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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 19, New Delhi, April 24, 2021

Modi government making all out efforts to break the farmers’ movement | Arun Srivastava

Friday 23 April 2021

by Arun Srivastava

Even before the farmers give a new dimension to their movement and take it to a new height, the Modi government is getting ready to strike at them. Narendra Modi and his close aides are just awaiting for May 2, the day on which the Election Commission will announce the results for the five state assemblies. Of all the states the main focus and concern of Modi has been the results of the West Bengal. A win will show the real change (asol paribotan) of the face of Modi and his government.

If the sources are to be relied the Modi government has already drawn its strategy to evict the farmers from the three sites on Delhi border where the farmers have been on Satyagrah for last four months. The government will resort to the same tactics which it had adopted to evict the Shaheen Bagh Satyagrahis. It is also ready to use the para military forces if the farmers put any sort of resistance. The political leadership is confident that the government would not have to face any resistance from the farmers. They are also confident that state governments of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and UP would also cooperate this drive.

Incidentally the government is already in possession of a favourable order from the Supreme Court. In an order on December 17 it had issued notices to the Centre on petitions seeking removal of agitating farmers from roads in Delhi as commuters faced blockades since November 26 when thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Western UP descended on the national capital. The Bench headed by CJI S A Bobde had even termed it as a "matter of national importance".

Interestingly the petitioners had contended that "since the virus is spreading rapidly and the cases of Covid are increasing day-by-day in Delhi, it is paramount that this protest be stopped immediately". The Delhi borders should be opened and protesters be shifted to a designated place where they should follow norms, including physical distancing, to check the spread of Covid. The petitioner contended it’s "very necessary" to remove the gathering as it blocked roads for all the emergency/medical services needed to stop the increasing spread of Covid.

The petitioners also submitted "that life of lakhs of people protesting at the Delhi borders is under immediate threat since the virus is very contagious and if by chance the coronavirus takes the shape of community spread, it will cause havoc in the country". "Immediate intervention" of the top court was sought to restrict the mass gathering of people at a particular place.

With Corona acquiring a deadly dynamics the possibility of implementation of the order has simply brightened. In the existing situation it would be a tough proposition for the leaders of the farmer unions and associations to defend their position. Eventually the Modi government will exploit the situation to the fullest advantage.

Meanwhile a recent development has simply shaken the confidence of the agitating farmes. Three Food Corporation of India (FCI) orders regarding foodgrain procurement, issued on 16 March have created a piquant situation in Punjab. One of these orders seeks for direct payment to farmers, instead of the money being routed through arhatiyas or commission agents. The second order requires farmers to submit proof that they are authorised to cultivate a certain piece of land in order to claim payment. Under the third order, the central government has tightened quality yardsticks for wheat and paddy to be procured.

The orders are seen as difficult to implement because a) the arhatiyas are believed to be an important link in the procurement chain as they provide assistance to farmers through the year, through loans for sowing, and b) an estimated 50 per cent of the state’s farmers offer their land on lease, and it is feared that not all tillers have the required documents.

Addressing the assembly earlier this month, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said the direct payment order was “another provocation that will further aggravate the current crisis over the farm laws”. He also pointed out that this state government was not consulted before these decisions were taken.

There are around 10.93 lakh operational land holdings in Punjab as per the agricultural census 2015-16. But this does not mean that the number of agricultural land owners is also the same. The number of owners are more because in several cases, a single piece of land has many shareholders. “According to records, there are around 16 lakh farmer land owners in Punjab and around 9.50 lakh cultivators,” said Jagmohan Singh, General Secretary Bharti Kisan Union (Dakuanda).

Currently farmers (owners) and cultivators are getting payment through arhtiyas and in the new system they will get payment through their landlord who is sitting in the USA and Canada. This is the part of the three laws which plans to eliminate the system of arhtiyas. According to the Punjab Land Revenue Act, the owner of the land is mentioned as khud kashtkar (self-cultivator) whether he is cultivating that land or not.

When a person is cultivating a land, naturally he/she will sell crop in the mandi and he/she has the right to get the MSP against sold crop but as per the new direction, the money will go in the account of the owner of the land, who has nothing to do with cultivation but only with his/her annual rent.

“The Acts will increase control of the private sector in food grains storage, cold storage, food processing and marketing,” said the All India Kisan Sabha, in a letter addressed to the Prime Minister.

“Ultimately the government plans to wind up subsidised food distribution under [the Public Distribution System] and reduce it to a cash transfer scheme under pressure from the [World Trade Organisation] and imperialist countries like the U.S.A. It also plans to sell off the FCI warehouses to the private sector to pay off the debts,” it added.

Recently the protesting farmers launched an “MSP loot calculator” to counter the Centre’s narrative on the minimum support price for crops, using official data to show how the farming community is being paid way below the rates announced by the government. The “calculator” is an initiative of the Jai Kisan Andolan, a constituent of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha that is spearheading the farmers’ movement across the country. It is primarily aimed at the middle class which, the protesters feel, is buying into the government’s narrative that farmers are receiving the MSP and so their movement is unjustified.

Announcing the calculator’s launch at a news conference, the Andolan’s Yogendra Yadav cited data relating to the daily procurement and modal price of the Bengal gram in all the mandis between March 1 and 15.

Yadav said the MSP had been fixed at Rs 5,100 per quintal but the farmers received an average price of Rs 4,663 — a loss of Rs 437 a quintal. Similar data will be released daily across social media platforms to show that the Bengal gram story repeats itself with most of the 22 other crops for which MSPs are announced.

The SKM deliberated on these proposals along with the requirement of furnishing land records for the direct transfer of procurement payment into bank accounts. It termed these moves by the FCI an “attack on the ongoing movement, and on Punjab which is in the forefront of the struggle”.

The 32 Punjab farmer unions have decided that the state’s farmers will refuse to submit land-record-related papers in a mark of solidarity with the many farmers who only till the land and do not have ownership documents to show.

It is said that the Punjab government was coerced by the Union Minister Piyush Goyal to toe the Centre’s line. But the main question making round the political circle is why the Punjab government agreed to the suggestion of Goyal. Was it a threat from his side or an offer of concession that made Punjab government relent? It is really intriguing why the Punjab government agreed to introduction of Direct Bank Transfer system. It is a known fact Punjab was against the DBT arrangement and wanted that Arhatiya system should continue. Abolishing Arhatiyas has been one of the main features of the three black laws.

The Punjab finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal had vehemently opposed the proposal and had argued with Goyal that as Arhatiyas were the integral part of the state’s agricultural system it cannot agree to centre’s proposal. But Goyal was hell bent and forced Punjab to succumb. Sources say Goyal even resorted to blackmailing tactics. He told Badal that government of India would not pick up any grain if Punjab did not agree to DBT system. He however said that Punjab was free to do its own procurement. It was the blackmailing machination that eventually made Punjab crawl.

Senior Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu said that Goyal has written to Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh as part of a “conspiracy against Punjab” with the aim to destroy, disrupt and dismantle the mandi system of Punjab and cause divisions in the state so that farmers and Arhatiyas turn against each other. Describing it as “ economic blackmail” Sidhu said this was an attempt to incite farmers who are sitting on a peaceful protest. According to the National Sample Survey of 2012-13 around 24 per cent farming in Punjab is done on contract. That is on oral contract. Nothing in writing. Land records are of ownership but there is no record of contract farmers.

Sidhu said “Farmers are the backbone of agriculture but the arhtiyas are the backbone of agriculture economy. Small farmer takes loan from arhtiyas for cultivating small pieces of land because he has to buy seeds, pesticides. You cannot issue a ‘Tughlaki’ firman and do away with age-old system,” he said.

Sidhu said all the three proposals for direct payments (Draft Electricity Amendment Bill, replacing PDS with direct cash transfers and direct payments to farmers) are anti-farmer, against the federal structure and beneficial for corporate monopolisation of India’s food and agriculture systems.

Not content with the machination it has already been pursuing the tactics to weaken the farmers’ movement. The Modi government has launched a campaign to malign the image of the farmers by alleging that the farmers have been providing drugs to the labourers coming from Bihar and UP. In a letter to Punjab governmet the Centre has asked it to take action on the findings of a probe by the BSF that migrant bonded labourers from Bihar and UP were being employed in the state’s farms and administered drugs to extract long hours of work.

The March 17 letter from Ministry of Home Affairs to the Punjab Chief Secretary and DGP alleged that in 2019-20, the BSF apprehended 58 such labourers from the border districts of Punjab. The letter drew sharp reactions from farm leaders. Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of BKU Dakaunda and member of All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), accused the Centre of trying to “malign the image of farmers”.

The most unfortunate aspect of the incident has been the Modi government intend to implicate the farmers into human trafficking. The letter read; “…human trafficking syndicates hire such labourers from their native place to work in Punjab on the promise of good salary, but after reaching Punjab, they are exploited, paid poorly and meted out inhuman treatment.”

Jagmohan Singh alleged; “After calling us Khalistani and terrorists, the Union Government is playing yet another communal card. This survey, as per the MHA, was done by BSF in 2019-20 and it is surprising that they sat on this report till now and wrote to the Punjab Government only when the farmers’ agitation is at its peak.”

Appealing to the MHA to withdraw the letter, Singh said: “We have an integral bond with our labourers. They want to create differences between us and our Hindu migrant workers of UP and Bihar who come every year to work across the state. We will meet the DCs of the border districts of Punjab and convey our anger over this letter. We will produce migrant workers working in the fields of these districts as proof.”

While Modi government has been ruthlessly the administrative machinery to coerce the farmers, the RSS and BJP are also making all out efforts to reach out to the people for convincing them that the farmers’ movement for abrogation of the three farm laws was against the national interest and was systematically fading out.

Misusing the absence of the farm leaders from the agitation sites, who have been on a nationwide tour to organise the farmers to vote against the BJP, the RSS and BJP have been busy portraying a negative picture of the movement and telling the farmers in the remote rural areas that their leaders are no more willing to prolong the agitation. The saffron leaders argue that with the Modi government outright refusing to concede their demand of scrapping their demand, they are left with no other alternative but to surrender before the Modi government. The media has been as usual playing the nasty divisive role. Not only the TV channels even the print media has been spreading false and mischievous information about the movement and its leaders. Some newspapers have been even carrying the reports that Rakesh Tikait may not continue with the agitation. It is the campaign of misinformation that has been harming the movement most.

Nevertheless Narendra Modi’s think tank is scared of the impending future. They realise that the farmers’ agitation would erode the base and also tweak the political plank of Hindutva. One thing is noticeable that the onerous task that the RSS and BJP had undertaken in the past years to pit Hindus against the Muslims by inducing the psychological strategy “ threat to Hindutva” from Islam has been witnessing gradual weakening in the wake of the farmers’ movement.

The best example has been the emergence of new kind of bonhomie in several areas of Uttar Pradesh, particularly in Muzaffarnagar. The RSS has used this place to unleash a reign of terror against the Muslims and use the area as the laboratory to experiment its communal and hate politics. Now the same area has been witnessing both the communities joining hands to spearhead the farmers’ agitation and force the government to accede to the farmers’ demands.

But more important than this has been the intervention of the farmers in the politics of the country. There is a general perception that farmers’ do not much stake in the politics or governance. They are also much concerned of how their elected representatives act or behave. This averseness of theirs has been primarily responsible for their neglected by the rulers and government. Though orgnisations of rich farmers have been there, like Shetkar Sanghthana of Sharad Joshi, they were more concerned of the economic gains of this section of farmers.

This is for the first time in the history of the Independent India that farmers’ organisations have been talking of all section of the farmers, whether they are middle or poor peasants or agricultural labourers. Narendra Modi or Mohan Bhagwat at no stage could imagine that the farmers organisations will speak in one tone. This was the reason that they preferred to ignore them while framing the three laws. They also nursed the view that the agitation will die down. But much to the discomfiture of Modi and Bhagwat the farmers made a strategic change in their tracks and they started actively involving in the political system of the country.

It is not yet clear what will emerge out of the elections being held in five states, but one thing is certain that it has put the BJP on defensive. The farmers’ movement has succeeded in making the rural voters think of their future. Suddenly a brake has been applied on breaking and demeaning the democratic institutions. After Modi’s government came to power in 2014, a sustained campaign was launched to weaken the democratic institutions and polity. The liberal intellectuals who held that the democratic institutions were strong enough to counter any assault and no one can try to violate them were proved wrong.

Modi who has launched the mission to curb the civil liberties and the democratic rights of the people was forced to maintain restrain. With the farmer leaders moving across the country the autocratic Modi government had to retreat. But it cannot wait for long. It would strive to accomplish its task. The stakes of the corporate sector, capitalists and the rightist forces are so acute that it has to weaken the farmers’ movement.

Its vilification campaign against the movement, feeding wrong information that the farmers were deserting the dharna places and new forces were unwilling to join the agitation has been the part of this design. It was on January 23 this year Modi cautioned; “The democratic process cannot be allowed to be subverted through unlawful protests”. Apparently Modi has used this phrase coinciding with storming of the US Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters, in true sense it was the farmers’ protest that was at his target. They had threatened to carry out a peaceful tractor march in Delhi on the nation’s Republic Day if their demands were not conceded by then. Modi ought to reply; What is a “lawful” protest? It is a widely known fact that if elected institutions do not function people ought to protest?

For subverting the farmers’ movement the Modi government has even been ruthlessly using the parliamentary panels. The Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution has recommended that the government “implement the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, in letter and spirit, and without… hindrances so that the farmers and other stakeholders of farming sector in this country receive the benefits intended under the said Act”. A day later, the Congress and Trinamul Congress, which has the chairmanship of the committee, said the report was a misrepresentation and evidence of the BJP’s “dirty tricks department in action ”.

Flagging the letter, senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Jairam Ramesh said: “MPs of the Congress party DID NOT ask for implementation of the Essential Commodities Act. The standing committee report is a misrepresentation!” Trinamul’s Derek O’Brien responded: “This is the BJP’s cheap ‘n dirty tricks department in action. Con job was done when Chairman of #Parliament Committee was not at meeting. @aitc position on #FarmLaws and Essential Commodities Act well documented. Withdraw draconian laws #FarmersProtest.”

Some liberal economists and experts have been arguing that Indian agriculture desperately needs reforms. But none can deny that raising this argument at this point is purely aimed at confusing the scenario. It will only help the government fresh vilification and strengthening the anti-farmers’ forces. Some of these people even argue that Green Revolution was a step towards reforms. It is absolutely a wrong notion. Any reforms must focus on land reforms not simply increasing the productivity of grains. It is also said that the green revolution transition was driven by public investment in irrigation and market infrastructure. Now the question arises why that flow did not acquire an institutional character in later years? Why the farmers’ still today have to fight for minimum support price? Indian agriculture is facing the capitalist mode of crisis and the arguments for reforms owe their existence to it. For the first time this movement has even questioned the relevance of any such model of reforms.

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