Written by Arshiya Sangar, a grade 11 student
Over 10 days ago, protesting farmers from Punjab and Haryana turned up in huge numbers at the borders of Delhi, and have stayed there since, braving water cannons and tear gas used on them by the Delhi Police. Why are they protesting?
Who is protesting, and against what?
The protesters are mostly farmers, a majority of whom are from the regions of Punjab and Haryana, however, they have been joined by farmers from West Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and several other states, while smaller protests have emerged in other states as well.
These farmers are demanding that the Central Government repeal (i.e. take back) the three laws it passed on the 27th of September, saying that these laws have the broad effect of dismantling the Minimum Support Price, by breaking down the mandi system and allowing private players to obtain produce directly from the farmers (specifying no minimum price which they will have to adhere to). This leaves the privates with ample space to exploit the farmers. Another major complaint is that the government did not consult farmers’ unions before passing the legislation.
What was the previous system of procurement?
The system of government procurement of crops (wheat and rice in large quantities) in Punjab and Haryana is known as the mandi system. Through this system, farmers take their harvested crops to a market (known as a mandi), to sell to the FCI (Food Corporation of India). They can do this in two ways, the first way being through an ‘aarthiya’, a ‘middleman’ who buys the goods from the farmer (MSP specified by the government is guaranteed). The aarthiya then transports these goods to the FCI godowns. The second way is for the farmer to sell directly to the FCI. There are definitely some exploitative aarthiyas, but by and large, the system has worked for the states.
Why are farmers against the laws?
Farmers are afraid to change to the open market system, putting themselves completely at the mercy of corporates, who function only for profit, especially when they have not been given any specified minimum price that they must purchase the goods at. Aarthiyas would also lose employment if this system is discontinued.
Almost 85% of farmers in India own less than 2 hectares of land, and it would be very difficult for them to bargain on a level playing field with big corporates. Although the Act has not explicitly abolished the MSP, and the government claims it shall be enforced, the farmers believe that outside the environment of the mandi, the government will not be able to enforce this for all individual cases. With the mandi system, most farmers had a mandi within a few kilometres of their farms, however, in an open market, smaller farmers might have problems with travelling and transfer of agricultural goods without spoilage.
How long do they plan to protest?
The farmers have said that they will protest until the government grants their demands. Their primary demand is that all three farm laws be repealed in a special session of parliament. At the very least, they want an assurance of MSP being provided, and the removal of private players from the equation. There have been 5 meetings of the farmers with representatives of the government so far, however, no solution/compromise has been reached. The farmers say they are prepared to face the police and have supplies to subsist for months (a large number of people have gathered there, with no masks or social distancing being observed, so there is still an undeniable COVID threat).
They have called for a peaceful Bharat Bandh (a strike of work) on 8th December from 11 AM to 3 PM, a call that has been supported by several opposition parties including the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Left parties and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) among others. The Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana has also voiced its support for the Bandh.
How has the government reacted?
The government has maintained its stand that these laws will benefit farmers, especially the middle and small income farmers. They have not conceded to any of the famers’ demands so far. They claim that the farmers have been misled by the opposition, and that Khalistani elements have hijacked their movement (a claim that has been reinforced by nearly all mainstream news networks, with little evidence to back it). The Delhi Police (which comes under the Union Home Ministry) has used water cannons and tear gas against the peacefully protesting farmers, and trenches were dug on the roads that farmers were taking to reach Delhi so that they could not cross. They also asked the Delhi government for permission to convert the stadiums in the city into temporary jails for the farmers, which was denied.
With neither side willing to compromise on their position, it will be interesting to see how the situation unfolds in the coming weeks (and possibly months).
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