R Srinivasan

What have we learnt from farmers’ protest?

R Srinivasan | Updated on September 30, 2021

Relentless fight Farmers protesting during the recent Bharat Bandh   -  PTI

Nothing. Farmers have lost time, crops and livelihoods. The government, a chance to reform

September 27 marked a year from the date the President signed three major Acts related to agriculture into law. It also marks a year since farmers — or at least a significant proportion of India’s estimated 150 million-plus farmer population — launched one of the world’s largest mass movements against these contentious laws, which the Narendra Modi government has steadfastly insisted will transform the future of Indian agriculture.

Farmers, particularly in India’s prosperous agricultural States which generate a bulk of the marketable surplus of food which goes in to feed India’s gigantic food security programme, aren’t buying it. They didn’t buy it when the three laws were first brought in as ordinances in June last year. They didn’t buy it when the Bills were speed-posted through both Houses of Parliament with hardly a semblance of debate or discussion. And a year later, they are still not buying it.

In fact, the first anniversary was marked by that uniquely Indian protest institution, the ‘bandh’, a supposedly voluntary abstainment from all economic activity as a mark of protest. The ‘Bharat Bandh’ called by farmers admittedly didn’t have an impact in most metros, or indeed in many State. But it was also pretty near total in the areas where the ongoing protest movement draws most of its on-ground support — Punjab, Haryana, parts of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra. Both sides claimed victory. The status quo continues.

What have we learnt from this mammoth and sustained protest, which has blockaded the national capital, the seat of the durbar itself, for more than a year? Other than the fact that the Indian peasant, when pushed, has an almost unbreakable will and can put with unbelievable hardships, nothing. In fact, when a certain well-known troll factory stared an ill-advised campaign to try and paint the protesting farmers as anti-nationals and even terrorists, the farmers had reminded it that it is their sons who are also fighting — and dying — on our borders to preserve our freedom.

That same obdurate refusal to give in to the odds, and the ability to bear unbelievable hardships (remember the Indian soldiers who fought aggressors on icy Himalayan slopes on nothing more than “gur-chana” in two wars, or those who drove back the enemy from superior positions in Kargil?) is visible in these protests.

The iron hand

For a year now, the government has used its iron heel to try and stamp out the protest. And failed. It used water cannon and tear gas to try and disperse them. It dug trenches on the roads to try and block their tractors. It used repeated, harsh, police action to try and beat them into submission (recall the order to “crack their heads” issued to Haryana cops?).

Protestors have been arrested, booked for rioting. It blocked internet access to the farmers, tried to deny them basic services, coerced social media platforms into yanking their handles. And yet the movement lives and grows. Earlier this month, a protest rally in Muzaffarnagar drew half a million farmers. Roads in a 20 km radius around this UP town were choked with tractors and farm vehicles.

Despite the scale of these protests, the farmers have been unable to get the government to budge on the three laws, despite eight rounds of talks with the 32 farmer unions who are officially part of this movement. Farmers are suspicious that the law may do away with compulsory selling in designated market yards as a bid to axe procurement at Minimum Support Price (MSP). They don’t trust corporates to give them a fair deal, nor do they (mostly with justification) trust babudom over courts to give them justice in disputes, and they believe that promises to do away with stocking limits and controls on farmers are written on water, to be swept away by the next spike in inflation, when they will be again billed the cost of protecting urban votes.

The government believes the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 will transform the future of Indian farmers and help double their incomes, if not by 2022, then soon after. The farmers believe that the same laws will make their already difficult situation much worse and insist on a total repeal.

Woeful infrastructure

The reality is that nothing has changed for the farmer on the ground, with or without reforms. Two recent stories highlight this. One, a report in this paper, talked about how unseasonal rains and an unexpected cyclone have destroyed the harvested soya and tomato crops of farmers in Marathwada.

“There are no cold storages, processing units or even tin shed to store the produce. Once you harvest, you have to take it to the market. Many times even the transport cost is not covered, considering the price in the market,” the report quoted a farmer as saying. In that region, over the past few years, farmers have been losing 60 per cent of harvested crops to unseasonal rains brought about by climate change.

The second was a report about widespread farmer anger in Himachal Pradesh, where the price of apples crashed after corporate giant Adani group announced its buying price of ₹72 per kg for grade ‘A’ apples, sharply down from the ₹88 offered last season. For a small, hilly State where apples constitute a ₹5,000-crore industry — the biggest in the State — the price fall is a confirmation of the farmer’s worst fears regarding corporates and ‘farm to fork’ integration.

A 2016 report of the NSSO found that 40 per cent of farmers wanted to quit farming if they could get an alternative living. And that in more than half the country — 17 States — the average farm household (household, not individual!) earned less than ₹6,000 a month, barely above the poverty line.

Somehow, somewhere, a middle ground has to be found between the golden future that team Modi is envisioning for farmers — doubling of incomes, innovations at scale driven by an immersive digital ecosystem and so on — and the harsh reality the farmers face in their villages.

Of the 47,000-odd haats (rural markets) in India, for instance, most have little more infrastructure than an open ground. According to a National Centre for Cold-Chain Development (NCCD), report, there is a 99 per cent gap in demand and supply of cooling/packing houses. 85 per cent of fruits grown in the US move through cold chains — India, the percentage is fraction of one per cent.

Once we understand that creating actual, functional, village level infrastructure for farmers will transform the future of farmers much more than laws; once the government realises that there are strong justifications for the farmers’ lack of faith in their promises; and once farmers realise that the old order will change whether they like it or not and it is better to be part of that change than to hope for status quo ante, we might start moving towards the solution. That is the lesson we need to learn from the protests.

Published on September 29, 2021

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