Friday, 17 September, marked a year of the enactment of the controversial farm laws in India.
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 -- got the nation divided, leading to farmer-led agitations across the country for the past one year.
What are the farm laws?
Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020: This act provides scope for farmers to expand their area of trade from select areas to "any place of production, collection, aggregation". They can also move to electronic trading and e-commerce for scheduled produce. This law prohibits state governments to levy any market fee, cess on farmers, traders, and electronic trading platforms.
Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020: According to this law, farmers can enter into pre-arranged contracts with buyers within a legal framework.
Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020: This act removes food such as cereals, pulses, potato, onions, edible oilseeds, and oils, from the list of essential commodities, removing stock holding limits on agricultural items produced by horticulture techniques except under "extraordinary circumstances". It allows imposition of any stock limit on agricultural produce only if there is a steep price rise.
The government presented these laws as reforms akin to the 1991-opening of the Indian economy linking it with the globalised markets.
It argued that the three laws open up new opportunities for the farmers so that they can earn more from their farm produces.
The government said the new laws will help to strengthen basic farm sector infrastructure through greater private investments.
Farmers’ fears and ensuing protests
Farmers, however, are not convinced of the laws. Their main apprehension is that the laws will will eventually abolish the Minimum Support Price (MSP) guaranteed by the Centre on select crops, leaving them at the mercy of big corporate houses.
Reacting to the laws, farmers from Punjab announced a three-day rail roko on 24 September 2020.
In the next three months, the agitations only gained momentum.
After a series of unorganised protests against the farm laws, farmer unions of Haryana and Punjab collectively gave the clarion call for 'Delhi Chalo' movement on 25 November, 2020, which formally started the agitations.
On 26 November, during their 'Delhi Chalo' march, the farmers faced water cannons, tear gas as the police tried to disperse them at Haryana’s Ambala district. Later, police allowed them to enter Delhi for their peaceful protest at Nirankari ground in North-West Delhi where they began their indefinite protest.
To resolve the situation and find a middle-path, the government called for a conversation with the farmer representatives, which remained inconclusive.
While the protest started without a leader, Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Rakesh Tikait, emerged as the face of the demonstration.
On 29 November 2020, in his monthly radio broadcast, Mann ki Baat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that all political parties had been making promises to the farmers but it was his government that fulfilled their promises.
“New dimensions are being added to agriculture and its related activities in India. The agriculture reforms in the past few days have also now opened new doors of possibilities for our farmers. These reforms have not only served to unshackle our farmers but also given them new rights and opportunities,” said the PM.
He even assured that the MSP system would not be done away with completely. When even seven rounds of discussion between the government and the farmer representatives, remained inconclusive, the Supreme Court agreed to hear petitions from both sides and decided to constitute a committee to resolve the deadlock. The SC put a stay on the implementation of the controversial three laws.
Realising that the government wasn't going to budge, the Bharatiya Kisan Union moved the Supreme Court on 11 December 2020.
Finally, on 12 January 2021, farmers heaved a sigh of relief when the SC stayed the implementation of the contentious laws and set up a four-member committee to make recommendations on the legislations after listening to all stakeholders.
The farmers agitation grabbed international eyeballs when farmers marched to Red Fort on Republic Day and vandalised public property.
A section of the agitators even climbed onto the Red Fort and hoisted the Nishan Sahib flag.
International celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of the farmers. Thunberg also shared a toolkit on farmer protests.
The Centre viewed these tweets of support as “neither accurate nor responsible” and even hinted at Khalistani support being offered for the protests.
In August of this year, the protests turned political in nature with opposition leaders joining the scene, trying to paint the government as pro-industrialist and anti-farmers.
Refusing to back down, the farm leaders driving the movement staged a major show of strength in Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar early this month, announcing in front of thousands of farmers their plan to campaign against the ruling party in the state.
Support for the farm laws
However, there is a section of people who look at the laws as a revolutionary reform in the Indian agricultural sector, which would improve market efficiency and private investment.
Top academicians from across India’s leading science and management institutes in December had written to the prime minister in support of the farms laws.
“We, from the academic world across leading institutes and Universities would like to assure our support to the three farm Acts passed by the Government of India. We discussed with our colleagues who are experts in this field and based on our discussion we feel this moment should not be missed. This is a golden opportunity for reforms which has been eluding agriculture since the industrial reforms in 1991. We are convinced that the moment has arrived for agriculture and if these reforms are missed, agriculture will have no future in India,” the letter had said.
Few other farmer organisations also lend their voice in favour of the farm laws. Under the banner of the All India Kisan Coordination Committee, the group of farmers belonging to states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana expressed their support for the laws.
"The farmers have been following old techniques. So, it is necessary to do ammendments in these laws," they had said.
Marking the year
Marking the completion of a year of the enactment of the controversial farm laws, Shiromani Akali Dal is holding 'Black Friday Protest March' from Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib to the Parliament building on Friday.
Similarly, the Aam Aadmi Party has announced that it will hold candle marches across Punjab to pay tribute to the farmers who died during the ongoing agitation against the farm legislations.
Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has also demanded immediate scrapping of the legislations by the Union government, calling for detailed discussions to find a way forward with the farmers.
With five state elections in the offing, and opposition parties joining the protesting farmers, will the Modi government be able to find the middle path? That, only time will reveal...
Inputs from agencies