New Delhi: Hours after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in a televised address on to the nation on 19 November 2021 that his government would repeal three contentious farm laws that had inflamed a year-long agitation by millions of Indian farmers, a small group of farmer-protestors gathered on a rope charpoy placed on the partially blockaded national highway 10, at the Tikri Kalan protest site on the north-western fringe of New Delhi.
“The biggest thing is that the farmers’ struggle has done the job of protecting India’s democracy,” a Punjabi farmer said. Meet Mann, 41, general secretary of the Zamindara Students’ Organisation and a veteran of student and labour union agitations, was more specific. “People now see that they should protest,” said Mann, who manages the largest langar or free meal service at the Tikri site, where between 5,000 and 10,000 people have been served hot meals every day since 26 November 2020. “People had begun to view agitations as a crime.”
In January, the union government told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that the demand for repeal of the laws was “neither justifiable nor acceptable”, that the agitations were based on “apprehensions, misgivings and misconceptions created by some vested interest people” from Punjab.
A dramatically changed political situation has led to the government’s change of heart, said Amrita Kundu, Kaithal (Haryana) district president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ghasiram Nain faction). Kundu has been at the Tikri Kalan protest since November 2020 with her husband. “But for us, the noose is still around our neck,” she said, “just a little looser.”
Reflecting the mood of thousands at protest sites, Kundu said despite Modi’s climbdown, they had no plans of leaving their shacks and tractor-trolleys occupying the median of the highway until the process of repealing the laws was completed in Parliament.
Echoing the views of the protestors at the Singhu and Tikri camps on the outskirts of the capital, the leaders of the Samkyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an association of nearly 40 farm unions that has spearheaded the year-long protests outside Delhi and since mid-2020 in Punjab, said on 20 November that while the government's decision to repeal the three laws was welcome, there was widespread anger among farmers at the steep price they paid—more than 700 “martyrs”, unacknowledged by Modi in his address though they died during the course of the protest; and criminal cases in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Uttarakhand, Delhi, Chandigarh, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere, criminalising thousands of agitating farmers.
One more protesting farmer died on Friday, a few hours after the Prime Minister’s speech. Jaswinder Singh, 60, from Muktsar district in Punjab, had spent an entire year in a tractor trolley at Tikri. The member of the BKU (Kadian faction) suffered a heart attack.
Discussions will be held to decide on when, if at all, to call off the protests, SKM core committee member Ruldu Singh Mansa told Article 14, and to decide how to press for the other key demands of the movement, including a law-mandated minimum support price for farm goods, reversing a move to amend electricity tariff; and financial compensation and employment for families of the 700-odd farmers who died during the protests.
“We have asked for Rs 20 lakh for each family,” Mansa said, “and withdrawal of cases against protestors.”
BJP MP Varun Gandhi tweeted a copy of his letter to the PM, seeking Rs 1 crore in compensation for the farmers who lost their lives. He specifically mentioned the Lakhimpur Kheri killings and called out “provocative statements” by BJP leaders against “our agitating farmers” that led to an adversarial atmosphere.
Struggle For Law-Mandated MSP Will Intensify
“Beej, bima, bazaar, bachat,” the prime minister said in his checklist of farm subjects his government has worked on, or seeds, insurance, markets, savings.
But in the eastern, western and central UP districts of Etawah Sultanpur, Amethi and Agra, farmers told All India Kisan Sabha president Ashok Dhawale during a five-day tour in November that the price their paddy received from traders in the current season ranged between Rs 1,100 and Rs 1,200 per quintal, even though the minimum support price (MSP) for paddy, or the price government agencies pay, was raised to Rs 1,940 per quintal in June.
The government periodically fixes the MSP for 23 commodities at a level it believes to be a minimum remunerative price. “It was a common refrain everywhere,” Dhawale, a 69-year-old Left leader campaigning against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in UP, told Article 14. “People are very angry about this.”
India is set for its largest ever paddy harvest in 2021-22. Despite the country’s rising food production trends, incomes from agriculture have not kept pace.
Though an average Indian agricultural household’s income grew significantly in recent years, the single largest source of their income came from wages, not from crops, according to a report published in September by the National Statistical Office of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation on the situation of agricultural household and land holdings for the January-December 2019 period.
Jagmati Sangwan of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti said small farmers across India who lacked access to markets, transportation and storage facilities have had to repeatedly accept a “ghaate ka sauda (loss-making deal)” for their crop in the absence of a legally guaranteed MSP. “Most farm subsidies have been done away with, making the MSP that much more essential for farmers.”
Speaking to Article 14 at the Tikri Kalan protest site, Sangwan said women’s groups and other unions in Haryana would urge the Samyukta Kisan Morcha to keep up protests for a law-mandated MSP for farmers.
According to the 2015 report of a government committee on restructuring the Food Corporation of India, only 6% of India’s farmers gained from selling wheat and paddy directly to a government procurement agency.
At a meeting of the core committee of the SKM in New Delhi on Saturday, there was unanimity that the struggle for legally guaranteed MSP would continue, but what form this movement will take was to be planned at a meeting on 21 November of the decision-making body of the SKM’s constituent member unions.
Farmers Versus BJP In Uttar Pradesh
In his address, the prime minister urged protestors camped outside Delhi to return home in response to the big announcement, but after a meeting of the SKM core committee on Saturday, leaders decided against calling off either the sit-in protests or the events planned for the coming week. That includes a ‘kisan mahapanchayat’ or large rally of farmers, in Lucknow, capital of poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, on 22 November.
Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait will address the mahapanchayat, which leaders hoped will be as well attended as the 5 September mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar in western UP, where over 100,000 farmers from more than 200 organisations across UP, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and Karnataka gathered.
Significantly, the Muzaffarnagar mahapanchayat saw members of the Jat and Muslim communities forge an important unity around the farmers’ movement in the communally sensitive district ravaged by Hindu-Muslim riots in 2013.
Tweeting a picture of the huge gathering of farmers in Muzaffarnagar, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had commented that it was a rousing alarm to an “unjust government”.
The Lucknow mahapanchayat will be the next in the SKM’s ‘Mission Uttar Pradesh-Uttarakhand’, an initiative to rout the ruling BJP in these states in the Assembly elections of 2022.
At Tikri, college student Namandeep Singh of UP’s Chandausi district, near Moradabad, said it was a “thrilling experience” to be at the protest site when the PM’s announcement came. His friends gathered at a spontaneous celebration told Article 14 that the anger in UP against the BJP was not limited to the three laws alone but was also on account of a severe shortage of fertiliser and allegations of black-marketeering of urea that have affected the rabi or winter crop sowing for millions of farmers.
According to Dhawale, the Kisan Sabha leader, the prime minister committed a “serious error” by waiting almost a year before repealing the laws, and in making no reference to the farmers who died during the protests, some contracting ailments on account of extreme cold or heat, some in accidents. “He did not even mention the Lakhimpur Kheri incident in which seven people were murdered, this will prove to be a costly oversight,” Dhawale said.
The repeal of the three laws alone will not help the BJP gain ground in UP, said Dhawale, adding fuel prices and unemployment to the list of complaints he heard on his tour of the state.
Tractor Trolleys Not Leaving Delhi Borders Yet
“All plans announced earlier will continue as scheduled,” said Mansa, the SKM core committee member. This includes tractor- and bullock-cart parades to be held in several cities on 26 November, to mark the completion of one year of the sit-in.
About 50,000 farmers from 100 organisations across Maharashtra will gather at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan on 28 November in a show of solidarity.
From 29 November, 500 volunteers in tractor trolleys will roll every day from the Delhi protest sites towards Parliament House, courting arrest in a “peaceful and disciplined” way.
At the Singhu and Tikri Kalan protest sites on the far western edge of the capital, protestors said younger men will return from Punjab and Haryana soon. “The wheat sowing is almost complete, and those who had left the protest to complete farm operations will now return in coming days,” said Ramesh Sundana of the Dalal Khap of Jhajjar, Haryana.
Highway toll plazas forced shut by farmers in Haryana and Punjab will continue to remain “free”, said SKM leaders. In a written reply to Lok Sabha, union minister for road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari said in August 2021 that collections at 58 plazas had been affected for periods ranging from 12 to 182 days in 2020-21 in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, causing an estimated loss of Rs 814.13 crore.
At SInghu and Tikri, the farmers’ shacks have evolved over 12 months, going from tarpaulin-covered trolleys to bamboo-wood-tarpaulin structures, many with their own little patch of macadam fenced off and festooned with potted plants. Many have air-conditioning units affixed to windows, and signboards outside proclaiming ‘No Farmers No Food’, or ‘We Are Farmers, Not Terrorists’, some stating their address in the Gurmukhi script—a pillar number as marked by the Delhi Metro running overhead.
At Singhu, one aid organisation’s shack on the median of the highway was bordered on one side with a whole patch of grass and decorative palm trees.
Learning & Leaving For Home
For some, the impending repeal of the laws was a ray of hope for a return home.
Swaiman Singh, 35, a doctor who set up a full functioning medical clinic in the premises of a to-be-commissioned bus depot built by the Haryana government on the Tikri-Rohtak road, said he could hope now to return to the United States and complete his super-specialisation in cardiology. Singh, who belongs to a wealthy farming family in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district and has lived in the US since the age of 10, said he felt compelled to offer his services as a doctor when the protesting farmers arrived at the gates of Delhi.
He left behind his family, including a three-year-old daughter, to get involved in medical relief work at the farmers’ protest.
At the ‘Pind California’ clinic run by his 5 Rivers Heart Association, more than 100,000 patients have been given medicines during the past year, alongside initiatives for clean water, washing machines.
During the pandemic, Singh and his team of volunteer doctors offered round-the-clock consultation, including to people not living in the Tikri camp. The group also built bathrooms and 2,200 residential structures.
“Sikhism teaches us to do seva,” Singh told Article 14. “I couldn’t have put my selfish career interests ahead of service and returned to the US.”
In Haryana’s Hansi block of Hisar district where a protestor named Kuldeep Rana was injured during a protest in the first week of November and remains in hospital, a two-week sit-in protest by farmers ended on Friday evening when the administration accepted their demands including a compensation package for Rana, employment for a member of his family and a probe into the incident.
Mann, the unionist running Tikri’s largest langar, said he didn’t know much about the farm laws when he joined the protesting farmers and just came to stand with “our Punjabi brothers”. The past 12 months have been a sharp learning curve as an organiser, he said, referring to the daily truckload of groceries, vegetables and other material arriving at his langar, from where he also supplied material twice a week to 17 other langar organisers at the Tikri site, the tonnes of flour, rice, spices, cooking oil, fresh vegetables and fruits raised as donations through a chain of villages across Haryana and Punjab .
The year has also given Mann the opportunity to think deeply about Indian agriculture. The repeal of the three laws is only the first step, he said. “Yeh arthik azaadi ki ladai hai. (This is a battle for economic independence.)” he said. “And the farmers have just begun this journey.”
(Kavitha Iyer is the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought’, a book on agricultural distress, and a senior editor with Article 14.)