On November 30 2021, the Parliament passed a bill that destroyed the dreams of millions of farmers. The funny thing is: the Narendra Modi regime was compelled to get the bill passed by “farmers”. I am talking about the three Family form laws that had come into being in mid 2020 when Covid was a paging across India. Without going into technical details, here is what the three farm laws proposed to do essentially: give freedom to farmers to sell their products anywhere in the country.
Under the old dispensation, it was mandatory for a farmer to sell his produce in the designated Mandi in his neighbourhood. In fact, it was a criminal offence for a farmer to take his produce outside his state. The second big move was to take agricultural produce out of the Essential Commodities Act that places severe restrictions on famers’ ability to sell their produce. The third big move was to allow farmers to enter into commercial agreements with private entities in what could be called “contract farming”.
Under this scheme, a farmer signs an agreement with a corporate entity to sell his produce-grains, pulses, fruits & vegetables-at a predetermined and guaranteed price. Each one of these policies was a big step forward in empowering Indian farmers. Many objective analysts who are not clouded by ideological certitudes had hailed the the three new farm reform laws as a 1991 moment for the agriculture sector in India. In 1991, the P. V. Narashima Rao regime had dismantled the entire system of licenses and controls that had stifled Indian entrepreneurs.
And yet, things came to such a pass that Modi was forced to deliver an address to the nation in November 2021 and admit that his government had failed to convince and persuade farmers about the benefits of the new reforms. While opposition parties and the legions of Modi critics celebrated the “victory of democracy”, sensible people realised that vested interests-even if they are a minority-can hijack a narrative in a democracy and and force governments to take retrograde policy decisions. The one to withdraw all the three farm reform laws was definitely a retrograde step.
Soon after the policies were announced in 2020, a group of farmer’s organisations based mostly in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh stated galvanising protests. It would be evident to any one with basic common sense that the biggest losers if the farm reform laws were implemented would be traders and middlemen who dominate Mandi’s or wholesale food grains markets across India. In polite words, they are the the overlords who control the rural economy and everything involved with it, including politics. In real terms, they are usurious exploiters who have held small farmers “captive” for more than a century.
A poor farmer is always desperate to sell his crop the moment it is harvested. His output is not enough to enable him to bargain with the middlemen who are called “arthiyas”. In any case, the poor farmer has typically taken a loan from the middleman at exorbitant rates of interest. So what happens is that he is forced to sell his limited surplus produce at whatever price the middlemen dictates. The new farm law would have enabled the farmer to get the best possible prices through competition. That was not to be.
The vested interests soon launched a massive protest campaign and literally blockaded the national capital Delhi. They painted a picture of a greedy and crony government beholden to corporate interests selling out Indian farmers. No logic was given either during the rallies at protests sites. No logic was offered during intemperate TV debates as. The “lobby” indulged in pure rhetoric and polemics. The picture they painted was: commercial agreements with private entities meant the back door was opened for corporate entities to take over the “precious land” of the farmers.
The rallying cry was: if you allow these laws, Ambani and Adani will steal your land. The poor farmer was too busy keeping out a livelihood to either join the blockade of Delhi or understand what was happening. Not one “farmer” leader during the protests was willing to admit that corporate entities like ITC, Godrej, Pepsi and a host of others had already been doing contact framing for decades. Who cares about facts when vested interests and political ambitions combine to force status quo remain: status quo being continuing exploitation of farmers.
On Republic Day 2021, the “farmers” went on a a rampage in Delhi, even desecrating the Indian flag at the Red Fort and injuring more than 200 police personnel. Despite all this the blockade continued, making life miserable for millions of residents of Delhi and the NCR Region. Assembly elections to the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh were due in early 2022. So the Modi regime succumbed to street power and withdrew the farm reform laws.
The irony and tragedy is that 86% of Indian farmers own less than 1 hectare of land, not enough to generate any meaningful surplus to sell in the Mandi. Speaking on their “behalf”, the vested interests ensured reforms never happened. And what happened in Uttar Pradesh? Pundits kept saying the BJP will get decimated by angry fames in western Uttar Pradesh. It swept western Uttar Pradesh.
So who won?
(Author has been a media professional for over 3 decades. He is now Executive Director, C Voter Foundation. Views are Personal)