Even during the pandemic accompanied with various restrictions like social distancing and the coldest November since 1949, the farmers came on to the streets protesting against three new laws passed by Parliament. The mobilisation in these trying times is unbelievable. The agitation has as usual divided the opinion across the country between pro-government and those critical of the government. What is more, it has drawn international attention and comments from heads of States and Members of Parliament. This has resulted in a diplomatic row between Ministry of External Affairs and those making remarks on the agitation. The issue must be resolved before it is too late.
At the time of writing, two rounds of dialogue had taken place between the government and the farmers. This is a breakthrough as there was hardly any dialogue or bridge between them so far. No wonder, one of the grievances by the farmers is that they were not consulted before such drastic changes were made in the farm sector. Earlier, the farmers refused any offer for talks as government had made it conditional. In the last round, the farmers demanded a special session of Parliament.
The government will have to do some out-of-box thinking and management to resolve this vexatious issue. Unless it does so, the farmers are unlikely to budge, on the contrary, they seem to prepare for a long haul. They have shielded Delhi’s borders, are refusing to move into a police-designated site for protest as they fear they will be squeezed into that area and be marginalised in popular attention.
Interestingly, initially, the government tried to delegitimise the protest movement as Opposition instigated, fed by untruths and misinformation. That tactics did not hold much water. The farmers bluntly announced that no leader from any political party could share the platform with them. They were in fact, reported to have shooed away to middle-level leaders who were trying to persuade the farmers to shift to a new venue. The government perhaps failed to realise that farmers are as strong in their resolve as the soldiers are at the borders.
During 1965 war, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had given the famous slogan of Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer). It evoked national sentiments for farmers as they provide food security whereas the soldiers give us physical security. Therefore, the agitating farmers could not be called ‘anti-national’ as often times the government tends to dub protesters and critics as anti-national.
In view of the critical role and sensitive position of the farmers, the government will have to negotiate and find amicable solutions. The un-thoughtful use of force by the Haryana Police on the Punjab farmers has left a bad taste in the country and incurred comments from abroad. The government has somehow backtracked from such aggressive actions and is talking. But somehow, the ice has not broken yet. Both parties assume they are right in their thinking and action. This could lead either of them to sit on prestige and take a hubristic posture. This seems to be the case. In democracy, through dialogue, points of convergence are created by conceding space and knowledge base.
Before scanning the international response, it is in order that we take a look at the three laws passed by the Parliament. The first, Farmers’ Produce, Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation Act), which expands the scope of trade for farmers produce from select areas like the mandis to ‘any place of production, collection and aggregation’. In theory, this gives freedom to the farmers to sell anywhere by liberating them from either middlemen or even State governments. The government thinks that the Act unshackles the farmers, whereas the farmers think it has orphaned them as the so-called middlemen were the interface between the market and the farm land, and State governments provided them a secured place to do trading. They also apprehend they have been thrown into the predatory traders cartels.
The second one is Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, which provides a legal framework for farmers to enter into a pre-arranged contract with buyers including pre-fixed pricing. The Act also provides for a dispute resolution mechanism should the contract become controversial. This is legalising contract farming. Farmers are put against powerful business houses, which will initiate and manage the contract, but it’s unlikely that a farmer can monitor its implementation. Nor can he challenge the mighty businessmen in the court of law.
Third is Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, which allows the government to regulate food items through essential commodities list. It provides for stocking agriculture produce. Government believes by allowing the producers to stock and sell their produces at the time of their choice, they won’t be compelled to trade when they don’t want to. The farmers suspect that it will lead to hoarding by big traders and thereby manipulation of the market.
So, as said, there is a big gap between the thinking of the government and the farmers’ understanding. To be sure, both the government and farmers have enough wisdom and expertise to know what they are saying. Government is working on a strategy. Farmers sense the ‘danger’ for them down the road the government is taking them. The biggest source of their fear comes from no-mention of Minimum Support Price (MSP) in the Act. The MSP has been the lifeline of farmers as it provided insurance against any natural calamity befalling farming and reducing the price.
Among the international reactions, the strongest by far is from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He said that his country has made contacts with Indian authorities, “through multiple means” to express concern about the farmers agitating. He added, “the news of protest unfolding around Delhi is concerning. We all very worried about family and friends”. Several other Indo-Canadian MPs and leaders have expressed their concern about the farmers in India and have condemned the police action on the farmers.
Farmers in Germany have taken out tractor rallies in support of Indian farmers. The Indian-origin MPs in the United Kingdom have also expressed their moral support in favour of the farmers. There have been odd reactions from other parts of the world. One could politically suggest that since Punjab farmers have their relations, friends, acquaintances throughout the globe, voices of sympathy and solidarity will be heard. The government has dismissed the Canadian PM’s reactions as undue and unnecessary interference in India’s internal affairs. The MEA could take the same position about anybody reacting from abroad to the farmers’ agitation. This is the usual copybook reaction in the name of national sovereignty, right to self-determination, non-interference in internal matters of another country and so on. Technically, one is right. But there is no issue in our country except the developments in Jammu and Kashmir which has ever drawn international criticism. There was of course, the dark period of emergency in 1975-77. The government should be sensitive to such international reactions. India prides in its democracy, diversity, debate and disagreements, which all merge into India’s unique practice of synthesis. Let the farmers’ agitation and government’s mishandling not end such a great tradition.
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