punjab. They do so from Madhya Pradesh, consuming multigrain or full atta. Big companies are supplying these products. The story of vegetables is no different. Punjab’s vegetables have a high concentration of pesticide. It is for this reason I have not consumed brinjal for years. It is not that farmers are unaware of the harmful effects of pesticide. For their own consumption, they grow it separately.
For all these factors, Punjab’s peasantry is trapped in a crisis. A way of life has become perilous to them.
But the new farm laws are not in response to the agricultural crisis, are they?
The people of India suffer from amnesia. Look up the articles of economists writing between 2000 and 2009, the period of great change in the world economic order through GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and later on WTO (World Trade Organisation), the purpose of which was to force open the world markets for capital and goods. You will find a large number of the economists were predicting how the WTO agreement would affect Indian agriculture. There is a provision in the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture that countries will provide access to each other to their markets. The previous United Progressive Alliance government, however, did not pass the labour and farm laws. This WTO requirement has morphed into an altogether another phenomenon under the National Democratic Alliance–II (Modi government), which has allowed a very high percentage of FDI in just about every sector. It has bent backward to invite foreign capital to India. Yet foreign investors have not come to India because China has offered better facilities to them than what India has. For instance, China’s infrastructure is far better than ours.
There is another perspective on the ongoing protests of farmers, who are relatively better off than most of their counterparts elsewhere in India. Their excessive use of pesticide has created health problems. We have a train running between Bathinda, in Punjab, and Ganganagar, in Rajasthan, which is called the “Cancer Train.” This train ferries people who go to Ganganagar for cancer treatment. The high presence of pesticide in each of Punjab’s farm products is the reason why these are not exported.
The system of minimum support price has also spawned corruption. In the 1980s, when Punjab was rocked by the Khalistani movement, the bania traders exited from rural and semi-urban markets. They were replaced by big farmers, who became commission agents. From then on, Punjab’s agriculture production has kept increasing in Punjab, whereas the area under cultivation has remained more or less the same or has declined, largely because of rapid urbanisation.
These big farmers connive with politicians and officials. Since 2006, what they have been doing is to make heavy purchases of rice and wheat from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and show that these have been produced in Punjab to take advantage of the MSP. In the process, the government’s expenditure on procurement goes into the pockets of the trader-farmer, the politician and the official. Punjab’s farmers have to shift away from monocultural farming.
Yet, at the same time, I will say these farm laws are disastrous for farmers.
That is because these laws will not help or enable Punjab’s farmers to break away from the past. Farmers are an inflexible class. They do not wish to change, largely because they are unable to learn and innovate quickly. Regardless of whether the ongoing protests of farmers have moral legitimacy, they know that without the MSP, they will not survive. They are doomed. They are right to think that, for they do not see an alternative to continuing to survive on MSP.
Should the government have framed the farm laws without consultation?
When any government plans to usher in sweeping changes, to dramatically alter a way of life, it must build consensus. I still reel under the shock that nobody anticipated these laws. Before the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi transferred money to the bank accounts of farmers. He did the same during the lockdown. This transfer of money was in conformity with the WTO agreement that the government can give cash subsidy but nothing else—no MSP for instance. Journalists should check whether the government has notified the WTO about the changes in India’s laws.
From not consulting farmers, the Modi government seemed reluctant to meeting them until they broke through police barricades and camped outside Delhi. It would seem the BJP does not think the protests will have a negative impact on its fortunes.
With the exception of the BJP, the caste composition of all major parties remains the same. This is because the pattern of politics in Punjab is very unique to it. There are traditional Congress and Akali families. There are villages that have voted for one of the two for generations. The shifts in voting patterns occur marginally; their support base remains relatively unchanged unless they do something very stupid. As far as the BJP goes, you do not have Hindu families other than some in cities voting for it. The BJP, however, has also attracted Jat Sikhs in recent times, largely because they are looking for opportunities to make gains.
Could the BJP gain in the state Assembly election, due in 2020?
For one, there is a serious crisis in the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has led to many of their leaders forming their own party. Then we have the Khalistani supporters of Simranjit Singh Mann. The Akali Dal rebel leader Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa has been very close to the BJP. Therefore, it is very likely the BJP will have an alliance with Dhindsa’s party before the 2022 Assembly election.
But BJP can hope to consolidate Hindu voters, can’t it?
These protests on their own might not consolidate Hindu voters, because the farm laws will also adversely affect a class of Hindu traders. Yet, at the same time, I do not think the protests will necessarily have a negative impact on the BJP’s electoral fortunes. This is subject to the Aam Aadmi Party not making a mess of its election campaign, as it did in 2017. Their popularity made them complacent, due to which they did not campaign in the closing hours of voting. Much will also depend on effectiveness of the Congress campaign. It is not a win-win situation for the Congress and AAP, even though, at this moment, the Akali Dal does not seem to have a chance of winning.
The BJP can offer tremendous challenge to the Congress and AAP. Some of my academic friends and political analysts say the BJP will form the next government in Punjab, with some Sikh faces in it. I do not agree, even though I do think the BJP will make gains.
First you will have to assume that it is largely the Hindu population that will be voting for the BJP. In that case, a considerable proportion of votes in Hindu majority areas will go to the BJP. These areas include Pathankot and Hoshiarpur districts and some of Punjab’s major cities. The BJP’s perception is that it lost out in Punjab because the people turned against its ally, the Akali Dal, and voted for the Congress. It was therefore also voted out of power. The BJP thinks it can get 30-40 seats on its own, out of Punjab Assembly’s 117 seats. In other words, the protests in Punjab will not damage the BJP in a big way, in 2022.
It is possible that the BJP is not sympathetic to the farmers because Punjab, which is the epicentre of their protest, has only 13 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP focuses on winning states commanding a very high number of Lok Sabha seats. It uses these numbers to come into power at the Centre and ride roughshod over smaller states.
Yes, you are right. The BJP has to only win Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and a few more, and Punjab becomes relatively insignificant in its scheme of things. But the Centre’s problem is that Punjab has to be controlled. Punjab may not be arithmetically important, but its significance lies in its location at a volatile border and because it provides the only connection with Jammu and Kashmir through the plains.
From another perspective, is the BJP is indifferent to protests because it would not balloon the votes of its rivals beyond what they already command? The BJP is, after all, relatively absent from rural Punjab.
Well, we will have to see how it plays out. But yes, those affected by the farms laws are not really the principal supporters of the BJP. There is another aspect—many faced problems because the trains to and from Punjab did not run for nearly two months. In this period, you had Dusshera and Diwali. I presume they would be angry with the agitation. Or will they blame the Centre for their woes? It is hard to tell.
The Centre kept asking for assurances from the State government to run trains in Punjab. These assurances were given, yet the Railways dilly-dallied. In a democracy, the Central government should reach out to people and try to address their grievances. Instead, it seemed to deliberately harass people.
I think the ruling party veered around to the view that the Congress-ruled Punjab is in trouble, so why not harass them more and teach them a lesson for opposing the Centre.
That is why it seems that the BJP’s indifference to the protests is deliberate. It seems an electoral strategy for 2022.
The BJP is already preparing for the 2022 election. A lot of it will depend on how it harnesses Hindutva for its quest to acquire power or make electoral gains. People should have been enraged at the migration sparked by the national lockdown ordered on four hours of notice. Yet the NDA won Bihar. The BJP won more seats there than it did in 2015.
Why do you think the people forget the suffering inflicted on them by the BJP and still vote for it?
I think the political parties have not taken Hindutva head on. Somewhere they have to neutralise the Muslim bogey that the BJP keeps bringing up. We also have to remember the Congress’s own past record. It was responsible for so many riots in post-Independence India. But the BJP has taken the politics of communal polarisation far beyond what we have witnessed until now.
What do you think the central government will offer to farmers during their meeting scheduled for 3 December, although it could take place even before?
They will say that they agree with farmers’ leaders in principle and promise to make necessary changes in the farm laws. Modi has given so many assurances in the past, but has never fulfilled them. He will give yet another assurance on 3 December or whenever his government meets the farmers.
In the end then, do you think the Modi government’s decision to pass the farm laws and its obstinate refusal to meet the protestors reek of cynicism and political expediency?
First, no consensus was built on the farm laws. Second, the timing was all wrong. It is quite clear the BJP thought the pandemic would disable the farmers from protesting against the three farm laws. We have continuously witnessed the Prime Minister engage in one-way communication—he issues commands and expects people to obey. There has been hardly any negotiations and debate on any controversial issue during the last six years.