By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, December 14, 2020: “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” This is what celebrated American historian Howard Zinn said. In this respect, the ongoing farmers’ protest against three firm laws enacted by the Narendra Modi government in September is unique in many ways.

Farmers in India have protested beyond the law and virtually forced the NDA government into unconditional talks, demanding nothing less than a repeal of the these new farm laws which they think will have direct implications for the livelihood and survival of the people engaged in or dependent on agriculture, food security of the poor and food sovereignty of the country.

These farm laws now in controversy are – the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020.

The provisions under the new laws facilitate the farmers to enter into a contract with processors, wholesalers, aggregators, large retailers and exporters directly so as to realise the full price of the produce. Secondly, farmers be rest-assured of the price of their produce even before sowing of crops. Farmers will not be charged any cess or transport cost at the time of sale.  Farmers will get access to modern technology, better seed and other inputs that enable better growth of the produce.

And yet, fury against the central government amongst the farmers and their families is reminiscent of the anti-authority feelings during the draconian Emergency clamped in 1975 by the then Indira Gandhi government. Autocratic regimes hostile to any kind of criticism have invariably shown utter disregard for dissenting voices.

However, the determination of farmers has put Modi in a tight spot. He never imagined of a nationwide strike during the pandemic – a period when the NDA government clamped the strictest lockdown and virtually put an end to democratic expression of dissent.

Foreign leaders and politicians had sharp reactions on protests by farmers, but as usual, the Modi government described these as “ill-informed” and “unwarranted”, asserting that the matter pertains to the internal affairs of a democratic country.

Besides, the Modi government used the pandemic as a rare opportunity to muscle through a number of “tough” market reforms. The guiding principle has been that the crisis is a “time for bold decisions and bold investment … to prepare a globally competitive domestic supply chain”.

Nonetheless, thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and several other states have been protesting on various borders of Delhi since November 26 as they fear that that the newly enacted legislations would pave the way for the dismantling of the minimum support price system, leaving them at the “mercy” of big corporations.

The agitating farmers’ unions have rejected the government’s draft proposal on amendment to the farm laws. The farm leaders have further declared their intention to continue the agitation till all the three farm laws are repealed, with plans to block Delhi-Jaipur highway by December 12.

It is natural that farmers are worried about the impact of recent agricultural reforms that too during the pandemic. And no one can dispute the fact that they have every right to protest peaceably, be accommodated and their concerns listened to.

Farmer leaders are very firm on their demand for repeal of three new farm laws saying that they would settle for nothing less than the scrapping of the legislations though with these laws, the government claims that agricultural operations may become more efficient.

The farm laws seek to introduce the neoliberal notion of “choice” into the production and sale of agricultural produce through deregulation, and give a push to private traders and agricultural corporations.

Small and marginal farmers — a section that constitutes 85 per cent of agrarian landholdings — are likely to be worst hit, with the lowest bargaining power and highest level of precocity. Where many small and marginal farmers engage in subsistence cultivation, sale of agricultural produce is limited to the need for cash or an assured surplus.

Cultivating primarily for household consumption, their practices are not geared towards maximising production driven by the dynamics of the market as it relies heavily on non-market inputs, whether it is seeds, manure, or other forms of nourishing the land. Protecting themselves to a limited extent from market volatility and being dependent on cash, they remain relatively protected from the vicious cycles of debt that are the norm for commercial farmers.

However, the government has maintained that the new laws will bring farmers better opportunities and usher in new technologies in agriculture. The Modi government rushed these laws through without heed to the opposition, which is outnumbered in parliament. And this is where the farmers’ protest assumes significance.

Meanwhile, the Bhartiya Kisan Union on Friday filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking it to quash three agricultural laws passed by Parliament in September as they were “illegal, arbitrary, approved in haste and will expose the farmers to corporate greed”.

This has even prompted NCP chief Sharad Pawar to ask the government not to test the tolerance of the cultivators. The former Union agriculture minister also said that the protest at Delhi borders may spread elsewhere if no timely decision was taken by the Centre on the farmers’ demands. He maintained that the farm bills concerned were passed in a “hurried” manner in the Parliament despite the opposition parties calling for a detailed discussion on them.

It is needless to say that Modi and the NDA government is facing a tough challenge of it tenure so far with farmers not budging an inch to its reforms mantra. The stalemate continues and it is time for Modi to address the dissenting voices to keep the democratic polity of India alive and kicking.

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