INDIA: Farmers’ movement challenges the increasing authoritarianism

Enraged Indian farmers are camping at the borders of national Capital Delhi for months in freezing cold after the Central Government passed three new farm bills ushering major agricultural reforms on 27th September 2020. Agrarian Community’s insecurities are aptly reflected in phased demonstrations to show collective disapproval by sloganeering such as,’Kisan Bacchao, Mandi Bacchao’ (Save the Farmer, Save the traditional Market). More than forty days since the protests began on 23 November, the movement has already witnessed the tragic demise of approximately eighty people. For now, the dogged refusal by the government to heed to their demands has brought the negotiations to a standstill reflected by a peaceful blockade of New Delhi, the Capital city by lakhs of farmers having set their camps on borders of the city in freezing cold. Despite the seventh round-table talk for reconciliation ended in a deadlock, the near-siege by the protestors continues for their non-negotiable stance on repealing the new laws notably by the Farmer Unions of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana. The protestors are seen taking part in tractor rallies to show symbolic dissent as a rehearsal for a parallel march on the Republic day of India (26 January) that they aim to stage in Central Delhi. The movement under the name of, ‘Delhi Chalo’ (March to Delhi), stems from a fear of complete dismantling of Rural India’s traditional agricultural foundation by the possibility of corporate greed having an upper hand post the implementation of these reforms.

New Ordinances

With the advent of three new farm acts namely, ‘Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmer’s (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act’ the Central Government promises major agricultural transformation for the rest of India.

At the outset, the currently debated farming laws seemed to promise a renewed freedom for peasants to sell their harvest to any private buyer or enter into a profitable contracts with private companies. Notifying the redundancy of Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), these laws provide space to bargain outside the traditional Mandis (Markets) without State-tax impositions. The Ruling Party’s decision to introduce these new ordinances was to streamline a largely unregulated sector with a promise of eliminating the need for middlemen and inviting private investment which could lead to rise in farmgate prices.

But this marks a grave oversight in observing the significant role of these market committees in the local Agri-ecosystem of North India especially the State of Punjab and Haryana both with the richest farmers in India as per capita income. Uncertainty of environmental conditions coupled with high cost of living creates a demand among the farmers for Minimum Support Prices for their crops and Social Security Net by the State in order to survive. This urgency of pre-set rates was otherwise guaranteed by the State-run APMC system which acted like an incentive for many farmers to sell their crops by Public Procurement System for a minimal support irrespective of the inflation.

The new laws cast a doubt on the predictable disparity that entry of private Mandis, in fact anyone with a permanent account number (PAN) could create the uncertain future for traders and small marginalized farmers while competing with big players. This new entry into contract farming can prove to be a lethal blow with multinationals having the power to slap fines on farmers when unable to meet requirements like the famous Pepsi Corporate on few Gujrat based farmers, rendering them helpless. The new bills also allow businesses to stock agricultural produce, which was earlier discouraged for the fear of hoarding by corporates. However, in order to control the rising inflation, the Union Government either bans exports or allows cheap imports; either way the farmers face the brunt of it. By observing these fluctuating strict control exercised by the Union Government, one can observe how inconsistent the ‘free market’ rhetoric can be biased to the large corporations while neglecting the Indian Farmers.

The Agricultural sector’s worrying contribution for the overall GDP of the nation displays a gross mismatch compared to the number of people dependent on it. The State’s intention for a reform is right in order to change the status quo by stepping towards liberalized India but lacks collaborative delivery and space for political deliberation over a new structural adjustment. The broader implications of these new laws can alienate the middle-income and small-scale farmers, as they already lack the means to combat any unjust forces and put up an impactful argument for their crop deal.

The Central Government’s growing majoritarian stance is alarming for the balanced federal make-up of India’s polity. The new reforms also take away the State Government’s ability to regulate agricultural markets within provincial borders.

Further, the credibility of Center’s intentions came under a bigger question of legitimacy because of the haste with which the ordinances were converted into laws. Forget extensive discussions with all stakeholders- the farmers, the local traders who buy their produce and the APMCs, the union government did not discuss the bills even with state governments despite agriculture being in the state list under the constitutional division of power in India between the union and state governments.

The union government followed this up by bulldozing the bills in the parliament despite massive opposition. It went to the extent of declaring it passed by the Voice Vote in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament despite being in minority. This disregard for due process and established parliamentary tradition for the opposition’s clear disapproval during a voice-vote, indicates lack of tolerance for inclusion of diverse opinions.

The Ruling party cannot impose a predetermined course of action and expect smooth acceptance from indignant stakeholders. Using the Covid19 guidelines of physical distancing as a disguised reason to halt the protesting parties from moving further in the Capital city was no longer accepted by the Farmer’s Unions. The farmers who got no hearing from the union government despite patiently fighting for months with innovative ways like quiet ‘rooftop’ protests to rail and road blocks strategies to garner support now find peaceful and democratic confrontation as the only option left to be adequately heard. Under the caprices of Multinational agri-business corporations with sheer profit in mind could result in a chaos for the food security of the country as the State might not take the onus of procuring the leftover farm crops in subsequent years. The ambiguity in the reform bills, further traces no transparency if a regulatory mechanism is not developed in trade area transactions to avoid exploitative practices.

The void between the Government and Farmers is widening because of the Union government’s sheer arrogance in the beginning. It met the constitutional right of farmers to protest in a peaceful and democratic way with concrete jersey barricades, tear gas and water cannons to counter hordes of peasants in tractors and trucks. When the ruling party’s legislative adventurism faced dissent from farmers, its supporters further tried branding them as anti-national and separatists. This further hard-lined the movement rather than settle skirmishes among interest groups. The movement is ironically united, from the so-called feudal land-owning farmers to the Left-wing associations to the liberal modernist- are all under one banner to stand against the farm laws. The Ruling Party must adopt a conciliatory approach to fill up the major trust deficit due to the expeditious way the Farm Bills were introduced.

The rounds of discussion post the stir at National Capital’s borders have so far been inconclusive because of the ‘no compromise position’ by the union government in the beginning, and equally adamant no compromise below total repeal of the laws by the farmers seeing the new laws as Kaale Kanoon (Black order). The future remains unclear with blurred lines between the role of the Indian State and the role of the Market forces under the name of progress. In the bid for a greater interface between agriculture and industry for modernization of rural economy; they can’t neglect the voices of the ones who are solely dependent on the deeply entrenched traditionalist ways. The State’s inability in building wider consensus and lack of wider consultation with public sphere is the reason for aggravated protests. State’s underestimation of the depth of Stakeholder’s anger because of deprivation of adequate chance to express the importance of ‘Mandi system’ is why this farmers’ movement is hailed as the largest in recent memory.

 About the Author: 

Gauri Sharma, a postgraduate in Human Rights and duties, is currently interning with the AHRC.