Ravi Prasad Narayanan
The world’s largest democracy with close to 1.4 billion people provides social scientists with various illustrations of every possible spectrum. These spectrums include politics, economics, societies, philosophies, foreign policies, histories and trajectories where the mentioned spheres and realms of enquiry/enquiries coalesce. India is acclaimed as a democracy with a sound legal system, independent and not averse to making judgements counter to prevalent ideology represented by elected members to parliament and state legislatures. An active civil society displays vibrancy, exemplified by a free press and non-government organisations debating issues that matter to all. Beyond the feel-good factor of being a thriving democracy, India also exhibits traits of ‘otherness’ where subscribing to past shibboleths makes for political grandstanding.
However, since September 2020, millions of farmers are aggrieved owing to the passage of bills in parliament with a minimal discussion that many feel hollows out agrarian sector to benefit larger corporates.
Since 2014, India’s political sphere has witnessed the eclipse of Congress party, central to schemata in politico-economic terms since independence in 1947. The emergence of a right-wing political template was on the anvil for a couple of decades and is in full fruition today. This expression of politics in the economic realm was expected, but, not in the spectrum from where every successful party in India garners most votes – farmers.
Decades of officially ensured prices, ‘arranged’ structures for buying and selling of agriculture produce, subsidised pricing mechanisms for fertilisers, electricity and water had created powerful interests with stakes in deciding power structures at the local levels. This led to farmers becoming voting banks! The rise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has changed India’s electoral map with the saffron colour of BJP dominating large parts (and vote banks) of the country. The repeat of 2014, with a larger seat share in parliament, saw the BJP emboldened to radically transform the economy with limited appreciation of dissonant voices, usually the reflection of a democratic spirit.
The Bills passed by parliament in September 2020 were given assent by President Ram Nath Kovind, making passed bills an Act. Three Acts namely, The Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 are behind farmers’ prolonged protests in Punjab, Haryana, and western part of Uttar Pradesh. These states and regions are considered to be India’s breadbasket with the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s transforming livelihoods – economically and socially. The relative prosperity in rural areas morphed into the political sphere as beneficiaries cognised politics as control determinant.
Official statements have defended the bills to benefit farmers with an ecosystem where freedom of choice with remunerative prices lies with agriculturists and traders. The choice before farmers will be to sell produce to buyers who are willing to pay more than that determined by the government. Farmers also can look beyond the established mode of selling to arhatiyas (commission agents) located in nearest markets in towns to farmers. For decades, these commission agents have decided the market price of produce and provided the logistics of transporting grain from farm to city and advanced money to farmers going through a rough phase, either due to the vagaries of weather affecting crop yield or personal obligations to meet.
A well-entrenched network of commission agents in sync with dictates of prices determined by the government had created a mutual dependence system, with no space for mediation in overwhelming events like a cyclone, flooding, earthquake or drought. During such situations, the state adopts an administrative modus operandi giving farmers a relief that would not even cover the cost of cultivation. Used to vagaries of nature and distant government, farmers were mortified to learn that ‘the state was envisioning contractual farming’. This would mean that private contractors representing corporates would buy produce and make available the same at retail after quality and pricing are determined, not by the state, but by corporates! To most farmers, contracts with corporates are akin to death knell for agriculture with all currently available subsidies made redundant. Fears about farming land being acquired through contracts and used for real estate purposes gained traction. That was alarm enough for farmers in Green Revolution success story states to vent their anger at the state for not being consulted before bills were passed at a time of health pandemic, with parliament meeting at short notice.
To organisations representing farmers, the passing of these three bills is not in line with the Constitution and sacrosanct rules highlighting the democratic template of the country is being ignored. This valid grouse arises since agriculture is a state subject limiting centre to not take a unilateral decision without consulting each state. This takes time, yet, in the past, many bills were enacted in parliament after consulting state chief ministers and conducting proper debates about proposed act at state legislatures. This time around, the central government bypassed need for consulting states, making farmers angrier. They call out the centre for having gone beyond every legality, bypassing Constitution, ignoring states and opening agricultural vistas to corporate plunder, especially a few known to be supporters of the current government, in the name of agriculture reforms.
Fallout with carrot and stick
Several rounds of talks between farmers and the central government failed due to the state’s stubborn approach to not countenance withdrawal of Acts passed. The only offer made was to continue with the Minimum Support Price in an ad hoc manner. On their part, farmers stuck to two points – withdrawal of three bills in their entirety and no alteration with the existing Minimum Support Price system.
To ensure that peaceful protests by farmers who have based themselves outside Delhi do not turn ugly, the Supreme Court, stepped into the logjam by chastising the government for not finding a solution to a living reality where hundreds of millions are on tenterhooks. The Supreme Court recommended and put in place a four-member committee to find a much-needed answer to current imbroglio. The four-member committee comprises individuals, known to be pro-government, sided with the state’s narrative of agriculture reforms and legitimacy of Bills passed. This was putting salt on farmers’ wounds. They rejected the committee as being illegitimate, reflecting a worrying attitude where the judiciary is involving itself in the political sphere!
Politics in India has always been a contested sphere where society, economics, and interests coincide to create new expressions on issues, with legal opinions sharpening debates. Current protests by farmers and their decision to keep their agenda focused on Bills / Acts’ repeal has struck a chord with non-agriculturists. Largely peaceful, inclement winter weather has claimed more than sixty farmers’ lives but not shaken their resolve to persevere. The whole ongoing legitimate dissent by farmers symbolises a democracy at work with roots deepening and strengthening, making a case-study in front of us a living reality of what India is – the world’s largest democracy.
Ravi Prasad Narayanan is Associate Professor, Center for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
India ‘celebrated’ its Republic Day on 26 January. New Delhi, apart from being quarantined for public health reasons, was in a security straitjacket, owing to farmers (refer previous opinion) being granted ‘permission’ to ply their tractors on three different routes not infringing on central New Delhi where Republic Day parade was ongoing.
However, the plying of tractors on ‘agreed’ routes went awry with factions within the farmers groups breaking the law by plying tractors up to the Red Fort – symbol of Mughal empire’s power in the past and venue of annual independence day speech by the Prime Minister on 15 August every year. The violation of strict norms and hoodwinking of security measures, encouraged violators to scale ramparts of Red Fort, hoist a religious flag, and damage a few historical spots on the Red Fort.
This instance of wanton destruction, divided erstwhile unity amongst multiple farmer’s unions, bringing to limelight failures of farming fraternity to instil discipline amongst young hot-heads. This violent expression by farmers in the heart of New Delhi, appears pre-meditated and raises questions of how various security agencies did not get wind of the plot to reach Red Fort, a landmark that has reflected legitimacy and solidity of whoever was/is in power. The government of the day, by stalling talks and rigidly imposing Acts disempowering farmers, has regained initiative in negotiations by hallmarking violence by disgruntled farming fraternity as an attempt to supplant democratic tradition.
As the violent strand of targeting Red Fort is being examined, what comes to the fore is the concerted attempts being made to break farmers unity by the state. The farmers criticising violence at Red Fort and censuring those who instigated and mobilised tractors for the ‘adventure’ appear puzzled, and blame ‘state agents’ of having orchestrated the Red Fort shameful episode. In a city with heightened security at all times, it is worth speculating, where were traffic police, armed police and special security personnel when many tractors drove a long way from Delhi borders to the Red Fort without any stops put by the law enforcement like barricades manned by armed personnel.
Put simply, being India, this is the beginning … of what?