Govt: It is Our Way or the Highway; Farmers Choose Highway, to Protest
Farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh encircle Delhi, camp at borders, and are building up in large numbers. With all logistics worked out, the farmers are in for a long haul. It looks like they are not returning back to their villages without getting the ‘black laws’ banished.
Breaking through police cordons and smashing through all barriers – cement boulders, pits dug up on national highways, cargo containers – countless farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh drove up to the borders, encircling the national capital of Delhi.
Here, on the Delhi borders, rural India has come alive with hundreds of thousands of farmers digging in for the long haul – till the union government takes back the three farm laws that the protesting farmers seem convinced are their respective and collective ‘death warrants.’
For the farmers, the bone-chilling winter cold is not as much of a problem as is the attitude of the union government towards their demands. The farmers are enduring a cruel wait as their demands are either left unanswered or rejected as “motivated”. Nevertheless, the farmers seem determined in their struggle towards repealing the laws that are patterned on policies of deregulation, exploitation and privatization. They insist that they are more than willing to wait, even for six months or more, and logistics have been worked out for the long haul.
The farmers have arrived with rations to last them through the protest, and have their supply lines functioning well. Farmers left in villages are tending to the farms of those engaged in the protests, and every farmer has contributed to the funding of the protests.
Although the farmers have been holding protests against these ‘black laws’ for the past few months in their respective areas, the program of marching to Delhi began in late November when many trade unions called for a nationwide strike. On November 26, the first of the jathas (groups) of protesters from Punjab reached the Delhi borders, where they were stopped. Reinforcements of farmers are coming in daily, from all directions. Now there are reports of a huge contingent of Maharashtra farmers, under the aegis of Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, driving to Delhi in a huge convoy to join the protests.
Farmers are getting support from all the different walks of life with students also showing their presence on the side of the farmers. What started as a farmers' protest is slowly attaining the shape of a wider protest against the Government of India's attitude towards dissenters. As the protests reach other regions of the country, the demands for the repeal of the three farm laws also intensify.
The government has tried its best to break the deadlock but the farmers want nothing less than the repeal of the three farms laws. The government does not seem bothered and has consistently been rejecting the demands of the farmers.
The protestors find it difficult to believe what the government is saying to them. This is one of the reasons why the government assurances have failed to remove the apprehensions of the protesting farmers. In fact, what the farmers want is that the government consult them before taking any action (in this case the recently passed farm laws) that affect them, and not present them with a fait accompli.
A Trust Deficit
The dominant themes playing out at the protest sites have mostly been the past promises of the government, with speaker after speaker articulating the allegedly false promises of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the promise of Rs 15 lakh, the promise that demonetization could put an end to "terrorism", bring back black money, the efficacy of GST implementation, and now the farm laws.
The PM’s exhortations that the new farm laws were for the farmers' benefit and would revolutionize the farm sector are falling on deaf ears as farmers find it hard to believe the government. The Prime Minister has asserted that the new farms are part of efforts to double the farmers’ incomes, and that the farmers will now acquire more options to sell their crops.
But the protesting farmers are not convinced.
The government insists that it wants to free the farmers from the shackles of the mandis (or APMCs) and ensure that they get a better price for their produce. "It is being projected that the land of farmers will be occupied by industrialists. Contract farming has been going on for long in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka but there has never been such an experience," Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar says. Another union minister Piyush Goyal says: “There were some concerns that farmers will be forced to sell their produce in the private market. This is completely erroneous. There is absolutely no provision in the law which brings an element of compulsion on any farmer.”
All these statements from the Prime Minister and his cabinet members have failed to remove the apprehensions of the farmers. In fact, these statements only strengthen their disbelief. Kulwant Singh Sandhu, a farmer leader, says, “now the government has turned to the only section of the economy that did well even during the pandemic, and is trying to hand it over to few industrialists.”
Clearly, the government suffers from a trust deficit, when it comes to the protesting farmers.
So far, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar held five rounds of meetings with the leaders of the farmers’ agitation and the Union Home Minister Amit Shah held another key round of discussions. But all these meetings failed to break the deadlock, and if not anything, the farmers have declared that there was no point in holding talks unless the government was prepared to roll back the three farm laws. Farmer leader and spokesperson of Bharatiya Kisan Union, Rakesh Tikait, said “We are firm with our demand and are ready to sit here for any number of days or months.”
What the Government says
There is no change in the government position: there is no question of rolling back the farm laws, there can only be a consideration of specific aspects in the provisions of the Act.
So, the deadlock continued on International Farmers Day on December 23 as well, at the time of writing of this report.
Punjab has been witnessing protests ever since the propositions were introduced as ordinances in the Parliament earlier this year and the agitation got stronger after the bills got the assent of the President following their passage in the parliament. In fact, it is on this count that BJP’s longest-serving ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal had to part ways, from the NDA government and eventually walk out of its alliance with the BJP.
The three new laws are Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.
These three laws, first introduced as ordinances, received the President’s assent after they were pushed through the parliament. In Rajya Sabha, the bills were passed through a voice vote and demands for a division from the opposition benches were ignored, claim the opposition parties. In fact, there had been opposition to the new farm laws from the farming community, notably in Punjab, and then these protests spread to parts of Haryana and UP pockets.
The government maintains that the farm laws will do to agriculture what economic liberalisation did to the industrial and services sector in the country leading to a huge spurt in economic growth. “It is the 1991 economic reforms programme moment for agriculture” say economists supporting the farm laws.
What the new farm laws do is to remove the middlemen and allow the farmers to sell their produce anywhere in the country. So far, there were restrictions that the farmers could sell only the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees that were allegedly corrupt and cheated the farmers.
The farmers are fearful that the laws are in fact loaded in the favour of the rich and mighty from the corporate sector, and would eventually remove the safety cushion of Minimum Support Price (MSP) and do away with the mandi system that is in place now.
The Fear of Big Firms
Farmers have continuously been claiming that the new farm laws will leave them at the mercy of the big corporates, and this aspect is worrying the farmers so much that they have already begun to act. The farmers have announced the boycott of all products of Reliance and Adani group of companies. The Reliance group has already approached the TRAI complaining that its competitors were misleading the farmers and getting them to shift away constituting an unfair practice.
In fact, the farmers' issue is a very complex one, with so many different aspects to be kept in mind as agriculture varies from region to region. This is also the reason why in some regions of the country, like for example parts of South India, the farming community has not arisen in protests, though some do express sympathy with their fellow farmers.
But, there are representatives from many states at the Singhu border protests, a family from Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu and a host of social activists from Gujarat expressing their solidarity with the protesting farmers.
If not anything, the protests are only growing stronger.
Farmer leader Kulwant Singh Sandhu said a meeting of farmer leaders from across India would be held to take a call on the invite for talks from the government. Tikait has already indicated that they would wait for a concrete proposal from the government rather than go there without any clear agenda and give the government a chance to portray the farmers as rigid obstacles in farmers welfare and paint them as the villains.
The agitating farmers have declared stepping up the agitation as the government continues to deny them any kind of relief. Eleven farmer leaders were already on a relay hunger strike at the time of writing this report, and there have been appeals to people to join in.
Sandhu said the farmer leaders will observe "Shaheedi diwas" from December 23 to December 26. The farmers' unions have already given a call to halt toll collection in Haryana from December 25 to December 27.
Adverse Terms of Trade turn Farming Unviable
Farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, spokesperson of Bharatiya Kisan Union, and one of the leaders spearheading the ongoing farmers' agitation said mockingly that he was in search of the mathematicians who assert that farmers' income will be doubled due to the new farm laws.
“All the costs of our inputs in farming have risen, our produce is sold at the same cost or even less, then how can the farmers’ income be doubled as is being touted by those forcing the new farm laws on the farming community,” he questioned the government touching upon the key issue plaguing the country’s agronomics.
For the past several decades, farmers have been suffering adverse terms of trade due to the vagaries of weather and man-made factors. Government policies and practices have also turned agricultural activities uneconomic.
This has turned into a severe agrarian crisis that is costing thirty lives of farmers every day, as they are forced to die by suicide mostly due to severe indebtedness. Clearly, farming has become unviable as costs of production are rising and the output prices remain stagnant or declining. Very few farmers break out of traditional farming to experiment with new crops, cropping patterns, and practices. But they succeed only because they handle the marketing part themselves.
The average farmer faces a constant problem – if he grows less (due to natural calamities, and poor rainfall) or he grows a bumper crop – the way the agricultural trade is organised at present, with the farmers having little or no choice or say in the matter.
If not the sarkari man, they are left at the mercy of the middleman trader.
Over the years, the farm incomes have not kept pace with the incomes of people in other sectors of the economy – the industry, trade, and the services sector. The farmers are unable to ride the market as they are unorganised due to the individualistic nature of farming activities.
The Modi government insists that the new farm laws will remove most of these deficiencies of the current agricultural produce trade, but the farmers claim otherwise.
Privatisation is not the answer, they say and cite the example of Bihar, where the Sarkari mandis were done away with a few years ago. “Today Bihar farmers with 10 acres come and do labour in a two-acre farm in Punjab,” said a protesting farmer puncturing holes in the claim of “ache din” for the farmers.
Discrediting and Dividing Farmers by Making Them Wait
Faced with one of the biggest agitations since it assumed power in 2014, the Modi government has unleashed a multi-pronged approach to deal with the ongoing farmers' protest seeking repeal of what they call ‘black farm laws.’
One of the potent methods has been an attempt to discredit the movement by dubbing it as "anti-national" and insinuating it as being supported by Khalistanis and Maoists. Speculations and accusations of foreign funds financing the protests are rife. Then there is a narrative being popularised that it was a localized protest by Punjab farmers, while rest of the farmers in India found the new farm laws beneficial.
In the beginning, as the farmers stir began moving from Punjab towards Delhi last month, the government used tough policing – lathi charges, water cannons, tear-gassing to stop their march. When these failed to contain the determined armies of farmers and their mean machines (tractors), the government erected barricades on the highways.
In some places, the government even dug up the highways and placed big cement boulders and cargo containers to block the roads. The farmers smashed through these and squatted at the borders, encircling the union capital.
The government then began to engage the farmers and held a series of meetings, for discussions, even as the farmers braved the bone-chilling winter cold under the open skies.
Even as the key ministers kept the farmers' leaders busy in talks, few of them sought to discredit the agitation – that the protests were backed by Khalistanis and Maoists- something that a section of the media went about painting the protests as so-called anti-national. Incidentally, the government has also been talking to few farmer unions that are not participating in the protests.
The constant image and message emanating from the protest sites is the purposefulness and peacefulness of the protests. Also comes out strongly is the willing and ready participation of the local people, who have opened their hearts to the farmers. The Gurdwaras in India and abroad too have come forward with full support.
An ever-vigilant farming community is on the lookout for media representatives who tried to give a bad name to the protest and protesters – in several instances, representatives of few channels were marked and kept under close observation all through their presence at the protest sites.
So far, the farmers' leaders have kept up the pressure and are playing hard to get themselves to the negotiating table whenever the government tries to make such an effort. But in the absence of any concrete, written agenda or a proposal, the farmers have rejected the government's offer of talks.
Amid all the fuss, the stalemate continues.
Farmers Defang the ‘Godi’ Media
The youth brigade of the farming community is out in full strength, harnessing its collective social media skills to combat disinformation and misinformation campaigns trying to discredit the ongoing farmers' agitation.
What started as a public announcement at the Singhu border protest site inviting those knowing social media operations turned into a full-fledged media operation to present factual news and developments of the farmers stir at a time when efforts were afoot to discredit the movement.
Within no time of the announcement of Baljit Singh Sandhu, the contours of the media cell began to take shape. He had asked all those who knew operating Facebook, Twitter, Snapshot, Instagram to report and congregate to devise a plan to counter the false propaganda that sought to derail the agitation.
“We found good technical people from the protesters,” Sandhu said. He is also the vice-president of the Majha Kisan Committee and has been camping at the Singhu border since November 26. And thus, was born the Kisan Ekta Morcha IT cell. Soon, the KEM Facebook page was up, and a YouTube channel too was up and running as were Twitter and Snapchat accounts.
The move to form IT Cell, YouTube channels and Facebook pages followed the creation of a group of young social media savvy persons on the site. Several students have also joined the protests and were drawing up posters, painting cartoons, and creating powerful messages to help the farmers’ campaign, on WhatsApp as well.
The leaders of thirty-seven farmers organizations held a meeting on December 14 to discuss ways and means to counter the false propaganda unleashed by the BJP IT cell and the troll brigades. From this meeting was born the idea of creating a social media cell that would feed the countless independent journalists coming to cover the agitation.
Now, it is possible to counter the false narratives of different television and social media channels that were demonizing the protesters as Khalistanis, Maoists, and "anti-nationals".
In fact, the youth brigade is also very vigilant over the activities of mainstream media personnel. Constantly the media persons are under watch, and every word they utter into their mikes is listened to with rapt attention.
Few channels – pro-government -- have been singled out for particular attention. Shouting slogans against ‘Godi’ media (lapdog media), the protesters boycott them.
Lakshmana Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economical and political issues across the country. He has been associated with The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Sunday Observer and PTI.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org