Punjab’s farmers are bivouacking at Delhi’s Singhu border. It looks like they have come prepared to wear out the government, reports Vivian Fernandes. When this correspondent returns to the city from the protest site at noon on 3 December, Google Maps shows a highway stretch with 40-minutes of traffic congestion owing to police barricades. At the protest venue, tractor trolleys have been converted into caravans with tarpaulins spread over inverted-V shaped bamboo frames. Inside, some farmers are lazing, others are under the protest pandal. Gurdev Singh (left, in picture below) of Chuslevar village in Amritsar’s Patti tehsil believes the regulated market yards will collapse “after two years” on account of the new farm law, which allows license- and cess-free trading in produce outside these yards. He thinks the yards will lose revenue from cesses, and shrivel.
Singh grows rice and wheat and also maize and mustard. He knows what happens when the government does not procure: prices of maize and mustard swing on either side of the minimum support price (MSP). He wants payment of MSP to be made compulsory for maize, mustard and the other crops he produces. His demand defies market logic. But what he seeks is an assurance of prices that will not make life uncertain. This is not a demand of Punjab farmers alone. Farmers across the country want it.
Some women are on the front row. Outside the pandal, a schoolboy from Ludhiana poses for a photo of washing drying on a clothesline. It looks like a family outing.
The media is an object of ridicule. Addressing the gathering, a speaker lampoons it in verse for being a propaganda tool of the government and ignoring the weeks-long rail blockade in Punjab. Another speaker says the market capitalisation of the Mukesh Ambani group is Rs 6 lakh cr. The country’s entire agricultural produce is worth Rs 2 lakh cr, according to him. Ergo, Mukesh Ambani can buy out the farmers. These assertions may not be supported by facts, but they are readily believed. One senses a suspicion of the government. Circumstantial evidence is cited to question the government’s bonafides. Why was an ordinance promulgated during the lockdown? Why was it ratified hurriedly in September without a debate or reference to a Parliamentary committee? The farmers are not concerned with market yard cesses. They don’t pay it. On procured wheat and rice, it’s the Food Corporation of India which pays it. Fruits, vegetables, flowers and wood are anyway exempt from the purview of the law that regulates the market yards. So the central law makes little difference.
The farmers’ protest has evoked sympathy across society. An agricultural economist cited a 2016 survey by Nabard, the government’s agricultural development refinance bank, to assert that Punjab farmers are quite well-off; their monthly household income is a little over Rs 22,133. This is the highest in the country for that category. At 44 percent, the least number of Punjab farmers is indebted. Only nine percent of Punjab’s land holdings are below 5 acres; across the country 47 percent are. One-nation, one market which the new farm law intends to usher in will lead to equalisaton of prices. It a prospect that farmers of poorer states like Bihar will welcome. But for Punjab farmers, it will mean a loss of income and living standards. If reforms are to succeed, they must enhance efficiency without sacrificing welfare. We need a safety net for Punjab farmers to manage the transition. And not just Punjab farmers. Agricultural reforms will not succeed if they are not implemented with empathy. We also need an ecosystem approach and not piecemeal legislation.
(Top photo by Vivian Fernandes: Peeling the layers on the government’s ears. Women protesters at Delhi’s Singhu border).