As a symbol of protest against the new farm laws, farmers' union leaders have announced a nationwide general strike or Bharat Bandh on December 8, Tuesday. The farmers' agitation is only getting stronger with this call for a nationwide bandh and with all the support they have been receiving from political parties, celebrities and fellow citizens.
Rakesh Tikait, Bharatiya Kisan Union Spokesperson, told NDTV, "The protest is to show that we don't support some government policies." The farmers promised that the Bandh is not endorsed by any political party and that their protests will remain peaceful throughout. Balbir Singh Rajewal, a farmer leader, announced that the Bharat Bandh will continue till 3 pm and requested farmers to abstain from using force during the nationwide strike.
Although refraining from using violence, farmers will be blocking national highways and occupying toll plazas according to Harinder Singh Lakhowal, general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Union. The general strike may affect commuters as certain cab and taxi unions have decided to favour the shutdown. Even though bank unions have expressed their support to the farmers, they will not be joining the Bandh. If you haven't been following the recent developments on the farmers' protests, you may be wondering why Indian farmers are protesting and now called for a nationwide bandh.
What are Indian farmers asking for?
Farmers in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana are demanding that the central government withdraws the three farm laws. A majority of farmer unions are of the view that since the farm bills privatise agriculture to an extent, they are not in their favour but rather support big corporates. The farmers fear that the three new bills will open up the tightly-controlled agriculture sector to threatening free-market forces.
Apart from repealing the bills, farmer Unions want written confirmation from the Centre that the Minimum Selling Price and conventional food grain procurement system will still continue.
The third demand on the list is for the Centre to drop the Electricity Bill Amendment. The All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF) spokesperson V K Gupta had earlier criticised the bill saying, "After the Bill is passed, farmers will have to pay a monthly power tariff of Rs 5,000-6,000, while subsidized domestic consumers will have to pay at least Rs 8-10 per unit for the consumption of up to 300 units per month", he added. Farmers are worried that if the Bill becomes a law, they will lose free power supply as the government will discontinue free power supply to farmers in Punjab.
The fourth demand is to discard a provision under which farmers who are caught burning farm residue can be imprisoned for 5 years and charged with a huge fine of Rs 1 crore. Yes, the main demand is for the new farm laws to be scrapped but they have other concerns as well.
What is the farm bill 2020?
The Farm Bill 2020 has three provisions in it - The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill.
There are several reasons why the government introduced the bill. To grasp them, we must understand how farmers sell their produce in the market. Initially, farmers were confined to 'mandis' or APMC (Agricultural Produce & Livestock Market Committee) regulated marketplaces to sell their produce. This meant that the 'mandis' would quote a price to the farmers and sellers were compelled to accept the prices irrespective of better prices elsewhere.
- The first provision in the Bill (The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce Bill) allows farmers to now freely sell their products outside regulated 'mandis' and potentially get higher prices for their products.
- The second provision opens up opportunities for farmers to enter contract farming i.e a contract with agri-business firms, exporters and retailers for their farming produce on pre-agreed prices. This partnership between private companies and farmers will benefit them greatly - farmers will have access to modern technology and better infrastructure. It will also transfer the risk of market unpredictability from the farmers to the sponsors.
- The third provision was created to remove commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, onion and potatoes from the list of 'essential commodities'. The provision will remove the storage limits for the above-mentioned commodities except in times of war, famine and natural calamities. Through this, the central government is trying to achieve is price stability and more investment in the agricultural sector.
Even though the Farm Bill was passed in late September after the President's approval, objections against the bill had been raised in early June itself. Let's have a look at how these objections turned into nationwide protests.
Why are farmers against the farm bill?
Farmers have several qualms with the new laws and they’re quite substantial concerns. Even though the government is not ending the ‘mandi’ system, farmers fear that in the long run, corporate farming will lead to the end of wholesale markets and assured or Minimum Support Prices. They will have no backup option or bargaining chip if they are not satisfied with the prices offered by private buyers as ‘mandis’, according to them, would cease to exist. Farmers have asked the government to ensure that corporates at least buy their produce at the Minimum Support Price but the government hasn’t responded to their requests.
Multan Singh, a farmer in the northern state of Punjab, told BBC, “First, farmers will feel attracted towards these private players, who will offer a better price for the produce. The government mandis will pack up meanwhile and after a few years, these players will start exploiting the farmers. That's what we fear.” Despite the government stating that the ‘mandi’ system and Minimum Support Price will continue, farmers are having a hard time believing these claims.
Another farmer, Sukhdev Singh Kokri, explained to the BBC, “This is a death warrant for small and marginalised farmers. This is aimed at destroying them by handing over agriculture and market to the big corporates. They want to snatch away our land. But we will not let them do this.”
In states such as Punjab and Haryana, farmers consider the ‘mandis’ to be an integral part of the agricultural system as they usually benefit from it with the government buying their produce. Economist Ajit Ranade sympathizes with the farmers stating that we need the mandi system to coexist with the private trading system. The government can provide farmers with a written assurance that they will not withdraw MSP and ‘mandi’ system to gain their trust.
The second provision - The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance is about farmers entering contract farming. Despite there being an agreement about terms and conditions, quality, grade, standards and price of farm produce, there is no mechanism in the bill that talks about price fixation, which is an interventionist method used by the government to ensure farmers get a minimum price for their crops even when the market prices are much lower. Farmers are afraid that the absence of price fixation will give corporates to engage in farmer exploitation or make them vulnerable to market forces.
Another issue is that a lot of farming activities for food grains run on informal contracts. Opposers of the bill believe that highly formal and contractual obligations may pose trouble for farmers working in the unorganized agricultural sector.
If something were to go wrong, the farmers would lack resources for a legal battle against a corporate entity. Additionally, if there is a dispute between the farmers and buyers, the bill states that it needs to be settled by bureaucrats and not in courts. This paves way for corporates to bribe the bureaucrats for their gain and win the disputes.
The third issue lies with the possibility of hoarding. Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab, commented on the ease of regulation of food items. He said that the law “would lead to exporters, processors and traders hoarding farm produce during the harvest season, when prices are generally lower, and releasing it later when prices increase.”It could also undermine food security as in the future, the States would have no information about how much food is available in the State. In short, farmers fear hoarding can lead to intentional volatility of prices and the emergence of black markets.
A brief timeline of the farmers’ protests
Farmers had begun raising concerns from June 6 itself and protested in a phased manner from their rooftops and common places in their villages in order to not break COVID-19 restrictions. From June 14 - 30, villagers would stand on their rooftops for an hour and object to these ordinances. Within two weeks, over 500 villages in Punjab had adopted this style of dissent.
In July, we witnessed the tractor protests by farmers. Farmer unions organized a joint tractor march on July 27 where they travelled on tractors to submit memorandums to their respective MPs. Over 25,000 tractors were on the road and soon became a symbol of the protest. Receiving minimal response from the Centre, on July 29, 11 unions decided to send yet another memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh.
In the first week on August, farmers started approaching Deputy Commissioners of their locality to submit more memorandums. Now, meetings about the farm bills had started in Haryana as well.
September and October
On September 24, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee organised the 'rail roko' protest at 12 locations. Other farmer unions wanted to partake in it as well and announced they would block railway tracks from October 1, along with dharnas outside malls, petrol pumps of corporates and even outside the residences of BJP leaders.
Dr Dharampal, a working group member of AIKSCC, described the union's intentions behind the protest at the railways, "We started protests in a phased manner but when we were not heard, we had to come out on roads, block tracks and even roads. People need to know that when governments are deaf, we have to follow these methods, as they did not listen to us, did not talk to us despite our protests and passed the Bills in Parliament. Many people on social media now ask why we block tracks, roads. So this is our answer to them." The 'rail roko' movement continued till October 21 and later the government suspended train services till November 23.
On November 5, the farmers staged a 'Chakka jam' (stop wheels) agitation in cities across Rajasthan. They blocked roads, held demonstrations and burnt effigies of BJP leaders. Then on November 25, the iconic, 'Delhi Chalo' movement began. With such persistent protests and opposition towards the new laws, the Centre reached out to the farmers on October 7.
What happened at meetings between farmers and the Centre?
During the first meeting, the government had invited farmers to learn about the agricultural reforms but farmer unions had rejected it. On October 13, they decided to meet the government officials but boycotted that meeting as no minister was present.
On November 13, farmer union leaders were called to speak with central ministers at a meeting that lasted for seven hours but saw no real breakthrough. The fourth round of talks between the government and farmers was on December 3, 2020, but again yielded no compensation or agreement.
The fifth round of meeting also failed to reach any conclusion with farmers sticking to their demand for a total rollback of the farm bill and government trying to reach a negotiation rather than scrapping the laws. The leaders had staged a silent protest during the meeting by asking ministers to reply in 'yes' or 'no' format when discussing the Acts. The next meeting will be held after the Bharat Bandh - on December 9. The Centre hopes that the farmers can come up with concrete suggestions to modify the laws but still keep the core of it.