BHARAT BANDH: Some protests, some politics and some indulgence


NEWS/ANALYSIS FARMERS’ STIR

KS Shankar


KS Shankar

NEW DELHI: A Bharat Bandh is likely to affect public life across cities on Tuesday. The protest action is based on a call by the farmer associations mainly from the Punjab-Haryana belt against the farm sector reforms, but the Opposition parties too swiftly jumped into the scene and backed the bandh call.

Curiously, the Bharat Bandh is observed even as the farmers’ unions and the central government are engaged in a series of talks to iron out the contentious issues. These talks will resume on Wednesday. The Modi government has made it clear that it is willing to make amends to the law on a selective basis, based on genuine grievances of the farmers, but there cannot be a wholesale repeal of the law. 

The farmers with the help of political parties have also drawn in various trade unions including those in the transport and banking sectors to intensify the Bandh. This is obviously with a view to rebuilding the public mood against the BJP-led Modi government at the Centre, which remained downbeat during the past eight months of Covid-induced paralysis of national life.

The farmers’ protest against the farm reform legislation continued on its twelfth day on Monday. More and more farmers from northern Indian states headed for the Singhu, Kundli, Noida and other entry points to capital Delhi, which remain blocked for traffic for the second consecutive week. The farmer unions that have called for a Bharat Bandh on Tuesday are pressing for a rollback of the three farm laws introduced by the Centre.

The Bharat Bandh will gain intensity as the several unions of transport operators are also joining the protest in what they termed as a fraternal gesture towards the farmers. The Opposition political parties, including the Congress, the Left, the SAD etc have backed the protest. The AAP is also supporting the farmer protest and chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has jumped into the scene on Monday, offering the farmers moral support.

Farmers on the sit-in at Tikri border, (Delhi-Haryana border)i are geared to make the Bharat Bandh a success, while the ruling BJP at the Centre is put on the defensive. Hailing from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, farmers  mobilised maximum support for the shutdown. The BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi insist the farm reform law will benefit farmers and only hurt middlemen who took hefty cuts from the present market mechanisms for sale of farm products.

Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar said that as their fifth round of talks with farmer leaders ended in a deadlock, the government proposed another meeting on December 9 with the representatives of protesting farmers. The government has requested the farmers to send back the elderly, women and children who are also participating in the agitation back to their homes from the protest sites. However, the agitating farmers threatened to intensify their agitation and block more roads leading to the national capital if the government did not accept their demands.

The agitation is led principally by the BKU (Ekta-Ugrahan) general secretary Shingara Singh Mann, Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti leader Satyavir Singh from Hisar, Rajasthan leader Santvit Singh Mohanpura and member of five-member Kisan Sangharsh Committee, Gurbaz Singh.

Thousand of farmers are agitating at several borders areas near the national capital from November 26 demanding a roll back of the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; the Farmer (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price and Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

The farmers are protesting against the farm  bills that the Rajya Sabha passed on September 20, the Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and (2) the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020. The two bills had already been cleared in the lower house of Parliamemnt, the Lok Sabha. When they were introduced in the Rajya Sabha, there was ruckus and the Bills were passed by voice vote.

WHAT ARE THE BILLS ALL ABOUT

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020: allows farmers to sell their produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) regulated markets. The APMCs are government-controlled marketing yards or mandis. So, the farmers clearly have more choice on who they want to sell.

The government’s logic, economic expert Gurcharan Das writes in TOI, is that the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) is an obsolete institution from an age of scarcity, meant to protect the farmer but has now become his oppressor, a monopoly cartel fixing low prices for the farmers’ produce, forcing distress sales.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020l makes provisions for the setting up of a framework for contract farming. The farmer and an ordained buyer can strike a deal before the production happens.

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020 as also the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020 allow intra-state and inter-state trade of farmers’ produce beyond the physical premises of APMC markets. State governments are prohibited from levying any market fee, cess or levy  outside APMC areas.

‘NO’ TO MANDIS

The new law makes it easier for farmers to bypass government-regulated markets (mandis) and sell produce directly to private buyers. They can now enter into contracts with private companies, a practice known in India as contract farming, and sell across state borders. The new regulations also allow traders to stockpile their farm produces. This is a shift away from prohibition against hoarding, which could make it easier for traders to take advantage of rising prices, such as during a pandemic. Such practices were criminal offences under the old rules.

In free markets proposed under the law, traders don’t have to pay any fee. However, farmers fear that the move to open free market in competition to notified markets controlled by the state government could lead to a collapse of traditional markets.

WRITTEN CONTRACTS

The new laws also do not make written contracts mandatory. So, in the case of any violation of their terms, it can be very hard for a farmer to prove that he or she has been aggrieved, giving them little recourse. It also does not help that, in general, there’s a bit of a bad odour around doing business with large companies. Farmers have seen the costs of things like fertilizers and seeds shoot up over the years as those farming inputs are predominantly sold by the private sector.

MINIMUM SUPPORT PRICE

Is there a minimum price at which farmers are guaranteed to be able to sell their produce? There is; for crops such as rice and wheat. Producers have been able to rely on the so-called minimum support price (MSP), the assured price the government pays for these crops. But the new law does not guarantee any minimum price for any product, and farmers worry that the existing MSP will be abolished at some point. This would be a big blow to farmers who grow crops that are currently eligible for the MSP. Many of them are from Punjab and Haryana, the home states of a large proportion of the protesters out on the roads.

WHAT PM MODI SAID

On November 30, Prime Minister Modi made yet another attempt to diffuse the anger of farmers against the three new farm laws. He pleaded with them that they should trust him, his government and their good intentions. “I want to tell my farmer brothers and sisters from the sacred ghats of the holy city of Kashi (Varanasi) that our intention is as pious as the water of Maa Ganga (the holy river Ganga),” he said as he admitted that farmers are apprehensive about the new laws.

PARTY SUPPORT

Perceptions are that while farmers have genuine issues to raise, political parties like the Congress and the Left are, as always, trying to fish in troubled waters. Leaders of 11 parties, including Congress President Sonia Gandhi, DMK chief M K Stalin, NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and Left Front’s Sitaram Yechury and D Raja have given their “whole-hearted” support to Baharat Bandh call.

A joint statement signed by the heads of these parties said the new laws were passed in Parliament in a “brazen anti-democratic manner”, preventing a structured discussion and voting. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) had earlier given its support to the farmers. The Shiv Sena, the TRS, the Trinamool Congress, the Akali Dal, the Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP allies —  the AGP in Assam and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party in Rajasthan — too came out in support for the Bharat Bandh.

BORDERS TO CAPITAL CLOSED

The Delhi traffic police has closed seven borders, including Singhu, Auchandi, Lampur, Piao Maniyari, Mangesh, Tikri, Jharoda, in view of the protest. 

BANK OFFICERS TOO BACK PROTEST

Banking services are likely to be affected on Tuesday. A number of bank unions have offered their support to the farmers.  In a statement, the All India Bank Employees’ Association (AIBEA) said that the government should come forward and resolve the farmers’ demands in the interests of the nation. Officers’ unions like the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC), the All India Bank Officers’ Association (AIBOA) and the Indian National Bank Officers’ Congress (INBOC) have requested the government to initiate a meaningful dialogue. –IHN-NN

INDIA HERE AND NOW 

www.indiahereandnow.com email:indianow999@gmail.com 

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