Short of answers or assurances: Govt unable to handle farmer protests

Farmers' Protest in Delhi: A now viral image of the farmer’s agitation shows a young English-speaking Sikh explaining to a police officer why the farmer’s movement should be taken seriously. It is a revolution or “inquilab”, he says, if not addressed by the government it will “completely redefine the politics of this country”. The trolls of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), completely miss the point by ridiculing him and those who support the protest. The notions that only the extremely poor need to be protected from the free market by government intervention and that anyone who has mastered the language of the elite is disqualified from political sympathy must be quickly given up by the ruling party.

Instead of addressing fears of a deregulated market in agriculture, the party has let its trolls play up the ostensible shouting of separatist slogans like “Khalistan Zindabad” and death threats to PM Modi. From here the narrative moves quickly and familiarly in the direction of “Khalistani terrorists and (the) Congress” having conspired to organise riots in the country. For the record, despite the accusations of Opposition forces colluding in the farmers’ protests, the farmers have not allowed established political parties on their platform.

Why is the BJP unable to admit to the legitimacy of issues raised by the farmer’s agitation? And why must it smear it as anti-national? The culture of the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) from which the top BJP leadership comes, is not democratic – it insists on ideological obedience and leaves little room for discussion and debate with other points of view. Lacking any other framework to mentally engage with differences of opinion, it interprets all dissent from the government’s policies as anti-national. Remember that before the accusation of “Khalistanis” other dissenters were variously temed “urban Naxalites”, “terrorists”, “Pakistan-sympathisers”. 

The government argues that it has opened up the national market for farmers and done away with exploitative middlemen. Even now, the farmers’ incomes have not fallen and that government procurement of paddy for the ongoing Kharif season 2020-21 has seen a near 18% increase over the last year. The farmers are protesting out of fear of future loss of income with the erosion of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees mandis. There is also a fear that the government may reduce its own procurement under the MSP (minimum Support Price) by restricting purchases to only amounts necessary for ensuring food security and disaster mitigation. So even though not one of the three new farm laws mentions MSP, it is central to the agitation.

Farmers protest at Singhu border during their ‘Delhi Chalo’ march, in New Delhi, on Sunday Photo: PTI

The prevailing folklore that only 6% of the farmers benefit from MSP suggests the problem is limited. This figure, however, is based on a report on the restructuring of the Food Corporation of India headed by former Agricultural Minister Shanta Kumar. Based on the 2015 data of the report deals with only those who sell paddy and wheat and account for just 5.8% of farmers. More than 80% of these are from Punjab and Haryana. The political conclusion usually drawn from this is that the protests will not affect the rest of India.

However, analysis of data from 2019-20 shows that government procurement through agencies other than the FCI is not unimportant in other crops and other regions. While it is highest in paddy (43%) and wheat (36%), it is 29.5% for cotton, 18% for chickpea (chana), 18.8% for Arhar (pigeon pea), 5.69% for green gram (moong), 5.78% for mustard and 7% for groundnut. Figures for 2018-19 indicate 9.87% procurement for milk by quasi-government dairy-cooperatives. Although 80% of sugarcane is procured privately by sugar mills, the government sets what it considers a fair and remunerative cane price. Therefore experts claim that the beneficiaries of government procurement may be closer to 15% to 25%, extending much beyond Punjab Haryana.

The BJP’s lack of sympathy for farmers also stems from its own focus on religious identities and ‘hyper-nationalist’ sentiment. Both lend themselves to mobilisation on anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistani rhetoric. Unlike the Congress or the Left parties, the BJP has never been engaged in any farmers’ movements and has little appreciation of the crisis of Indian agriculture. When compelled to address the agriculture sector where it is in government, it has tended to announce ad hoc schemes which are then hyped as solutions to the crisis. Farmers’ agitations which have rocked the country periodically prove that these measures have not worked.

The government is perhaps also mistaken in seeing the hand of arhatiyas (middlemen) and big farmers in this agitation. Political observers in Punjab say that the anger in Punjab is palpable cutting across social, economic, occupational and gender distinctions. Entire families, big, small and marginal farmers as well farm labour are participating in the protests. 

No government can allow street protests to last for long or else they assume a life and logic of their own. Previous attempts at a dialogue with the farmers, after the farm laws were passed, broke down. The Union agriculture minister absented himself after having invited the farmers for talks on October 14. Predictably, farmers’ leaders walked out of the meeting as bureaucrats could give them no assurances. A second meeting attended by the Ministers for Agriculture and of Railways on November 14 was also inconclusive.

Now Union Home Minister Amit Shah has offered talks provided the protestors raise the blockade of highways leading to the capital and move to Burari grounds. But it is unclear whether the government is in a position to concede the farmers’ demand of 100 per cent procurement at MSP or commit to repealing the controversial farm laws.

If the farmers are not satisfied, then Burari could become yet another iconic protest site before force is used to evict the protestors. And if the present agitation is called off after ambiguous assurances, then farmers across India may continue to believe that they continue to be targeted by market deregulation. Their anger may then continue to fester only to erupt at a future date.

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