When Narendra Singh Tomar, the Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, emerged from the farmers’ representatives meeting furious with the Modi Government at the border of a national capital beleaguered for the sixth day over these farm reforms bills, he stated that the meeting was fruitful with irony laced in his words to describe a meeting that the government had been intimidated into. There was something rotten about these farmers’ protest and it certainly wasn’t a fruit.
To showcase self-indulgence in the politics of grievance, thousands of farmers mostly from Punjab were well-heeled and jam-packed into SUV’s with a dozen tractors that were thrown in for symbolism had descended into Delhi. Rejecting the government’s request that they should be moved to Burari, which was the designated grounds to stage their protests. Many farmers had uprooted the road dividers and turned them into ovens to roast rotis and they also transformed their trucks into cozy little rooms with extension boards to charge their cell-phones and to attach other electronic devices, also some bigger vehicles carried tons of fruits and vegetables along with cooking oil, atta and other essential food supplies, which would help them help them to survive throughout the protests which were clearly well-planned for the long haul.
Institutionalized dissenters were another group of ‘farmer dissent’ among the masses who were clogging approach roads to Delhi. This, significantly large group, demanded the right for farmers to sow what they chose and an immutable right to guaranteed government pricing for their produce, insulated from the notions of the market and also a law that penalizes the private sector for not paying above the legalized floor price set by the Government for so long. A vocal advocate, Chengal Reddy of the Consortium of Indian Farmers Associations (CIFA), who has been opening up the farm sector for years, intervening amongst the farmers in the south, by pushing modern practices of farming and government policies, finds preventing the markets from determining farm produce prices and the opposition’s entry into the private sector incomprehensible.
“Why are they against the reforms?” Chengal Reddy argues. Sectors that opened in the 1990s have been benefitted significantly. Farmers from other states have mostly been overcoming their own hardships without being mitigated. The regime of Minimum Support Price is for the rice and wheat that is procured by the Centre from Punjab and Haryana for PDS i.e. Public Distribution System. “They are the ones most affected and they should address it at the state level,” Chengal Reddy further stated.
Dominated by the producers from Punjab, these protests started after the law was passed by the Centre which in anyway doesn’t demolish the MSP regime or talk about dismantling the APMC (Agriculture Produce Market Committee), where all the produce is bought at the floor price announced by the government. The law actually is giving the farmers an option to either sell at APMC mandis or anywhere outside, where he finds a remunerative price for the produce. The MSP hasn’t been written into any laws and remains an administrative decision to date.
A season that saw a glut in the output of supplies
Ashok Gulati, chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, in 2012, had suggested a young reporter trip to Qadian Wali from Jalandhar Punjab, so that he can meet a farmer there in order to understand the problems of potato growers completely at the time. This was the season that saw a surplus in the output and supply of potatoes and farmers across the country were helplessly dumping their produce in the open after a 2 to 3% drop in the prices compared to the year 2011. Prices on Onions has dipped to 80% lower than the previous year. In the biggest onion market of India, Lasalgaon, Maharashtra, the crop was being sold at a rate of Rs.3 per kg, which is significantly low compared to Rs.80 per kg comparing to the previous year.
There was another kind of “glut,” of corruption scandals on the political horizon. This had degraded the Manmohan Singh government at the center in the eyes of every Indian. Manmohan Singh’s government was in a meltdown followed by a number of scams in many sectors. After farmers in UP dumped their produce on the roads, nose-diving prices for the potatoes made it to the headlines. Being under pressure over the free-falling prices for potatoes from Punjab to Gujarat, a pitch for Foreign Direct Investment in retail was done by Rahul Gandhi, arguing that this would resolve the problem for Rs.2 per kg from the farms end even while the retail consumer bought a packet of potato wafers, made from half a potato at Rs.10.
The food processing ministry may have been set up by Rajiv Gandhi with fanfare as a prime minister and hailed for his anticipation. But it remained trapped in an empty shell and a hollow vision for decades. The real problem of arming the farm sector with ample storage, food processing infrastructure that would supply farm produce to value-adding industrial units and provide remunerative prices for the produce was sidetracked repeatedly. Rahul Gandhi was mocked by the opposition for his pitch as ‘Put in a potato at one end and end up with gold at the other,’ pun instead of a model for the crisis these farmers were facing. This crisis proved to a political hot potato for the UPA down the road.
Two kinds of Agrarian mobilization in North India:
Dipankar Gupta, the social scientist, identified:
- As movements led by peasants, agricultural laborers, and marginal farmers will be centered on a list of demands to improve their lot.
- Those led by organizations representing the relatively better-off-owner-cultivators who produce marketable surpluses.
According to Dipankar Gupta, while movements fuelled by those rurally poor are more local in their impact, then the ones led by rich farmers’ target the state and Central governments, take up problems of agricultural prices, cheap electricity, water, and easy terms on loans among other demands. Because of the diversity in their demands these unions have shown a tremendous capacity to sustain themselves for a longer period and function as a pressure group outside the established structures. This analysis was based on the mobilization understand by Mahendra Singh Tikait in the late 1980s, which was to demand free power to farmers.
No other farmer leader could break the geographical jinx of Charan Singh, whose support among the Jat peasantry lasted from UP, Haryana, and some parts of Rajasthan. Attempts were made by his political nobles to mimic him and represent similar influence, but they all failed. The kind of hold Charan Singh had over his followers was legendary. In the late 1980s, his slogans of demanding free power and water supply for farmers could shake political foundations. Demands like this have now long gone out of currency as there is now a relatively better deal for the farmers in terms of access to bank loans, power, and water supply. Cultivators are better informed as a community. They are being helped by an enabling environment provided by successive governments.
The cult-like hold of the self-styled farmer leaders on their followers seen in the past would now trigger a storm of memes if one were to recite the stories of how they had harnessed the ignorance of the common folk for political gains. At one of the rural meetings in Haryana, Devi Lal said, “The government at the center is so corrupt that even the water you get in your fields is supplied to you after the electricity has been taken out of it. When I come to power at the Centre, I will ensure that you get only electrified water supply. And then your crop yield will multiply manifold.” So little seems to have been changed in terms of those leading to protests at Delhi gates today.
The first set of issues is the economy. When the three reform bills were passed in the Parliament in September, there wasn’t a single word about Punjab in them even though the politicians from the state latched themselves on the law as specifically designed to damage their economic interests. There is an India-wide context in which there are laws are framed in reality. India is no longer the country for prevalent food shortages like it was in the 1960s when the presence of public earning was established with Punjab as a hub for wheat and rice.