The Bharat Bandh on Tuesday, called by the farmers seeking the repeal of the farm reform laws, has by and large passed off peacefully. As expected, Punjab, the epicentre of the agitation, observed a complete bandh. With the state government supporting the protest, this was not surprising. Other places in the country saw little impact of the bandh, though the Opposition-affiliated farmers’ bodies registered solidarity by organising stray dharnas and processions in some cities.
We have to commend the protesting farmers for ensuring a violence-free bandh, in itself a rarity in the protest history of the country. The other notable development of the day was the impromptu meeting between the farmers’ leaders and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, scheduled for later on Tuesday evening. This would most likely suggest that the Government has worked out a compromise formula which it wants to be considered by the farmers’ leaders before the same is officially presented in the seventh round of talks on Wednesday.
The meeting with Shah would also help the Government fine-tune its response, keeping in view this evening’s interaction with the farmers’ leaders. A cynical view would suggest that the meeting with Shah ahead of the seventh round of talks the following day is a ploy to divide the farmers. Under the circumstances though, it is highly unlikely that any attempt to deflect the Punjab farmers from their main objective of neutralising the three farm reform legislations would succeed. They have a deep financial stake in ensuring the indefinite continuance of the system of wheat and paddy procurement at the minimum support price.
Though Madhya Pradesh now produces a higher tonnage of wheat, and invariably of a superior quality as well, it is the Punjab farmer who has come to develop a vested interest in the MSP mechanism for marketing his produce. Should the Government give in to the unreasonable demand for jettisoning the long overdue reforms, there can be no guarantee that future procurement under the MSP mechanism would absorb the entire quantities of wheat and paddy. Servicing the interest alone on nearly Rs 2 lakh crore in borrowed funds for procurement of foodgrain stored in the FCI godowns inflicts a heavy cost on the public exchequer.
The FCI has a legitimate reason not to stock wheat and paddy over and above the requirement to maintain an officially mandated minimum buffer stock. The point is that the Punjab farmers ought to switch gradually to cash crops, animal husbandry, poultry etc. The FCI is a relic of the era of food shortages when the country lived from, as they said those days, from ship to mouth.
Searing memories of the begging bowl economy, with the PL-480 wheat distributed through the countrywide ration-shop network may not haunt the younger generations fortunate to have been born in an era of food surpluses. But the tragedy is that the Punjab farmers insist on keeping alive the system devised for an earlier period. Such a vested interest in the past is inimical to the modernisation of Indian agriculture.
Meanwhile, the Opposition parties, being desperate to identify themselves with the protesting farmers, seem to have at last got a photo-op. On Wednesday, they are scheduled to meet President Ram Nath Kovind, to present a memorandum endorsing the demand for rollback of farm reforms. This is not surprising, even though many of the Opposition worthies had pressed for the very-same reforms while in power.
The latest to join the galaxy of opportunists is the AAP fuehrer, Arvind Kejriwal. As Chief Minister of Delhi, he took the lead in notifying the farm reforms in the Union Territory but he now shamefacedly claims to be against them. Besides, the Delhi Government criminalised the burning of farm waste, imposing monetary penalty and a prison term for the offenders. Decriminalising waste-burning being one of the demands of the farmers, Kejriwal hopes his hypocrisy would go unnoticed. He managed to make an early splash in the media on the bandh morning, falsely claiming he was put under house arrest by the police. Farmers can do well without such opportunistic well-wishers.