This Article is From Dec 15, 2020

What Government's Getting Wrong In Approach To Talks With Farmers

As the intensity and reach of the farmers' protests increases, the government has unleashed a disinformation war accusing farmers of being, in turn, Khalistanis, agents of Pakistan and China, Maoists, pawns of urban Naxals, unthinking victims of opposition propaganda-vile abuse against the community of producers who have, through the decades, ensured India's food security. Anyone who has visited the Singhu border where a makeshift township has been set up has seen the indomitable spirit of the kisans, especially from Punjab. Bringing with them the culture of langars, of seva, hundreds of volunteers work around the clock to ensure discipline, food, medicines - such a peaceful, democratic struggle has not been witnessed for decades. It is these thousands and lakhs of farmers across the country who are accused as being "agents." And who dares to make these outrageous charges against India's kisans? Union Ministers acting more like a bunch of robots repeating ad nauseam what they are told to say by a high command so enamored by their own "Mann ki Baat", that they refuse to hear the "Mann ki Baat" of "we the people of India."

If thousands of kisans braving police lathis, tear-gassing, water cannoning and police cases have camped at the borders of Delhi, it is because the government has not only refused to listen to their grievances but is forcibly imposing a set of policies which the kisans believe will further the distress they have faced. The totally authoritarian nature of governance which is the hallmark of the present regime has led to the present situation.

The government ignored the nationwide protests of farmers against the Bills. It refused to call the farmers for talks. The three Bills were rammed through without even a single round of talks with farmers' organisations. This same government, which will have multiple rounds of talks with associations of big industrialists before announcing taxation policies, did not care to even once call the joint platform of Kisan organisations spearheading the struggle.

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Farmers protesting against new agricultural laws

Look at the way the Bills were pushed through the Rajya Sabha where a majority of members were in favour of referring the Bills to a Select Committee of parliament. This is after the government refused the normal procedure for Bills of such importance to be vetted by the Standing Committee of parliament. This is blatant misuse of a parliamentary majority to subvert usual parliamentary procedures which help build a consensus over legislations. In the Rajya Sabha, even the basic right of a Member of parliament to demand a vote on an amendment moved was denied. Many of the amendments relate to issues that the farmers are raising. Protests of several state governments that the laws were an encroachment on the rights of the states were also ignored.

After Presidential assent and when the laws came into force, several state governments announced that they would not allow the implementation of the laws in their state. In Punjab, even after the state government enacted alternate laws, farmers were not convinced that they would be protected from the reach of the central laws. Protests started across the state. The farmers who had initially blocked the rail tracks relented but spitefully, the Railway Ministry refused to run goods trains leading to coal shortages and electricity stoppages. The central government message was clear enough: protest and face collateral damage.

So the farmers were left with no choice. They finally managed to reach Delhi. What did the government do? It refused them permission to enter the city. They were told that talks were conditional on their shifting to a ground at a remote corner of Delhi where not even a bird would see them. The farmers refused. It was only after the government realized that they would not be bullied or intimidated, that the government started talks. In five rounds of talks, it did nothing to win the confidence of the farmers on a single issue. In the last round, the farmers remained silent for over an hour because they felt that the government was not addressing their issues. Amit Shah, who suddenly called a meeting of farmers' representatives, brought nothing new to the table; perhaps he thought his presence would be enough. It was not. A set of proposals was sent later to the farmers which they have unanimously rejected. But what the written proposals do prove is that the laws pushed through by the government are deeply flawed.

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Farmers have been camping at Delhi's Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur border points

Why this authoritarian approach? Global experience shows that it is under the most right-wing governments that contempt for democracy goes hand-in-hand with the growth of obscene inequalities and a regime of crony capitalists. At the heart of these so-called agri-reform laws being pushed by the government is the commitment to open up agriculture to "ease of business" and especially for certain Indian corporates who have used government subsidies to build up a strong presence in storage infrastructure as well as retail outlets. Even the limited regulations and subsidies are to be weakened. The kisans have identified certain Indian corporates who have used government subsidies to build a strong presence in storage infrastructure as well as retail outlets. Anticipating such a law, one of these companies registered as many as 20 new agribusiness companies in the period of this government.

The note given to kisans contains a paragraph on how the "laws will open up international markets for kisans and increase their incomes." When, in the wake of the pandemic, the global economy is in a downward spiral, is it not utter nonsense to talk about international markets. In any case, world prices are manipulated by well-formed cartels and multinational companies as well as unfair trade practices. Even the most developed countries committed to the free market give huge subsidies to their farmers to protect them from the vagaries of international prices. More than one third of the EU's budget is subsidies for farmers. In the last year, the US spent over 32 billion dollars in various subsidies for farmers and livestock breeders to protect their incomes. And here, the government of India wants to leave our farmers to the loving care of the market!

As is known, the large majority of India's farmers are marginal farmers dependent on rain-fed agricultural production. They have not received the benefits of government interventions to ensure a minimum price for their produce. For example, 87 per cent of total wheat procurement at MSP is just from the three states of Punjab, Haryana and MP. In the case of paddy, around 56 per cent of procurement is from four states - Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and AP. For the rest, they have the "freedom" to sell where they want and to whom they want. Most of India's farmers, deprived of an MSP-based procurement, have to make distress sales precisely because the government has left them to the mercies of the market. Instead of strengthening regulations and procurement for the majority of deprived farmers, the first law seeks to weaken and destroy whatever is there and hand it over to corporates.

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Five rounds of talks between the farmers and Centre have failed to end the stalemate

Similarly, the second law for contract farming is protective not of the farmer but of the corporate. In the entire process of pricing and terms, the government has no role. How can there ever be a fair agreement between two un-equals, a giant agribusiness and an average Indian farmer, unless the law provides certain guarantees for the farmer, backed by the government? But the new law does nothing of the sort. It is not as though farmers do not have the experience of contract farming. They do - with results damaging to farmer interests. And finally, the third law is to scrap the Essential Commodities Act to permit hoarding of stocks and remove price control mechanisms which will obviously have a direct impact on higher consumer prices. On this, there are no proposals from the government.

The farmers say, no, thank you, we do not want the right to starve. They say the laws will leave us as beggars before corporates, it will lead to our losing our land, it will lead to our being deprived of all protection. They remind the government of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations which the government had pledged to implement but which finds no mention at all in its written proposals. It makes sense for the government to start the process of farmer-centric reforms through a dialogue with farmers. This can obviously happen only if the laws designed to benefit corporates not farmers, pushed through without a discussion with farmers, are repealed.

But to add insult to injury, the government has sent the farmers a list of so-called proposals, which are cosmetic changes, according to farmer organisations. It is like telling the farmers, the noose is fixed, but you can decide the colour of it. The farmers are not fighting for themselves alone. Their fight is for India's food security, their fight is for the constitutional right to life, their fight is for democracy and the right to be heard, their fight is for you and me, for every citizen of India.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.

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