Punjab Paralysed: Farmer distress spills over
Farmers in the land of five rivers are taking to the highways to bring attention to the rot in the agrarian sector. Will the state machinery continue to react with force or will they listen?
Abeer Kapoor Delhi
On Monday, September 5, the Amritsar Rural Police arrested 100 protesting farmers and held them in preventive custody. Railing against the ‘anti-farmer’ policies of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state, the angry agitators took to the Amritsar-Jalandhar National Highway, causing a traffic jam that nearly lasted three hours. In addition, the farmers staged protests in front of sixteen district headquarters. This was a response to a call for action issued by several farmers’ unions.
A month ago, on August 3, HS Sandhu of the Kirti Kisan Union (KKU), the farmers union of the CPI(M-L), had called at a famers’ meet for an indefinite strike on September 4. The demands were that farmers crippled by debt be emancipated, attention be given to the increase in farmer suicides and the unwillingness and flawed methodology in counting the number of suicides, and families that have lost members be provided with a compensation of Rs 5 lakh.
The day after Sandhu’s exhortation, seven farmers’ unions led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta) and KKU under the banner of the Azad Kisan Sangharsh Committee began the strike at Matka Chowk, Chandigarh, as well as in several other towns and cities, including Bhatinda, Mansa, Moga and Amritsar.
Even before the strike could begin, however, many leaders had already been picked up in raids from their houses, in an attempt by the police and the state government to dissuade the demonstrators. According to reports in local newspapers, 300 police officers have been mustered to help manage the agitation. The wariness of the administration and the pre-emptive response are not surprising; for several months, both visible protest and discontent have been on the rise amongst the agrarian classes.
The agrarian crisis in the Punjab came to national attention last October, when thousands of farmers came out to protest against the destruction of their crops by the sudden ‘white-fly’ infestation. They blocked roads and railroads, bringing the state to a halt. Despite the fact that the agitation carried on for several weeks, it was overshadowed by the religious upheaval that gripped several districts in the state. The burning of the Guru Granth Sahib and the problems that arose around the question of Sikh identity with the ‘exoneration of the Deras and the controversy around the Akal Takht’ shifted public attention away from the farmers.
Even before the strike could begin, however, many leaders had already been picked up in raids from their houses, in an attempt by the police and the state government to dissuade the demonstrators
Whether these protests escalate into riots is yet to be seen. However, new data, released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on August 30 for the year 2015, shows a sharp rise in agrarian discontent all over the country. An alarming 327% increase in incidents of agrarian rioting was witnessed between 2014 and 2015, but while the increase has been stark in states like Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, official reports contend that Punjab did not witness a single rural riot.
This is a disaster waiting to happen, as it is no secret that massive rural discontent has been growing in the state. Reports by political parties estimate that lakhs of hectares of arable land were destroyed by the ‘white fly’. To add to this, there were scandals surrounding seed procurement and sale and the quality of the BT cotton that was sold to farmers. According to Suneet Chopra of the CPI(M), rural unrest and upsurges against the administration are evidence of the mistrust and resultant crisis that is eroding the credibility of the political system.
Kuldip Singh, at the Political Science Department of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, in conversation with Hardnews, maintained that no political party had offered any long-term solution or concrete plan for any alternatives. “The decrease in landholdings and the related lower output is impacting the ability to implement modern technologies in the sector. Over and above that, the identification of agriculture as an ‘industry’ by organisations such as the ‘WTO’ are creating problems.” The problem according to him is that the solution does not lie in subsidies, but in an assured market, linked to the development of a better understanding of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the produce.
Reports by political parties estimate that lakhs of hectares of arable land were destroyed by the ‘white fly’. To add to this, there were scandals surrounding seed procurement and sale and the quality of the BT cotton that was sold to farmers
In short, the farmers will continue protesting as the elections draw closer; the administration in turn will become more heavy-handed in its response. Unrest will be quelled with violence, and the politicisation of the police will facilitate shoddy accounting of incidents, so as to look good on paper rather than at ground level.
The rural economy and agrarian sectors are witnessing a rot that is bone-deep. The demand for cheap labour has led to the weakening of the safety nets of policies such as MNREGA, seizure of land, and a fall in the amount of arable land. It would be worthwhile to remember at a time like this that, without a well-considered and government-backed policy addressing their needs, the agricultural sector will remain crippled.