The massive farmers' protest is the latest addition to the woes of the Union Government which has been beset of late by a slew of issues such as those over the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese incursion, Kashmir and Citizenship Amendment Act. Hordes of farmers camping on the border of Delhi threaten to enter the national capital and disrupt life till their demands are met.
The Government claims, as in the other crises, that its actions are in the interest of the people and that it has no secret agenda. But in each case, there is sizeable popular sentiment against the Government and it appears that there is considerable erosion in the support to the ruling party and the Prime Minister on account of some of these initiatives. They have also caused some concerns in the international community when the whole world is in a flux.
The first signs of trouble came when Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Akali Dal resigned from the Narendra Modi government, hours ahead of the voting in the Lower House on the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.
The opposition to the three laws, which were enacted by the Parliament a couple of months ago, has been growing ever since. What started as a localised protest in Punjab and Haryana has now gained support all over the country, even though no political party has assumed the leadership. The Congress and other opposition parties are supporting the farmers. The Government sincerely believes that the farmers have been misguided and misinformed and that the farm reforms are in the interest of the farmers.
What the laws say
Under the first law, the farmer can sell his finished crops to any merchant anywhere. There will be no compulsion to sell in the respective market (mandi) of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) of their own specific area.
Under the second one, the farmer broadly signs a contract to sell the crops on the basis of the parameters set by his crop standards. It is believed that this may reduce the risk of the farmer.
The government had enacted the Essential Commodities Act in 1955 to curb black marketing. However, the farmers are not convinced that the latest changes will be beneficial to them as they suspect that the government has made these changes to satisfy the private sector, notably the Ambanis and Adanis.
Farmers' main grouse
Though the farmers want all the laws to be withdrawn, it appears that the main concern of the farmers is with regard to the Minimum Support System being tampered with. They demand 'that the government should enact laws on the support price. This can stop excessive exploitation of farmers by middlemen and companies, and this step will increase the income of farmers. Crop purchases below the support price should be classified as a crime,’ they said.
The Government claims that the new law will allow buying and selling of crops outside the area of the APMC mandi. It has also asserted that this will forge an alternative marketing channel for farmers. Along with this, APMC markets will also continue to exist. Now, the farmers will have the option to sell their crops wherever they want. This will also mean that APMCs will also get competition to improve their efficiency, according to the Government.
The talks to resolve the crisis have been futile so far and the farmers are planning to escalate the protests by bringing more farmers to Delhi to block trains and other traffic. The Government continues to maintain that, while the laws cannot be withdrawn, the Minimum Support Price can be guaranteed through a legal document. That may well be the final solution, but it appears that things will become worse before it gets better.
A major headache for the Government is that the international public opinion sees the tough action against the farmers as part of the repressive measures and crony capitalism associated with the incumbent government in Delhi. The problem is the lack of trust among the farmers that the changes are well-intentioned.
Reactions world over
Like in the case of some other reforms, a part of the media and the international community is concerned about the new farm laws. The basic charge is that there has not been adequate consultations and that the dialogue being sought is on the basis that the laws will not be withdrawn. Farm experts and economists are also divided on this issue.
The spokesperson for UN chief Antonio Guterres has come out in support of the agitating Indian farmers, saying people have a right to demonstrate peacefully and authorities should let them do so. “What I would say to you is what I've said to others when raising these issues is that people have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and authorities need to let them do so,” a UN spokesman explained.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his support for the protesting farmers despite India's strong reaction to his earlier remarks that his country will always be there to defend the right to peaceful protest. India had lodged a strong protest to the Canadian High Commission. The External Affairs Minister also did not attend a Canada-led meeting of Foreign Ministers to discuss vaccines against Covid-19. Canada is not inclined to change its position because of the large Sikh community there which is agitated over the issue.
In London, a group of 36 cross-party parliamentarians have written to UK Foreign Secretary asking him to make representations to his Indian counterpart, regarding the impact on British Punjabis affected by the demonstrations by farmers against new agricultural reforms in India.
The letter has been drafted by a British Sikh Labour MP and signed by other Indian-origin MPs including Labour’s Virendra Sharma, Seema Malhotra and Valerie Vaz as well as former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
In Australia, Tung Ngo, a legislative council member in South Australian Parliament, on Wednesday urged the Indian government to continue allowing its citizens to exercise the fundamental right of any democracy, which is the right to protest peacefully.
The reaction of foreign governments are not decisive in decision making on internal matters, but it will encourage protesters to persist with their demands. The Government of India will also be under pressure from international media, which is criticising India for repressive measures. The matter has to be settled through open negotiations. PM Modi has indicated that he cannot modernise India with old laws and that the benefits will go to the farmers eventually if they accept the new dispensation. But he will have to take into account the strong views of the farmers. As of now, the possibility of a compromise seems remote.