A plea from India’s Farmers
On a cold evening of December, 2020 , Karnal Singh is sitting outside his tractor talking about his grandchildren and his village. The 70-year-old is away from home and is protesting at a border dividing India’s national capital Delhi and its neighbour state Haryana.
On November 26, farmers from Punjab and Haryana - northern states of India – started their march towards Delhi in a protest against the three agriculture bills, which were passed in the Indian Parliament recently.
On November 27, thousands of farmers waited at Singhu border (Delhi-Haryana border), as they were forced to march towards the main city, they had to face lathi-charge, tear gas shelling and water cannon in the cold winter days. The farmers were expecting nothing less as they were treated the same way at different borders of Punjab and Haryana. Heavy police and security deployment was placed at the border, but the farmers decided to sit down at the border and continue their agitation.
Karnal Singh, who hails from Punjab, is one of the lakhs of farmers who are protesting against the three agricultural laws, which they say will end their livelihood and make them labourers in their own land.
The three farm bills
On September 27 2020, the Indian President Ram Nath Kovind passed three controversial agriculture bills, which saw an outrage from farmers associations in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. The bills namely - The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce, 2020, and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020 – were passed in the parliament despite a major uproar from the opposition. And even though the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) clearly was not in a position to win, the bills were passed.
According to farmers, the three bills have issues separately, which is why they need to be revoked. For example, farmers believe the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance is being introduced to facilitate the corporate retailers in the name of farmers.
“On July 1, 2014 NA government put onion and potato under purview of the Essential Commodities Act (ECA) and imposed stock holding limits in a bid to improve availability and control in prices. Now the same government is amending ECA. This itself proves that the government has no policy clarity on these issues and is acting on the advice of the corporates,” K.V Biju said, explaining the laws.
End to MSP?
Farmers have said that the bill will bring out corporate farming and kill the mandi system completely. “The whole law has been made for corporates like Adani and Ambani. Secondly, the idea is to remove family farming completely. They want to bring in corporate farming. They did not put any provision for MSP. All mandis will collapse. We sell onions from Maharashtra in Delhi only. This we are able to do because the mandi is open, but what will we do if there is no mandi?” Shakar Dareka, member of a farmers association from Maharashtra said.
Through the mandi system, a farmer directly goes to any mandi and sells their crops for MSP. “They want to take away our land and leave us with nothing,” Balvinder Singh, a protester from Punjab said.
Minimum support price (MSP) is the major demand that farmers want to be included in the bill. The minimum support price is to safeguard the farmer to a minimum profit for the harvest, if the open market has lesser price than the cost incurred. The farmers have said that they are assuming that this will be removed as nothing has been mentioned about recurring it in the bill; thereby removing accountability.
They have also emphasised that the bills were not made up on the request of any farmers’ organisations. “Farmers’ request has been for MSP, according to the Swaminathan Commission C2 + 50 formula, loan waiver and to stop import as per Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). Rather than implementing farmers’ suggestions, government has been implementing suggestions of corporates in the name of farmers, without even consulting any of the farmers’ organizations,” Biju added.
The protest has witnessed a fair amount of women farmers from various states. Although, women farmers are handful in Punjab, many have come to support their husbands in this struggle. The CJI wanted the women farmers to not protest, but Malkeet Kaur is not one to back down.
Malkeet Kaur, 60 hailing from Punjab’s Amritsar is a farmer and has been on the field for more than 20 years. Kaur said that she only defines herself through work. “If you ask me to sit at home and do nothing, I will not be able to do that. All my life, I have just worked and this is what I intend to do till I die,” she said. A cotton and seed farmer, Kaur said that she has come here to protest against the three ordinances.
“We have never come here like this. Women in Punjab are always working in the four walls of their homes. Our life is very busy and we are settled in it. To step out like this is a very big deal for us. As a farmer, I can tell you that these laws are not good for us and we request the government to take it back. Everything will be costly for us, the amount that we put in to grow the grains, we will not get that amount,” Kaur emphasized.
Nirmal Kaur from Punjab’s Mansa District is an Aanganwadi worker and a daughter of a farmer. While marching on the roads of Singhu border, she explains why she is here to protest against the farm bills. She is also protesting against the non-payment of Aanganwadi workers’ salary. “These bills are a death warrant for us and should be taken back. As a daughter of a farmer, I have seen my already struggling father getting anxious about the future. They want to take away our lands and give everything to the corporates. This is not acceptable to us,” she averred.
Meanwhile, thousands of women come to join the protest each week, making it one of the biggest movements in India since the 1970s.
Start of a peaceful protest
Karnal Singh is a farmer, who has a small land to himself. “I grow cumin seeds and grains. With the coming of these bills, our expenses will increase. One has to realize that agriculture is complex and to grow anything there are different kinds of expenses. These bills are going make these expenses more and the resultant income less,” he said, while sitting on a chair outside his tractor, which is his house for an indefinite amount of time.
Farmers from Punjab and Haryana are housing themselves in tractor trolleys, through which they have also traveled to the outskirts of Delhi. Traveling close to 500 kilometres, the farmers had initially come to protest at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, a protesting site, but with the Centre’s determination to stop them enter the city, the farmers decided to protest at the Singhu border itself.
In one of the most unique agitations, the farmers have set up small kitchens on the roads where they cook. “We have brought our own food, wood and even gas to cook food themselves. We do not need any sort of sustenance help from the government. We have so much food here that it is easy for us to protest here for another six months,” a farmer union leader from Punjab said.
All basic necessities have been provided to the farmers, while Sikh diaspora, which is very strong throughout the globe, is pouring in support in all forms for the protest to be carried on. From washing machines to foot massage, the protest site is brimming with different ways to ease the life of the elderly protesters. The young, meanwhile have taken over the sewa area and are taking care of the elderly.
The protests are now not limited to the borders of Delhi but have reached different corners of the country. From Jammu and Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala to Gujarat and West Bengal, farmers and workers have come out to protest in large numbers.
With art and soulful music intermixing at the protest site, Singhu border along with other border areas like Tikri, Palwal and Bahadurgarh have become vibrant with farmers from other states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, also joining in.
At Tikri border, 65-year-old Harpal Singh is sitting, his old eyes looking at the road, which now houses his tractor. Wearing a green turban, he stands tall even as his wrinkled hands shake a little bit. Harpal Singh hails from Punjab’s Moga village and has always done farming. “There is nothing else I know,” he laughs.
Harpal also grows grains and seeds back home, saying that the harvest time will soon arrive, but he is here waiting for the government to take back the bill. “Our farmers feed the poor and the whole country. Our time is going to come very soon. Take my word, we're not going to get killed that easily, this is our pledge. We didn't get scared earlier and won't get scared now as well,” he said.
The protests have only gained momentum now and is said to intensify with coming time. Despite Central government’s assurance that the bills are for their betterment, even though they have agreed that it has flaws, no concrete solution has come in sight. According to Biju, globalization and liberalization only mean corporate facilitation. “These three farm acts are for corporate facilitation. Whether it is Indian or new foreign company coming to replace the zamindar, the helpless farmers and laborers will become slaves to these corporates,” he added.
Nikita Jain is a Delhi based journalist and has covered various issues including gender, conflict, politics, civic among others.