Delhi’s borders have been witness to violent clashes between farmers and the police since Thursday, with thousands marching to the national capital to protest against the three farm laws enacted by the Narendra Modi government in September.
Though farmers from six northern states — Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh — are participating in the agitation, it is mainly those from Punjab who are at the forefront. They were the first to revolt against the Modi government’s farm legislation, squatting on rail tracks and bringing train operations to a grinding halt in the state for almost two months. It’s an irony that farmers from Punjab are leading the ongoing agitation. Called India’s bread basket, Punjab happened to be one of the main beneficiaries of the Green Revolution in the 1970s that transformed agriculture, and along with it the lives of farmers in the state. It’s also an irony that farmers are agitating at a time when the agriculture sector has been the silver lining for the Indian economy, even during the pandemic when industry and services came to a virtual standstill.
But things have changed since the 70s. Rural distress has been on the rise, stoking farmers’ anger. Politics has added fuel, making a lethal cocktail. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleges that the Congress government in Punjab, led by Amarinder Singh, has incited the farmers against the “progressive” central laws.
Be that as it may, the agitation has, once again, put the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under the spotlight.
For a government that successfully managed the political fallout of demonetisation and goods and services tax (GST), got voted back to power and has rarely taken a wrong step politically, it has found itself at the receiving end of the ire of the farmers — a significant vote bank — not once, but a couple of times in its tenure.
And that is why the farmers’ protest are ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Laws that divide
The farmers apprehend that the laws will open the doors to corporatisation of the farm sector, a charge denied by the government. The latter has hailed it as a landmark legislation that will free the farmers from the tyranny of mandis (agriculture market), and give them the freedom to sell their produce anywhere in India.
But the farmers are not convinced.
Both, farmers and the government, are holding their ground. While the farmers want the three farm laws to be repealed and a new law with a provision that ensures the Minimum Support Price (MSP) is not tinkered with, the government has maintained that MSP is not being done away with.
Agriculture in pandemic economy
In the April-June quarter, when the Indian economy contracted by 23.9 per cent, agriculture grew by 3.4 per cent. Even in the July-September quarter, when the economy contracted by 7.5 per cent, agriculture grew by 3.4 per cent.
Helped by a normal monsoon and record Kharif sowing, the rural economy has also sustained overall demand at a time when demand in the urban economy has remained subdued on account of loss of jobs and livelihood.
Agriculture was also a major benefactor of the Modi government’s economic support packages. Higher than budgeted allocations for the rural employment guarantee scheme and fertiliser subsidy have further supported the rural sector.
Record kharif sowing across more than 1,000 lakh hectares with a good monsoon has raised expectations of a good harvest. A good rabi harvest has provided a boost to income levels. Employment under the MGNREGA has further added to rural incomes. All this has translated into higher rural demand.
Tractor sales, an indicator of rural demand, have seen a substantial jump this year as compared to 2019 and that too at a time when overall vehicle sales are lower.
Tractor sales grew in double digits this financial year as against a decline registered in other vehicle segments.
The rural economy has also been a growth driver for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies. According to a Neilson report, the FMCG sector registered a double-digit growth in the rural areas in the July-September quarter even as overall sales grew only 1.6 per cent during the period.
Even though the pandemic has spread into rural areas, the rural economy has been spared any wide scale disruptions.
Modi govt and farmers
In its first term, the Narendra Modi government was forced to retract its proposal to ease the land acquisition norms fearing political backlash, following massive protests across the country. But the peace it bought with the farmers was short lived.
Farmers’ angst in nooks and corners of rural India had been simmering, bursting out in spurts of violence like the one witnessed in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur in 2017 where farmers were protesting, demanding loan waiver and higher crop prices. Six farmers were killed in police firing after the protest became violent.
This was followed by the 2018 farmers’ agitation in Maharashtra. Irked by the poor implementation of the loan waiver schemes, thousands of farmers undertook a march from Nasik to Mumbai demanding redressal. Though the Maharashtra government at the time decided to fulfil the farmers’ demands, it was, however, not implemented.
It’s not that farmers’ agitation has picked pace only since 2014. But agriculture sector experts say farmers’ grievances have mostly remained unaddressed. Though Left-backed organisations such as the All India Kisan Sabha have been rallying behind the farmers, organising them across the country under one umbrella coalition, the movement has lacked strong farm leaders of the likes of Charan Singh and Mahendera Singh Tikait.
Tikait, who had led a massive march of a few lakh farmers to Delhi’s Boat Club in 1988 — demanding among other things, waiving of electricity and water charges for farmers — bought the Lutyens’ to a grinding halt for two days. The protesters had forced then Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi to accept all their demands.
Views are personal.