September 27 marked one year of enactment of the three agriculture laws, as the farm bills were given presidential assent and notified in the Gazette of India and became farm laws. To mark one year since they were passed, farmer organisations called a Bharat bandh on Monday. The three laws – Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 – the farmers fear will undermine existing agriculture markets, lead to the abolishment of the minimum support price (MSP) guaranteed by the government on select crops and leave them at the mercy of big private corporates. The government, on the other hand, maintains that the laws will give farmers more options in selling their produce, lead to better pricing and free them from unfair trade practices and monopolies.
The farmers’ protest has continued for more than ten months, with several hundreds of farmers demonstrating at the Delhi borders to express their dissent against the farm laws. They have demanded that the government repeal the laws and make MSP a legal right. But the government has rejected both the demands and there seems to be no solution to the impasse between the farmers and the government, as multiple attempts to address the differences have not yielded any result.
So far, 11 rounds of talks have taken place between the government and Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of more than 32 farmers unions. The last round of talks were held on January 22. However, no headway was made. Since then, there has been a deadlock, with farmers’ groups demanding a complete roll back of the laws, rejecting the Centre’s offer to suspend their implementation for two years.
The farmers have said that they are ready to talk to the government, should the Centre invite them. However, they have maintained that there is no change in their demands. There is also no progress on the Supreme Court (SC)-appointed committee’s report submitted to the court, which has not been made public so far.
It is important to mention here that while suspending the laws, the SC had, on January 12, appointed an expert committee, consisting of four members – Anil Ghanwat, president of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, Pramod Joshi, an agriculture economist and the former director for South Asia at the International Food Policy Research Institute, agriculture economist Ashok Gulati and All India Kisan Coordination chief Bhupinder Singh Mann. Two days after the committee was formed, Mann recused himself from it, stating that his interest was with the farmers. However, the famers unions rejected the court appointed committee and accused its members of having a set agenda in favour of the laws.
SC panel report
In March 2021, the committee submitted its report to the court. But six months later, the court has neither released it, nor issued any orders based on it. On September 1, Ghanwat wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India, urging the highest authority of the court to release the report prepared by the committee. In his letter, Ghanwat noted that the court has not given any attention to the report which, he wrote, “addressed all the apprehensions of the farmers” and saw it as a way for the protesting farmers to reach a solution.
“As a member of the committee, especially representing farmers’ community, I am pained that the issues raised by the farmers aren’t yet resolved and the agitation is continuing,” Ghanwat wrote in his letter to the court. Joshi, another member of the committee, has also reportedly questioned why the court has not released the report yet.
Curiously, the SC has also not heard the matter since it stayed the implementation of the laws in January, nor has it set a date to hear the matter in the near future. According to reports, some farmers’ organisations have also written to Chief Justice N V Ramana and appealed to him to resume hearings in the matter. While on several occasions the government has urged the farmers to suspend their protest and expressed its willingness to discuss their demands, farmers have stuck to their key demands – the three farm laws should be repealed and a new law should be enacted to ensure MSP for crops.
They fear that the laws that open up the agriculture markets to private companies will make them vulnerable to corporate exploitation and would dismantle the MSP regime. However, the government has refused to repeal the laws and rejected their demand to make MSP a legal right, while accusing farmers of continuing with their agitation despite the Centre’s efforts and willingness to discuss the matter.
Since the promulgation of three farm bills on June 5 and their passage in Lok Sabha (September 17) and the Rajya Sabha (September 20), followed by the President’s assent a week later, the farmers’ agitation, after nationwide sporadic protests, shifted to Delhi’s borders on November 26. Since then, thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi demanding the repeal of the laws. By and large, the protests have been peaceful, except the violence witnessed during the farmers’ tractor rally in Delhi on January 26.
Now, as the stalemate continues in absence of discussions between the government and farmers and no court hearing in the matter, what lies ahead for the agitating farmers? While after ten months of agitation, it seems the farmers are in it for the long haul and showing no signs of relenting on their demands, it is quite likely that fatigue among farmers will grow and the lack of dialogue with the government will lead to restlessness among their ranks unless the deadlock with the government is broken or the SC decides to intervene.
Given the government’s tough stand on the laws, farmers have no choice but to continue with their stir and keep the momentum going by innovating their campaign. This probably explains why the farm unions are now focused on the forthcoming assembly elections in early 2022 and want to take their campaign to poll-bound states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttarakhand and hope to hurt the BJP electorally. While farmer leaders see taking their agitation to the elections as a way forward for them to keep the momentum of the protest high, how far they will succeed remains to be seen.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist