KN Ashok

Even as discontent is brewing among farmers, the government is hell-bent to push through the land acquisition Bill.
Up in arms A gathering of farmers protesting against the land Bill in New Delhi, Photo: AFPUp in arms A gathering of farmers protesting
against the land Bill in New Delhi, Photo: AFP

The farmers, who till sometime ago were attracted by the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is now giving way to desperation and distress. The alleged pro-corporate leaning of the Centre has started taking its toll, which is reflected by the increasing number of farmers’ suicides. Though the discontent is brewing among the peasantry, the Modi government is hell-bent on going ahead with the much talked about amendment to Land Acquisition Bill.

According to sources inside the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi has conveyed to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to defend the proposed amendment. The consequence of it, feels the Prime Minster, can be managed by charting out a long-term plan to placate the farmers.

Modi has also conveyed to the Sangh leadership that it’s crucial for the government to address the needs and demands of the urban and semi-urban population immediately. Now with the government sanctioning 150 smart cities, it is more than obvious that the government is moving ahead with its own plans.

Modi’s non-negotiable attitude towards the Bill is more than evident when he attacked the opposition in his recent Mann Ki Baat, a radio programme, saying “Those who sit in air-conditioned rooms and formulate laws do not understand the issues of villagers”.

But the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a trade union wing of the RSS, is, however, not convinced. According to a resolution passed by it in February, it says, “The corridors of power are filled with American-based NRI advisors and ministers loyal to the corporate sector. To quote a few are the vice-chairperson of Niti Ayog, the PM’s economic advisor and the RBI Governor.

It may be noted that many of them were advisors of those financial institutions in the United States, which collapsed during the global financial crisis. Hence the Mazdoor Sangh is of the opinion that the government is on the wrong track as far as labour and economy are concerned.

Lack of job generation and crisis in the agricultural sector were the main reasons for alienation of the rural poor from the previous government. The corporates were also angry with then Manmohan Singh government for not going ahead with the reform process. One of the reasons why Modi had become extremely popular among all these sections were because many of them thought he was a man of action.

But the government’s approach to agriculture was spelt out by finance minister Arun Jaitely clearly in a speech in the Rajya Sabha on the Bill, where he said, “The share of gross domestic product of agriculture is 15 percent, and 60 percent of the population shares that 15 percent. So you have to bring people out of agriculture and create jobs in manufacturing”.

Modi is of the opinion that there is an urgent need to improve the productivity of Indian agriculture sector. For instance, immediately after taking over as the PM, he told the agriculture scientific community that there is a need to focus on three mantras, which he thought would resolve the problem plaguing the Indian agriculture sector: Kam zameen, kam samay, zyaada upaj (smaller land, shorter time, more productivity).

But he knew that resolving the issues would take time and so he wanted to demonstrate that he is a person who intends to deliver on the promises he made. To do this, he opted to concentrate on fulfilling the middle class aspirations. The reforms in insurance sector and the Make in India programme are seen as steps taken in this direction.

These measures helped him catapult as a man of action for both the middle class and the corporate sector, which was eagerly waiting for some positive signs. The fact that the corporate sector is supporting him, despite the widespread criticism, that nothing concrete has happened so far is because the industry feels that the government has put in a framework in place.

For example, Aditya Narain, chief strategist, Citigroup Global Markets, India, has said in a recent interview that “the government has done more than was expected — and the big framework is set”.

It is in this backdrop that the Modi government has brought in the ordinance amending the Bill. Most opposition parties led by the Congress jumped at the opportunity. The Bill helped these political parties to revive to an extent: They have been lying dormant after the rout in Lok Sabha election. It may be mentioned that the previous government had passed the bill in 2013.

It is said that an estimated 46 farmers commit suicide daily in India on account of a drop in farm income, crop loss due  to unseasonal rains and drought. Of the 1,100 farmers who took their lives last year, 986 were from Maharashtra, where the BJP is now in power. The problems got further aggravated as unseasonal rainfall and hailstorm led to rampant destruction of standing crops in 189 lakh hectare in central and northern India. This led to resentment among the Sangh Parivar affiliated organisations such as BMS, Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM).

The BMS immediately took to the roads protesting against the government’s move. Modi, who made distress in the Indian agriculture sector as one of the BJP’s major election plank in the past, this time skirted the issue in a discussion in Parliament saying, “We can’t leave the farmers to fend for themselves. Nothing is bigger than the life of a kisan (farmer), the life of insaan (human being),” Modi said. “We have to see which wrong road we walked. What were the wrong steps taken in the past and now. The government will accept all suggestions,” he added.

Many rss organisations find the clause to do away with the need for obtaining consent of 80 percent land owners before acquiring a particular land and social impact study, as blatantly pro-corporate. Such drastic measures, they fear may push more and more farmers towards the precipice.

“The new land acquisition Bill takes away the right of consent of the land owners and necessity of getting Social Impact Assessment report, guaranteed in the 2013 Act. Handing over the country’s natural resources into the hands of private exploiters is writ large in the Coal law as well as acquisition ordinance,” reads the BMS resolution.

Saji Narayanan, former BMS national president blames the body for its failure to think differently from the previous government. “We expected a paradigm shift. But this government seems to be more interested to commodifying the land and labour. It pushes the idea that capitalism is the panacea of all ills,” he told Tehelka.

BKS, which came down heavily against the proposed amendment, has later on toned down its criticism after the rss intervention. Meanwhile, Bhartiya Kisan Sangh general secretary Prabhakar Kelkar, who earlier vehemently protested against the Bill, now says, “Farmers also want development. In any case no government can satisfy anybody 100 percent”.

He said, “They are now trying to save face by proposing amendments such as consent of 50 percent of land owners must for acquiring land. “The PM has already promised to look into this issue, and we are willing to wait and watch.” So far the PM could manage the opposition from within the Sangh organisations. But with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh elections coming up, how could he pacify the rural masses is the million dollar question.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 12 Issue 19, Dated 9 May 2015)