Farmers’ Stir: A Worsening Situation
The breakdown of the talks between the government and the farmers carries a worrisome message. There is now every likelihood of the farmers’ agitation spiralling out of control, resulting in violence. This disturbing possibility cannot be discosunted considering that the agitators have decided to block some of the national highways and boycott the malls run by a corporate house.
It is unlikely that the government will show exemplary patience and forbearance in dealing with the protesters beyond a point. As it is, the police hadn’t refrained from using water cannons and tear gas against the agitators in the early stages of the protests. Now that the latter appear determined to disrupt normal life to draw attention to their grievances, it will be unrealistic to expect the government to do nothing.
The chances of a worsening of the situation, which has been peaceful so far, are all the greater because the farmers do not have a recognized single leader. They have all gathered under the umbrella of a large number of organizations, numbering more than 30.
It has been a remarkable achievement for these outfits to ensure that their discipline is not breached. Their success in this respect is presumably due to the fact that they have been motivated by the single objective of compelling the government to repeal the three new farm laws. Although there were reports of a division in their ranks on the eve of a meeting between the farmers’ represenatives and Union home minister Amit Shah, they proved untrue.
But, now, the need for maintaining order will be crucial because an outbreak of lawlessness will not only exacerbate the differences in their ranks between moderates and hardliners, but also enable the government to give the movement a bad name, lending justification to a crackdown.
Already, the protesters have been accused of being Khalistanis or supporters of a separate Sikh state and a Union minister has seen the hands of China and Pakistan behind the agitation. Such charges will be levelled with greater vehemence if there are incidents of violence in the coming days.
The reason for the collapse of the talks is that neither side was willing to budge from their main positions. While the government was reluctant to undo the three laws, the farmers were not satisfied with the amendments that were proposed such as guaranteeing the minimum support price and not tampering with the existing marketing system comprising mandis or trading centres.
If the government’s conciliatory offers have failed to evoke a positive response from the farmers, the reason is the conviction among the latter that the government is speaking on behalf of the business houses rather than the farmers. This suspicion may have been strengthened by a video circulating on the smart phones of the acres of agricultural land acquired by an industrialist for building warehouses for storing foodgrains bought from the farmers for subsequent sale. A private railway line has already been laid down for transporting the grains.
It is difficult to assert the veracity of the video in the age of fake news, but it is images of this nature which queer the pitch for a settlement. Moreover, there is an ingrained bias against privatization in India perhaps due to the rapacious operations of the East India Company in the 19th century. The name of the British company was invoked when India opted for globalization in 1991 and even when the Amnesty International recently stopped its operations in India on the grounds of harassment by the authorities. A fair number of Netizens described its departure as good riddance.
If the opening up of the previously largely state-controlled economy in 1991 affected the industries and services in the public sector, the new farm laws are expected to lead to the private companies playing a major role in agriculture, which has till now been the preserve of individual peasants, big and small, and the government. It is the latter’s projected retreat from the operations relating to the cereals, viz. wheat and rice, which has upset the farmers.
While the private players are already active in segments such as fruits and vegetables, it is entry into the big money spinners related to the staple diet of the population which is apparently the objective of the tycoons with their projects for contract farming.
Arguably, their intentions would not have raised hackles among their targets in the villages and farm lands if the businessmen did not suffer from the reputation of being adept at unfair practises. In films and serials, they are invariably depicted as crooks. It is not only Bollywood which shows them in a poor light. Even in Hollywood, it will be difficult to find a film which portrays an honest businessman.
The government, therefore, has an arduous task on its hands if it wants to facilitate large-scale operations by the private sector in agriculture. On one hand, the farmers will want the government to stand by them and protect their interests from an untrustworthy player. On the other hand, the corporate sector would like the government to stay away in accordance with the norms of a deregulated economy.
But if the government does show signs of giving the private sector a free hand, it may not be electorally helpful in a country where many parties still harbour socialistic instincts even after the dogma’s demise with the fall of the Berlin wall.