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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 43, New Delhi, October 9, 2021

Prospect of Farmers’ Protest against the Farm Laws: A View from West Bengal | Manabesh Sarkar

Friday 8 October 2021

by Manabesh Sarkar*

Abstract: The farmers’ protest against the Farm Laws that began in June 2020 has been passing through a crucial time. In one hand, the central government has stopped short of taking any proactive role in resolving the issue, on the other hand, hardly any province other than Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh are showing any indication of strong protest against the Farm Laws to create political pressure on the government. An analysis of data on the sale of agricultural produce and the size of operational holdings suggests that there is little possibility that states like West Bengal will stand up strongly against the Farm Laws if the demand for repealing the laws remains focused on minimum support price, the mandi system and government procurement. However, there is a common cause of concern for all the states with regard to food security that may be in danger due to the Farm Laws. This article explores the possibility of the spread of this movement across the country, keeping an eye-view of West Bengal, to anticipate its future prospects. 

Key Words : Farm Laws, Farmers’ Protest, Minimum Support Price, Punjab, West Bengal, Spread of movement, Food Security

The farmers’ protest against the Farm Laws, that reached a climax on the Republic Day of this year when the tractor parade of the peasants took place in the Capital, has been passing through a critical phase. [1] Having stuck to their respective positions regarding Farm Laws, both the Central Government and the protesting farmers have got embroiled in a psychological war following the deadlock in dialogue. Although the Government’s strategy to come out of this deadlock is hard to anticipate, the farmers’ efforts to break the stalemate is clearly visible. The farmers’ protest, that began after the Farm Laws had come into effect as Ordinances in June 2020, took a special turn when the farmers started a march on November 26, 2020 towards Delhi. Barricades at various places at Delhi borders preventing farmers to enter the capital transformed those places into protest sites which drew national and international attention. The movement took another turn when the Central Government tried to unleash a reign of terror, utilizing the incident of hoisting of the Sikh religious flag at Red Fort by some agitators on the Republic Day. But a series of Mahapanchayats (peoples’ assembly) organized subsequently at various places of West Uttar Pradesh and Haryana provided fresh impetus for the movement.

However, neither the Dharnas at Delhi borders nor the mass mobilizations in Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh could drive the Government into accepting the demand for repealing the Farm Laws. Hence the farmer leaders are now taking new initiatives to exert political pressure on the central government that has special relevance in view of the forthcoming assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and other states. The Mahapanchayat at Muzaffarngar on 5 September 2021, and the call of Bharat Bandh on 27 September 2021 by Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body of farmer and peasant organizations, are instances of such renewed efforts. [2] The lathi-charge on the protesters on 28 August 2021 at Karnal in Haryana added fuel to these events.

Significantly, despite the efforts of the farmer-leaders to spread the movement to all corners of the country, provinces other than Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh have not witnessed any strong reverberations till now. Admittedly, the farmer or peasant leaders of various provinces have joined the chorus of their counterparts of North India, but they are barely representing a substantial proportion of farming population of their respective states. [3] While states like Punjab and Haryana have become the hub of this struggle, states like Bengal do not display, as yet, any significant presence in this ongoing struggle. [4] The wide variation in the participation of farmers in the struggle is a matter of serious concern for both the farmer leaders and the government. This article explores the dynamics linked to this movement with a focus on West Bengal.

Activism and Passivity: The case of West Bengal

West Bengal, with a long tradition of peasant movements since colonial days, witnessed a strong peasant struggle even a decade ago. A vibrant peasant resistance against the acquisition of agricultural land for a car factory and a Special Economic Zone at Singur and Nandigram respectively, took place in the first decade of this century. Thousands of peasants raised their voice propelled by a keen interest in retaining their fertile land for agricultural farming. To fight back the corporate entity from acquiring their land, the peasants even sacrificed their lives and the struggle ended with the peasants’ victory. But the same peasants appear to be relatively unconcerned now as far as the Farm Laws are concerned. The peasants who considered the acquisition of agricultural land as a death blow for them do not seem to view the Farm Law- driven agricultural marketing reforms as a grave danger for them. This seems to be a conundrum that needs closer scrutiny. It is necessary to examine first whether the impact of Farm Laws on agriculture is likely to be as severe in West Bengal as in the northern parts of India.

In regard to Farm Laws, the farmers’ unions are fearful that it would ultimately lead to the takeover of the farming sector by the agribusiness corporations (Singh 2020). The farmers of North India apprehend that the Farm Laws will bring an end to the provision of minimum support price for their agricultural produce. [5] They are suspecting that the Farm Laws will eventually destroy the mandis (markets notified by Agricultural Produce Market Committee) leading to increased vulnerability of the farmers (Udoke 2020). Importantly, all these concerns are linked to the sale of agricultural produce by the farmers which does not have a uniform pattern across India. For example, although the proportion of agricultural households (HHs) cultivating rice in West Bengal, the principal crop of the state, was 79 percent during July — Dec 2012 (henceforth 2012 Kharif) season, only 33 percent of them sold it in the market. On the other hand, although 48 percent agricultural HHs cultivated rice in Punjab in the same season, 96 percent of them sold it in the market. Similarly, while only 38 percent of the wheat cultivating HHs in Bihar sold their produce during Jan — June 2013 (henceforth 2013 Rabi) season, the corresponding proportions for Punjab and Haryana were 85 and 71 percent respectively (National Sample Survey Office 2016). [6] Thus, there is a wide variation among the states in terms of sale of agricultural produce by their farmers or peasants. Not surprisingly, the states with larger proportion of HHs selling crops would find more vigorous engagement of their farmers in the debates on agricultural marketing reforms and vice versa. Hence, it is perhaps unsurprising that a section of peasants in West Bengal remains rather aloof vis-à-vis the ongoing debates on Farm Laws as they cultivate mainly or only for their own consumption. It is true that the proportion of HHs selling rice in West Bengal was relatively higher (50%) during 2013 Rabi season, but the proportion of agricultural HHs that cultivated rice in that season was lower (43%) than that in the 2012 Kharif season.

With regard to other major crops of West Bengal, viz. potato, rapeseed/mustard, or jute, even though the proportion of HHs selling the produce was high (75 percent for potato, 65 percent for rapeseed/mustard and 93 percent for jute), the proportion of agricultural HHs that cultivated the respective crops was very low (17 percent for potato, 16 percent for rapeseed/mustard and 13 percent for jute) (National Sample Survey Office 2016). Thus, it will not be an exaggeration to say that a considerable proportion of agricultural HHs in West Bengal is not in a position to cultivate crop for sale. Hence, the peasants of this category would understandably take little interest in getting exercised about the myriad arguments on Farm Laws.

The inability of the agricultural HHs to cultivate crops for sale in this state is primarily linked to the small size of their operational holdings, the constraint of which is compounded sometimes by other factors such as the unavailability of irrigation facility. To what extent the size of operational holdings influences the sale of agricultural produce can be elicited from the National Sample Survey (NSS) data. In Punjab (the highest rice and wheat selling state), while the proportions of HHs selling rice and wheat (in 2012 Kharif and 2013 Rabi season respectively) were 96 and 85 percent respectively on an average, the corresponding figures for the HHs having operational holdings that are less than 0.5 hectare were 57 and 28 percent only (National Sample Survey Office 2016). These relatively small-size holdings are noticeably common in West Bengal. As per the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, the proportion of marginal operational holdings (i.e. those possessing land of 1 hectare or less) was 83 percent in West Bengal; what is more, nearly three-fourths of these marginal holdings had an area of less than 0.5 hectare. [7] No state except Kerala (97%), Bihar (91%), Tripura (88%) and erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir (84%) had a higher share of marginal operational holdings than West Bengal. The proportion of marginal operational holdings was only 14 percent in Punjab (Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Agricultural Census Division, No Date). Moreover, while 99 percent of operational holdings (whatever be the size) was wholly irrigated in Punjab in 2015-16, the corresponding proportion for West Bengal was 58 percent only (Department of Agriculture, Co-operation & Farmers Welfare 2020). Thus the preponderance of marginal operational holdings and limited irrigation facility has made the state of West Bengal more a state of consumption than a state of sale. Consequently, the motivation for protest against the Farm Laws may be weak among peasants in West Bengal.

The impetus for protest is further eroded by the fact that the agricultural HHs selling crops only minimally depend on mandis or government agencies for selling their crops in West Bengal. The mandi system is traditionally weak in West Bengal; and the practice of procurement of crops by the government is also limited here. Thus the majority of HHs in West Bengal has to sell their crops to local private traders at places other than mandis. As per NSS, the proportions of rice cultivating HHs selling rice to local private traders were 24 and 42 percent in West Bengal during 2012 Kharif and 2013 Rabi seasons respectively, while the proportions of HHs selling rice in aggregate were 33 and 50 percent respectively. The proportions of HHs selling rice at mandis or to ‘co-operative & government agency’ were altogether 7 and 5 percent only in the respective seasons. For cash crops like jute or potato, the proportions of HHs selling to local private traders were 72 and 67 per cent respectively in contrast to 18 and 8 percent at mandis respectively. In contrast, in the state of Punjab, only 13 per cent of the reference HHs sold rice to the local private traders during 2012 Kharif season while the corresponding proportions operating at mandis and ‘co-operative & government agency’ were 54 and 26 percent respectively. In case of wheat, while 9 percent of the reference HHs sold it to local private traders during 2013 Rabi season, 43 and 33 percent sold it at mandis and to ‘co-operative & government agency’ respectively. Similarly, while 11 percent of the reference HHs, for both rice and wheat, were found to sell the said crops to local private traders in Haryana, 37 and 46 percent did sell the respective crops at mandis and 12 and 14 percent to ‘co-operative & government agency’ (National Sample Survey Office 2016). Thus while the weakening of the mandi system or the total closure of the government procurement system would have serious repercussions for the farmers’ economy in provinces like Punjab or Haryana, it would unlikely make a huge dent on the economic fortunes of most peasants in West Bengal, when viewed primarily through the prism of sale of agricultural produce. In the absence of a strong mandi system or a system of adequate procurement by the government, the demand for minimum support price has insignificant practical meaning for the peasants in West Bengal. [8] They are to sell their produce below the MSP as usual either to local private traders or to the new entrants such as agribusiness corporations. Due to the predominance of marginal holdings, the phenomenon of distress sale would continue for the peasants in West Bengal. In the absence of any history of farmers’ movement in the state for a strong mandi system or adequate government procurement, the farmer-leaders even while protesting the Farm Laws could not raise any significant hope among the peasants or farmers in West Bengal about the promises of a mandi system or government procurement. Thus the uneven impact of Farm Laws has likely resulted in the variation in farmers’ protest across the country.

Food security and sovereignty as a common cord

Let us, however, look at the Farm Laws through the lens of food security and food sovereignty. From this standpoint, there is a common cause of concern regarding Farm Laws as the replacement of the local private traders by the agribusiness corporation or the weakening of the mandi system would finally lead to the monopoly of the corporates in the agricultural market. This monopoly of the corporate firms would not only reduce the bargaining power of the farmers for selling their produce, but in the absence of any control over the supply and stock of foodstuff, the consumers would also face a price-hike in foodstuff leading to insecurity of food. [9] Thus implementation of the Farm Laws would hit the stated objective of the National Food Security Act 2013 (henceforth NFSA) that commits to ensure access to food at affordable prices. The beneficiaries of the present Public Distribution System (PDS) would also suffer, as they too partly depend on the open market for their survival. More importantly, if the recommendation of the High Level Committee, headed by Shanta Kumar is implemented by the government that suggested a shift away from PDS to cash transfer, the matter of food insecurity, and correspondingly that of control over decisions about food supply, i.e., freedom and sovereignty about food, will become a more serious issue for them. [10] [11] Again, contract farming may spawn a new kind of food insecurity due to the absence of any provision in the Farm Laws for prohibiting diversion of land use from food production that the NFSA prohibits. Hence the Farm Laws may pose a serious challenge to food security and food sovereignty among the citizens of the country. And on this register, West Bengal may be one of the worst hit victims, as four percent of rural HHs in the state were found to suffer from inadequacy of food even in 2009-10. No other state except Odisha (4%) was comparable to West Bengal in this regard (National Sample Survey Office 2013). Therefore, if the farmer leaders think over the Farm Laws from the larger perspective of freedom, control and security, the movement against Farm Laws will no more remain as a movement of the farmers of North India only, but would be transformed into a mass movement of farmers and other sections of the society spread across the country. West Bengal may become a new epicenter of the movement then, as Punjab was in the beginning. However, the political leaders have to take a determinant role for this transformation to happen, as states like West Bengal have never witnessed any mass movement in the last 100 years that have taken place without any political leadership unlike what has happened in North India. [12]

However, central or state-level political leadership notwithstanding, food security of the Indian population cannot be set at risk.

(Author: Senior Research Associate, Pratichi Institute, Pratichi (India) Trust; E-mail: s.manabesh[at]gmail.com)

Acknowledgement The author is indebted to Manabi Majumdar for her inspiring assistance in writing this article.

References

  • Bhattacharya Swati (2021): ‘Nojor Chasir Aay Bridhi o Bimay, Fore Roiloi’, Anandabazar Patrika, Kolkata, February 17.
  • Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Agricultural Census Division (No date): ‘State Tables (Number & Area of Operational Holdings)’ ‘Online Data Base’, Accessed from http://agcensus.dacnet.nic.in/statesummarytype.aspx on 19 March 2021.
  • Department of Agriculture, Co-operation & Farmers Welfare (2020): All India Report on Agricultural Census 2015-16, New Delhi: Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Government of India.
  • Government of India (2015): Report of the High Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India, Accessed from https://fci.gov.in/app2/webroot/upload/News/Report%20of%20the%20High%20Level%20Committee%20on%20Reorienting%20the%20Role%20and%20Restructuring%20of%20FCI_English.pdf on March 15, 2021.
  • Jagga Raakhi and Bhatnagar Amil (2020): ‘If Corporates Come, They Will Treat Us as Employees’, The Sunday Express, Kolkata, December 13.
  • Mukherji Partha Nath (1998): ‘The Farmers’ Movement in Punjab: Politics of Pressure Groups and Pressure of Party Politics’, Economic & Political Weekly, 33 (18), pp 1043-1048.
  • National Sample Survey Office (2013): Perceived Adequacy of Food Consumption in Indian Households, NSS 66th Round (July 2009 — June 2010), Report No. 547 (66/1.0/7), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.
  • ----------- (2016): Some Aspects of Farming in India, NSS 70th Round (January — December 2013), Report No. 573 (70/33/2), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.
  • Sharma Harikishan (2021): ‘To Cut Subsidy Bill, Niti Paper Says Lower Coverage of Food Security Law’, The Sunday Express, Kolkata, February 28.
  • Singh Pritam (2020): ‘BJP’s Farming Policies Deepening Agrobusiness Capitalism and Centralisation’, Economic & Political Weekly, 55 (41), pp 14-17.
  • Udoke (2020): ‘Peoples’ Protest’, Trolley Times, December 18.

[1The three laws, viz., The Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 were passed in the Parliament in September 2020 and are commonly referred to as Farm Laws.

[2Although ‘peasants’ and ‘farmers’ are two distinct conceptual categories, linked differentially to the relations of production, such distinctions are not necessarily strictly maintained in this article.

[3For example, Hannan Mollah of All India Kishan Sabha, despite being a prominent peasant leader in West Bengal, could hardly mobilize peasants or farmers against the Farm Laws in his state.

[4On the eve of recent Assembly election in West Bengal, a meeting addressed by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha leaders at Singur (famous for the peasant struggle against land acquisition) was attended by a few hundred people only. While the farmers in Punjab and Haryana have been actually boycotting the BJP leaders for introducing the Farm Laws, these laws did not become an issue for the Assembly election in West Bengal.

[5The comment of a farmer quoted in The Sunday Express on December 13, 2020 seems very apt here. Narpinder Singh, a farmer from Ludhiana, said, “... Already for crops with no MSP, we are at the mercy of private players. Once these new laws come in, that will happen in case of all crops.” See Jagga and Bhatnagar (2020).

[6The proportions of agricultural HHs cultivating wheat in that season in Bihar, Punjab and Haryana were 81, 58 and 63 percent respectively (National Sample Survey Office 2016).

[7The proportion of marginal operational holding for the whole country was 66 percent in 2015-16 (Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Agricultural Census Division, No Date).

[8See Bhattacharya (2021) to have some glimpses of mandis in West Bengal.

[9The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020 allows the government to interfere in supply and stock of food only under extraordinary circumstances.

[10See Government of India (2015) for recommendations of High Level Committee.

[11The NITI AAYOG’s recent recommendation for reducing the rural and urban coverage under the NFSA increases this doubt because it is essentially the recommendation of the Shanta Kumar Committee that suggested the reduction in combined coverage from 67percent to 40 percent. For details, see Sharma (2021) and Government of India (2015).

[12The formation of Bharatiya Kisan Union in 1980 with a resolve to function as an independent movement was the beginning of non-political farmers’ movement in North India, See Mukherji (1998) for detail.

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