India’s agrarian distress: How dissent has been on the rise

At least 50 major protests were reported across 20 Indian states in 9 months between January and September 2020
India’s agrarian distress: How dissent has been on the rise

India’s farmers are not happy, and dissent is on the rise. Thousands of farmers recently broke out on the streets in vehement opposition against the Union government’s contentious farm bills passed in the Parliament’s Monsoon Session in September 2020.

This, however, is not the first instance of farmers clamouring against the Centre’s ‘unjust’ policies: At least 50 major protests were reported across 20 Indian states in nine months between January and September. These include four countrywide protests in January, May, August and September.

Following a series of protests in several states — most prominently Punjab and Haryana — the leading farmers’ organisations called for a ‘Bharat Bandh’ on September 25. The outcry is against three new farm Bills: Famers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020; the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020.

One of the biggest fears among farmers is the eventual collapse of the mandis — markets run by agricultural produce market committees. The general apprehension is that the government would stop buying produce from them at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.

While Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has repeatedly assured them that the Central government would not do away with Minimum Support Price (MSP), it has had a little effect on assuaging the farmer community as well as the Opposition.

Union food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the Cabinet on the account of the Acts being “anti-farmer”.

A long trail 

Anti-farms bill protest will be the fourth major nationwide protests by farmers after the one led by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) on August 9, 2020. The protest, with the slogan ‘Corporate Bhagao, Kisani Bachao’, saw participation from 250 farmers unions under the AIKSCC banner.

The beginning of the year was marked by the largest-ever strike on January 8, 2020: An estimated 250 million workers, employees, farmers and rural labourers came out on streets to protest against the Union government’s economic policies and divisive politics.

The protest was against the government’s alleged failure on multiple fronts, including providing freedom from indebtedness and implementing effective crop insurance and disaster compensation in the face of drought, floods and unseasonal rains, among other issues.

Over 200 farmers and agriculture workers’ unions had supported it by observing the day as Gramin Bharat Bandh, and supply of all perishable and essential commodities to the national capital was disrupted.

Agitating farmers

The agriculture sector has emerged as a bright spot and an “outlier” even as all other sectors, including manufacturing and services, have been suffering miserably in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic, the Centre had said during the Monsoon Session.  

“Agriculture has emerged as a bright spot, growing at a healthy rate of 3.4 per cent,” junior finance minister Anurag Singh Thakur had said.

There has been an over 5.6 per cent increase in the total area sown under kharif crops, claimed the government in its written statement to Rajya Sabha.

But 50 major protests by farmers across 20 states point to mushrooming farmer distress. These states include: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh.

Punjab has been the frontrunner in these protests: Farmers there have protested regularly against the farm bills and Electricity Bill, 2020 since May.

But the agitation there has only recently seen a comeback: The state did not record any agrarian agitation between 2016 and 2018, according to the latest data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Why the dissent

Farmers are reeling under debt due to the damages their crop suffered owing to extreme weather events such as floods in the North East and cyclone Amphan. They have been protesting for loan waivers and compensation.

As in the past, less remunerative price for produce is another reason behind rising dissent, even as the production has been high this year. In fact, all types of crops have reported an increase in acreage, with rice recording the highest increase in the last five years.

But poor management and governance of procurement has led to discontent among the farmers. For example, farmers in Chhattisgarh came out on streets to protest against the irregularities in the government’s paddy procurement process in February.

In fact, the Union government also acknowledged in Parliament on September 23 that milk procurement prices by private dairies in Maharashtra had fallen during the lockdown.

Poor compensation for the land acquired for developmental project continues to be another major cause behind the upsurge in protest this year.  A case in example is that of farmers in Gujarat who have been protesting against land acquisition for Bullet Train project which is supposed to connect Ahmedabad and Mumbai.

According to media reports, the farmers have also been demanding scrappage of amendments to Electricity Bill, 2020; increase in PM-KISAN  income support scheme to Rs 18,000 from Rs 6,000; and a minimum wage for support farmers as well as farm labourers.

Widening geography of the protest

The distress has been on the rise in the North East as well.

A look at the media reports and the data provided by the NCRB as of 2018 indicated that new states have been registering farmers’ protests. For example, according to the latest data, Andhra Pradesh did not report a single agitation by the farmers in 2016, 2017 and 2018. But in 2020, the state has reported at least four protests so far. 

Similarly, Goa did not report any incidence of agrarian agitation between 2016 and 2018, according to the NCRB. But the state reported incidences of protest by sugarcane farmers in February 2020.

Distress among farmers in the North East, too, has been on the rise. In Assam, agrarian agitation increased by nine times between 2016 and 2018. In 2018, the state reported 37 cases of agrarian distress as compared to just four in 2016, according to NCRB. Manipur and Tripura, with no recorded protest by farmers from 2016-2018, reported agitations in 2020.

More agitations in the offing

Even as farmers hit the streets against the farm bills, other state-wide protests are being planned as well. For example, the farmers’ organisations in Karnataka have called for a state-wide shutdown on the September 28 to protest ‘anti-farmer’ policies of the state and federal governments.

While the farm bills have enraged farmers across the country, Pesticide Management Bill, 2020, tabled in the Rajya Sabha to replace the Insecticides Act, 1968 is likely to add to farmers woes, fear experts.

It is likely to put farmers’ livelihoods at risk, and goes against recommendations of Ashok Dalwai Committee constituted in 2018 for doubling of farmers’ income said Ajit Kumar, Chairman (Technical Committee), Crop Care Federation of India in an interview to Financial Express.

The country reported 37 protests in 15 states in 2018, according to State of India’s Environment 2018: In figures. 2020 may break these records, it seems.

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