Predicament of agitating farmers

Anil Anand
As the one who has covered and seen from very close quarters the 1988 siege of Delhi by the farmers under the leadership of late Mahendra Singh Tikait, the then head of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). Historically and even as means of a democratic protest being under siege is nothing new for Delhi but in the recent times the Tikait-led action sends a grim reminder as lakhs of protesting farmers armed with lathis and food laden tractors had occupied the entire central vista from India Gate to the Raisina Hill.
For those in the new generation who are not aware this had become one of the reasons for banning public rallies and meetings at Boat Club or the India Gate Lawns, though under the garb of environment protection. The nearest point of protest currently is the Jantar Mantar. It is another matter that recently the courts again threw open the Lawns for holding rallies and functions.
The farmers are currently up in arms against the three farm laws that facilitate corporate sector’s entry into the agriculture field. For this to happen the laws have provisions for demolishing the current ‘mandi’ system in order to rid the farmers of the middlemen or the ‘arhatias. The explanation offered by none less than Prime Minister, Narendra Modi himself is that the new enactments are meant to provide multiple choices to the farmers to sell their produce and eradicate exploitation by middlemen. This is a very fair expectation and there are no two views on this.
The question is, “Will the middlemen be eradicated at all? Many experts in the agriculture field feel the otherwise and that the new regime would give rise to a new set of multi-tier middlemen with the current ones still forming the bottom rung.
The bone of contention seems to be the issue of Minimum Support Price (MSP) that currently guarantees that the farmers’ produce would be lifted by the Government agencies at not less than a price specified by the official agencies. The new farm laws, farmers fear, have sought to remove this guarantee and thereby leave the field wide open for the private players. The Government has allayed this fear but for unknown reasons is disagreeable, up till now, to mention continuation of MSP system either in these laws or bring a fresh one in this regard as is being demanded by the farmers. This has led to a standoff between the Government and the farmers.
For a moment let us agree with the Government’s claim that its new laws would streamline the farm sector and at the same time transform it by way of increased private investment. Ordinarily, there should not be any disagreement on this. Then why are the farmers protesting and the march to Delhi.
Is it a case of over confidence or underestimating the farmers? Possibly yes!
There is no doubt that Mr Modi is capable of taking major decisions as has been seen during the last over six years. A clarion call by him on any particular issue draws overwhelming public support without a counter question being raised which in a democracy is a pointer to the darker side. But somewhere the ruling dispensation under this illusion ostensibly failed to read the farmers’ mood. For that to happen detailed deliberations with the farmers’ union and experts was needed so as to gauge their mood and arrive at a mutually agreeable draft of the proposed (now enacted) laws. And to cap it all a platform should have been created for interaction and better understanding between farmers and the corporate. This grey area has resulted in creating doubts in the farmers’ mind as a result they are viewing the corporate as a villain which is far from truth. The overwhelming feeling in the ruling dispensation (read the political component) was that any agitation to the farm laws would die its own death or fizzle out. This is where they seemed to have erred and a case of over-confidence.
In a democracy no Government or political party should consider itself as invincible, or as the repository of all the powers. The nearest, and not too far in history, available example of this misplaced notion of embodiment of all powers was that of former Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi that resulted in internal emergency of 1975. Its outcome is very well known. It is ironic that most of the political beneficiaries of the anti-emergency struggle are exhibiting similar tendencies.
Compared to the Tikait-led farmers agitation of 1988 when the then Congress Government led by Mr Rajiv Gandhi was taken aback as the farmers posed a real threat to march up the Raisina Hill and lay siege to the seat of power and for days were clueless on how to open channels of dialogue, the Modi Government has these channels going within no time. One reason being unlike Mr Tikait and his team, the current representatives of the farmers are not stubborn and willing to talk to the Government for a resolution. On a contrarian note in this case the Government seems to be adamant.
Keeping aside the political sniping, allegations and counter-charges- ruling BJP blaming the Punjab chief minister and veteran Congress leader, Captain Amrinder Singh with using farmers as a political tool to foment the issue in view of not-too-far Punjab assembly elections, and the opposition charging the ruling dispensation with polarising the scene and acting to benefit the corporate at the cost of the farmers, there is a fit case to listen to the farmers’ grievances and remove their doubt. This is a historic fact that there is always resistance to any reform and change. But this is also a historic fact that no change or reform, at least in a democratic set up, can be brought either by force or against the will of the people or the section for which it is meant.
Even if the Government of the day or the ruling party is sensing some political mischief behind the farmers’ agitation, it needs to be exposed systematically and with tangible proof. It is no one’s interest, the ruling party, the opposition and the country as a whole, to senselessly tag anyone a terrorist or an anti-national.
It remains a fact that the agriculture sector and the rural economy has been continuously under stress over the decades. There is no doubt that the successive Governments have taken measures but which did not give desired results in the face of rural and urban growth inequalities. The growing urban and infrastructural development has led to a continuous pressure on the land, be it agricultural or otherwise.
In the current context the agitating farmers’ fear, which might have been inculcated by the BJP’s political rivals as the ruling party maintains, that in the absence of guarantees such as the MSP and with no access to the court of law, they will have to forfeit their land to the corporate giants is not misplaced. These fears must be addressed and strong safeguards should be provided either in the three laws or by way of a new enactment.