byVivek GuptaDecember 29, 2020

A large part of the protesting farmers have small landholdings and are poor and fear that the new laws will ultimately turn them into agricultural labourers, says VIVEK GUPTA reporting from Chandigarh.

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Beating all odds, the historic congregation of farmers surrounding Delhi borders completed one month on December 26.

In the past few weeks, pizza langars or foot massagers set off a ridiculed campaign against them. They were further discredited when a section of propagandists called it a demonstration of rich farmers and middlemen and even labelling them as Khalistanis.

Visit the Tikri border and this narrative gets shattered. The majority of the farmers gathered here are small and marginal farmers from south Punjab and the larger Malwa area of Punjab comprising 14 districts that are long hit by rural distress.

Sukhdev Kokri, general secretary of BKU Ekta Ugrahan that is leading the protest here at the Tikri border said that more than two lakh farmers from Punjab have already attended the protest here and more than 60,000 have joined in the last one week. To say that the protest at the Delhi borders is all about big farmers is a denial of ground realities. It is a mass movement of farmers fighting for their survival and pro-corporate policies of the present regime at the centre, he adds.

Recently, over 200 widows of farmers who had committed suicide from Sangrur, Barnala, Bathinda and other parts of South Punjab participated in the protest at Tikri, asking the centre to repeal these acts or new reforms as it would otherwise multiply the number of suicides by farmers in Punjab.

According to the centre’s last Agriculture Census report of 2015-16, the percentage of big farmers in Punjab is only 5%, which means that the present procurement system has benefited mostly small and marginal farmers, which according to census data account for a whopping 33.1% in the state having holdings below 2 hectares, while 33.6 percent are semi-medium (below 4 hectares) and remaining are medium landholding farmers. 

Thirty-eight-year-old Puran Singh, a small farmer from Deep Singh Wala village in Punjab’s Faridkot district, who owns a little over a hectare (3 acres) of land, is determined to get these acts repealed. He is one of the protesters who has been at the site for a month.

He says that his annual farm earning is not more than Rs. 50,000 per acre. It is grossly inadequate as he has aged parents and school-going children at home. “At a time when everyday life is a struggle, a fear engulfs us all that is who will buy our produce and give us assured MSP if government mandis are dismantled as these new acts may do so and replace it with new yards of private players,” he says.

Punjab has a well-oiled mandi system where 100% wheat and paddy produced by farmers are procured by state agencies on behalf of the central government.

Cotton is also procured at MSP by Cotton Corporation of India.

Ram Singh, a farmer from Bhaini Bagha of Mansa district of Punjab, who owns just two acres (0.8 hectares) of farmland, says that the centre announces MSP for 23 crops every year. However,  for crops where there is no assured government procurement even after the announcement of MSP, farmers have no option but to sell their produce in the open market at much lower prices.

According to the centre’s last Agriculture Census report of 2015-16, the percentage of big farmers in Punjab is only 5%, which means that the present procurement system has benefited mostly small and marginal farmers, which according to census data account for a whopping 33.1% in the state having holdings below 2 hectares, while 33.6 percent are semi-medium (below 4 hectares) and remaining are medium landholding farmers.

In Haryana too, farmers are worried about the bills as the present procurement system is well established. In Haryana, 68.5 percent of holdings are of small, marginal and semi medium farmers.

Even though the centre has maintained that MSP will not be over under the new system, farmers say MSP alone is of no meaning if APMCs get dismantled.

Ram Singh, a farmer from Bhaini Bagha of Mansa district of Punjab, who owns just two acres (0.8 hectares) of farmland, says that the centre announces MSP for 23 crops every year. However,  for crops where there is no assured government procurement even after the announcement of MSP, farmers have no option but to sell their produce in the open market at much lower prices.

“This year farmers in Punjab were forced to sell their maize crop below Rs. 1,200 per quintal despite the centre’s announcement of Rs. 1,860 per quintal as MSP just because there is no assured market for the crop.  The same maize was then sold for Rs. 2,000-2,200 per quintal in the secondary market. Big firms are then selling maize flour for 100 per kg, burdening the common man. The same thing will happen with wheat and crops as well if these acts are implemented. Farmers will get less price while end consumers will as earlier pay more for our produce,” he says.

Those at the bottom will be worst affected

Rajinder Singh, Vice President of Kirti Kisan Union that represent mostly small and marginal farmers from Punjab and is actively participating in the Delhi protest, said that since the 90s, the globalisation, and nearly freezing of farmers’ income pushed thousands of farmers out of peasantry and made them bonded labourers.

He said this process is set to accelerate with neo-liberal policies of the central government that is now giving smooth entry of big corporates into agriculture fields and eying to end government mandis and MSP based assured income systems through new farm bills.

“This is the basic fear that has been all sections of the farmers towards this protest,” he said.

He said marginal and small farmers are more worried as they are at the bottom of rural economy and will be first to face the wrath of government’s move to corporatise agriculture.

“We had a lot of hopes when the present government said that they would double our incomes by 2022. Here, the government is trying to take away whatever income we earn,” he said.

Most of the  protestors fear that the centre’s push to contract through one of the three bills would indirectly help corporates to take control of farm lands and make farmers bonded labourers in their own fields through loosely drafted acts that have provisions that help corporates rather than protect the interests of farmers.

52-year-old Kulwant Singh, a farmer from Kishangarh village in Mansa area, is a middle category farmer having close to four hectares of land. He says that if a farmer has a large land holding, expenses of farm machinery, tube-wells and tractors are equally higher.

“We are sitting at the Delhi border out of compulsion and fear how we will manage our expenses if our produce is not procured at MSP,” he said.  “If that happens, we will be forced to leave farming which means that our land will eventually go,” he added.

Kulwant fears that the contract farming act was even more dangerous as it will make them labourers in their own fields.

“The argument that small and marginal farmers have a low marketable surplus and hence does not carry any weight is an argument for the sake of the argument being put forward by the government as MSP matters to them the most despite having low marketable surplus as their stake on agriculture income is much higher on agriculture,” he adds.

“We had a lot of hopes when the present government said that they would double our incomes by 2022. Here, the government is trying to take away whatever income we earn,” he said.

Real fears

RS Ghuman, professor of Economics at the Chandigarh based Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, said that if these laws were implemented, the small and marginal farmers would be losers on all counts-for marketing their produce and as contract farmers.

He says there is every likelihood that they may not get the contracted price on trivial grounds put forward by big private companies on quality issues even if there is no issue on this count. Farmers have very weak bargaining power against big companies, he said.

“The argument that small and marginal farmers have a low marketable surplus and hence does not carry any weight is an argument for the sake of the argument being put forward by the government as MSP matters to them the most despite having low marketable surplus as their stake on agriculture income is much higher on agriculture,” he adds.

Ghuman informs that there are 86 percent small and marginal farmers in the country and their presence in the agitation both on Delhi borders and in their respective state-level agitations is much higher than the big farmers.

“About a week ago I, along with three other friends, personally visited both Tikri and the Singhu borders and found that more than 90 percent of the farmers present there were not looking like big farmers,” says Ghuman.

Hardeshwar Singh, a history professor from Chandigarh, who is keeping a close eye on the protest said that the fact that small and marginal landholders compromise the bulk of this movement is because most members of the largest unions of the protest like BKU Ugrahan, BKU Dakaunda, Kirti Kisan Union, and Kisan Majdoor Sangharsh committee are small and marginal farmers. One does not expect rich farmers to sleep in cramped trolleys.

“Our labour not only works in fields but is also employed in great numbers at the government mandis to clean, sort, load and unload grains during procurement season. If the mandi system and the APMCs disappear, what will happen to these farm labourers,” Peter asked. 

The propaganda that the Delhi protest is confined to rich farmers comes from the overwhelming presence of the media at Singhu border which has comparatively richer farmers of Punjab’s NRI dominated Doaba belt and GT road belt of Haryana, giving the impression as if it is a rich farmers movement.

However, if we see on other borders like Tikri, Ghazipur and Shahjahanpur one can see that the bulk of farmers from South Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are of a humbler origin. That can be easily guessed from their dress, demeanour, tractors and trolleys, he added.

Landless farmers have their own worries

If farmers are worried about losing government mandis, assured income and usurping of their farmers through contract farming, farm labourers fear a drop in demand for the farm labour force and in their wages.

Tarsem Peter, president of the Jalandhar-based Punjab Pendu Mazdoor Union, said that the number of wage days in agriculture has dropped by half since the green revolution in the 60s due to mechanisation of agriculture. With the new agriculture laws, this process will speed up. Big corporates will promote the use of modern farm machines, further phasing out manual labour,” he added.

“Our labour not only works in fields but is also employed in great numbers at the government mandis to clean, sort, load and unload grains during procurement season. If the mandi system and the APMCs disappear, what will happen to these farm labourers,” Peter asked.

“The protest in Delhi is a joint fight of farmers and labourers. In the rural economy, both of them depend on each other. If one falls, others will be equally hit,” said Peter.

Punjab’s landless farmer unions like Kisan Majdoor Sangharsh committee, Punjab Pendu Mazdoor Union, Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Committee and Krantikari Pendu Mazdoor Union are regularly sending their ‘jathas’ of farm labourers at the protesting site in solidarity with the farmers.

Mukesh Malaudh, state chief of Sangrur-based Zamin Prapti Sangharsh Committee, which is sending regular jathas to Delhi since last month, said that their fight is not only against these bills but also against fascist forces in the country that has affected people of all walks of life. It is the need of the hour that all must join together to defeat these forces, he added.

Punjab, Haryana shows the way

If Singhu and Tikri borders are occupied by farmers from Punjab and Haryana, other borders of Ghazipur, Delhi-Jaipur Shahjahanpur and the Delhi-Agra Palwal, are swelling up each day with farmers from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.

Pratibha Shinde, activist and general secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Morcha, who is at the Shahjahanpur border, with thousands of protestors said that more than 4,500 farmers from Maharashtra has already reached Delhi borders and another delegation of 2,500 farmers in which 1,500 are female will leave the state on January 3.

She credited the Punjab and Haryana farmers for this movement and said that it is commendable the way they fought against all odds and kept the movement shielded despite all sorts of campaigns to malign them. This has given motivation to the farmers from other states to become part of this movement and challenge the wrong propaganda of the centre regarding the benefits of these acts.

 Inconclusive talks

Numerous rounds of formal talks held between the Centre and 40 protesting farmer unions have remained inconclusive.

Shinde said that the centre should not make these bills an ego issue. Instead, they should repeal these acts and start a new process to draft new acts with a consultation with different farm groups. This will be a sensible move and in no way bring down the popularity of the present regime, she added

Last month, 10 prominent economists from different parts of the country wrote to the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and stated that amending a few clauses in these acts, as the centre had proposed, would not be sufficient to address the concerns rightly raised by the farmers.

For example, if setting up unregulated ‘trade areas’ outside the ambit of state regulation is in itself detrimental, then any tinkering with a few provisions of the Act is not going to address that.

They strongly believed that it is not desirable to perpetuate the impression that farmers are misled by others when they are raising valid and genuine concerns. The current impasse is not in anyone’s interests and it is the responsibility of the government to proactively resolve it by addressing the farmers’ concerns.

“Therefore, we appeal that the government withdraw these Acts, and hold extensive consultations with farmer organisations and other stakeholders on what measures would really bring equitable and sustainable benefit to the farmers and the economy. It would be the truly democratic thing to do,” stated the economists.

Among those who wrote the letter were R.Ramakumar, NABARD Chair Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Vikas Rawal, Associate Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Himanshu, Assoc. Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, D.Narasimha Reddy, a retired professor of the University of Hyderabad, Kamal Nayan Kabra, professor of Economics (Retd.) at Indian Institute of Public Administration, Prof. K.N. Harilal of Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum,  Rajinder Chaudhary, Former Professor, Dept. of Economics, M.D.University, Rohtak, Haryana, Surinder Kumar, Senior Professor, CRRID, Chandigarh, R S Ghuman, Professor of Economics, CRRID, Chandigarh, Kumar, Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

(Vivek Gupta is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh.)

courtesy The Leaflet

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