With the massive numbers of people engaged in a non-violent protest against the Three Farm Laws by the Modi Government, Dr. Ashish Mittal, a key prime mover in the Kisan Movement explains further. He touched on the unions involved, the demands as well as the proposals, on the government’s counter response and propaganda, if the farmers could have a role in the legislature to protect their needs, and the kind of support they have been getting.
The Farmers’ Protest Movement
It is made up of 33 unions in Punjab, about 49 in Haryana, and several in the other states. It is difficult to count because between being small and big, having an expanse of work from a few districts, to those having volunteer setups, it is huge. India is a huge country, multilingual, multicultural. Very difficult to tell figures but I can tell you that we are sitting at the Tikri border, with trolleys and tents spread over 22 square kilometers. At the Singhu border, we are spread over about two kilometers wide to about nine kilometers. So that is also about 18 square kilometers. In Gazipur, we are in huge numbers now, though not as many, stretched around a highway of about two kilometers.
On the 26th of January, 400,000 tractors and 1.5 million new people came specially to Delhi borders for the Republic day parade from areas within 300 kilometers of Delhi, but 80% of that massive number could not enter. It was a phenomenal gathering in any case. We were on all the borders, but we could not see for how long the tractors and people coming for that program were lined-up. Huge power. Very big.
Demands and Proposals of the Farmers’ Protest Movement
Obviously, there is a big difference between the government’s claims and the real thing that is happening. Huge difference. These farm bills are not useful for to the farmers at all. Indian agriculture has been in severe crisis, and these laws are going to enhance the farmers’ crisis. These laws have to be repealed and the issues re-addressed through collective participation. That is our proposal.
Repeal these farm laws and then form a committee to identify the issues facing Indian agriculture, and have a collective manner of finding solutions to. A collective meeting of minds. Yes.
One key issue is input prices. In India, input prices are very high and are also heavily taxed. Diesel is a very important resource and two-thirds of the price is government tax. It is not a subsidy but a negative subsidy, similar for all other inputs. Input prices have to be reduced, which will make agriculture viable and creative. Creative because of the creative skills of Indian people. It is like the kind of varieties of mangoes that we grow; it is mind blowing. Have you tasted or seen the vast variety of mangoes, the kinds of hybrids our farmers create? It is absolutely mind blowing and has such delicious flavors! So it is for this reason that these companies are coming here. If you reduce the input prices, you will get so many agricultural products. You need to ensure that the farmers earn out of the commercial sale of these products. That has to be a real issue. If that happens, I think India will become one of the richest countries. All our population problems, all our poverty problems, our nutritional problems will have been solved.
Lower the input prices so that farmers can be more creative in their output.
Aside from inputs, place the marketing and processing structures of the crops needs to be under the control of farmers so that they earn from it. Not the agro processed products being sold by the companies who are earning huge profits from them. This has to be addressed. There are several other issues: education that the society needs to have, farm education, healthcare, healthcare infrastructure, civic infrastructure that is vastly lacking. The terrain has to be settled which needs a lot of engineering skills.
I have not studied many other countries, but India is a country which has a lot of rain-fed agriculture that can serve the requirements for the entire year. But the terrain needs local storage tanks. This is a full engineering task to actually implement it and solve irrigation problems. You don’t need big dams. Big dams are a disaster. In the long run, the agro economy, the environment, ecology, biodiversity, all get destroyed. There are a lot of questions to answer in order to creatively use the Indian terrain for the development of agriculture and of its people. A huge task. It needs the meeting of minds and some gray matter exercises, collectively.
Government’s Counter Propaganda
The short appeal
Well, these three laws are going to change the agricultural pattern in the country to the detriment of Indian farmers and will completely erode village life. And they are going to establish control of the corporate world and the multinational corporations, on all agricultural processes, they are going to determine and dictate what crops need to be grown, they are going to be controlling the inputs supplies, diesel, petrol, electricity, seeds, fertilizers, machinery, they are going to be selling all agricultural services in terms of spraying, in terms of irrigation, in terms of harvesting, and the farmer is going to be forced to buy them and ultimately they are going to be purchasing the crop grown as per their requirement. By bringing down the actual price paid to the farmer, because they are going to assay it before they purchase, the quality of the crop and they will determine the ultimate price paid as per the results of their assay. They are going to be controlling the agricultural markets. In Indian agricultural markets, big traders have so far been banned, because big traders tend to lower the price by exercising market monopoly and they lower the price by involving the farmers in debts and as per the debt they squeeze down the price. But now this whole business of purchase of crops is going to be opened up through these private mandis (markets), which are going to determine the price of all the crops all over the country through the internet, through the e-trading platforms.
And the country is going to suffer from what is now going to be redefined as essential commodities. India had an act called the Essential Commodities Act, which said that all essential commodities for life, which included food, water, electricity, medicines, petrol, diesel, and all these things which would have been notified by the government, they cannot be stocked beyond notified limits, they cannot be stored and black marketed. The government has passed an amendment to this act and it says that food will no longer be considered as an essential commodity! And they have said that the Act will not come into play unless the prices of the food items, like the dry foods – cereals, pulses and oilseeds, do not rise 50% over their prices in the previous year.
That means, every year the price can be more than 1.5 times; if you are selling wheat at 20 rupees a kilo, the next year it can be 30 rupees a kilo, and the year after that 45 rupees a kilo and year after that 67 rupees a kilo and year after that 100 rupees a kilo. So, this is the kind of price escalation that this law is now going to allow. And for vegetables and fruits, it is going to be two times the price prevailing in the previous year. So, essentially, this whole food market is being opened up for the multinational corporations and the figures, as I have, say that India’s processed food market is 300,000 million rupees, and they expect it to grow within a year or two to 2,100,000 million rupees. This is the kind of magnitude of growth which the corporate are expecting from these laws. So, this is the essential reason why the farmers are up in protest against these laws, because they feel that they will lose their land.
As per the contract Act, the land will have to be mortgaged to debt agencies in order that the farmer has enough money to pay to the Corporation for the inputs and services. In case the farmer takes a loan from the contracting company, the company will recover the loan, if the farmer does not pay back, as per section 14.7 of the act, by selling the land of the farmer. It is clearly written in the Act. So, as a whole, all the three acts are actually going to engage the farmer through a number of middlemen, who actually will be agents and agencies of these multinational corporations and enforce the production of crops which are useful for the company’s commercial interests. Subsistence farming, sustainable farming, which actually the farmers do by growing food crops for themselves and their children, will come to an end.
The Government Act clearly says that, as per section 16, that the central government will enforce the implementation of these laws strictly by issuing orders to the state governments, which the state governments will have to follow. So, there is no escape from them. It is going to be a government program, which is going to be forced through the administrative and police setups. And anybody who does not comply, mind you, he will be booked for being anti-national. So, the question is that it is not just a matter of some commercial interest entry. Their commercial interest is being thrust upon us. That is the kind of force and power that these acts have. This is the reason why the farmers are against these laws. The farmers have been suffering huge losses because they don’t get proper prices for their crops. They have been protesting the steep rise in the input costs.
And that is why, in addition to the repeal of these laws, we have also demanded that there should be a law for ensuring that all crops are purchased at the MSP-Minimum Support Price. And the minimum support price is to be determined by a formula of comprehensive input costs and, add to that 50%. This formula was given by the National Farmers Commission in 2006. The Chairperson of that commission was Professor Swaminathan. So, this is the demand of the farmers. The farmers are also demanding annulment and repeal of the New Electricity Act. This new Act says that there will be no subsidized electricity for farmers and for rural households. So this in short is my appeal.
This is an issue that directly concerns 51% of India’s population, which is directly dependent on farming, and the balance population, which eats what they produce. It doesn’t quite look like that we can really influence the entire political outlook in the country even with these numbers. India is too huge. But certainly, there are new thoughts. Certainly, there are many of the people who are not supporting the farmers’ movement but have started rethinking what is so grave in these laws. Because there is a lot of misinformation being spread by the government.
The government is saying these laws are going to double farmers’ income. They first said that these people sitting in protest are criminals, then they said these are political people, opposition-led people. They have been trying to say that the farmers don’t understand what they are talking about. So, it has given protesters time to read the laws. We tell them that they are telling a lie over here, but it doesn’t come out in the media. They ask a question, we give them the answer. They say that the prices will not fall. We tell them that while you have announced a support price of 1975 rupees of quintal, the prevailing open market sale is at 1400. If you are going to buy from those centers, which are selling at 1975 today, at 1400, what happens to the price in those areas where it was earlier selling at 1400, because the market follows certain laws. They don’t have an answer.
I think all countries which have grown to be big powers worldwide, whether from a communist or a capitalist background, or from any mixed political outlook, have grown because they have always kept their agriculture secure from foreign exploitation. India is the only country trying to claim to become a superpower on the strength of foreign corporations controlling agriculture.
All democratic and progressive minded people and organizations should put up these questions and seek answers; they should try to get people to come out in protest. That is the appeal. Support does appear slow. But this government has been propagating all sorts of biases against the farmers: that they are anti-national, agents of Pakistan, have been propped up by foreign funds, are communally charged, are acting against the country’s interests, etc.
But none of that has been able to cut ice. This government has lost all elections held in the country since the time this movement has started. It is not that this growth of our support is slow. The government has also been losing support continuously on all these issues. People take time to understand the problem’s magnitude. People have been living in this country in the hope that one party or its opposition will serve their interests. This is one issue which is pinning down the party in power as well as the opposition.
The opposition also has not come clean on these issues. They are not speaking in one voice, they’re not speaking clearly, they are only saying that the government should solve the problems of the farmers, they are not saying to repeal these acts, to repeal the electricity act, to bring down the input prices. That is one reason why people continue to remain confused. After all, only the leaders of farmers are talking about their issue. The people living in cities who see farming as a backyard provide some support. Farming is no longer the life of urban people. It is something long lost or forgotten. It will take time, things are inching and developing. It is a slow process. But the reality is actually gaining ground, sinking in slowly, because people in the cities are also a suffering a huge loss of jobs. India has shown a 9.6% growth in the number of farmers in one year. This is the impact of the coronavirus lockdown. This linkage is actually getting deeper and deeper. Things may take time to develop, they start slowly. But they gain the pace.
Political Support for the Farmers’ Movement
All opposition parties say they are standing-by, but I cannot really say that even one political party has actually shown any real action in the states that they are governing. Because India has multiple states and multiple parties ruling their own states.
Six state governments have passed resolutions saying that these laws should be repealed. These are voices that are not translating into practice. Not in the form of a movement. This government has been shaken by people sitting on the borders of Delhi. But, we don’t see those parties and those assemblies which have passed resolutions, in those states rallying with the farmers too. So there is a gap.
Representation of Farmers in Legislature
Laws are made by parliamentarians, politicians in power. No politician in power or in opposition has given any honest support to date. Some are just playing empty drums, meaningless things. Addressing the question “Shouldn’t farmers have better representation in the parliament maybe by forming a political party or influencing a political party formation to work on these issues” the answer given was that Indian legislature works on regional and area representations, it has no technical or professional representations. It is a question of looking at the entire constitutional structure in a different manner.
Nevertheless what you are witnessing is actual farmers’ politics. That, if these farmers’ leaders, who have all grown and have learned to articulate everything better than what was being done nine months back.
The message is loud and clear. “Farmers should stick to their own politics and their politics is to make the government change policy.”
Gandhian methodology of active non-violence as a method
Ours is a movement which has decided to force the government to listen to the voices of masses. The first step was to come to Delhi in huge numbers. There is no question or conception of being violent. The concept was to put the numbers and make them sit. The whole idea was not entirely Gandhian. Because when the government stopped us, we broke the barricades. When the government chased us with stones, charges, gas shells, and water cannons, we braved that. We moved ahead. We did not blame anybody. And we are going to be prepared to continue with that. Because that is one force which this government is scared of. That’s how we feel.
Using non-violence as a method is internally felt as a very great method. That is the people’s method. People are never violent. I know that spontaneously, sometimes when people are humiliated physically, they react. It is a very, very defensive kind of violence. People by nature are not violent. Violence is a tool of the powerful people. When they force you do what they want. People are never like that.
I think peaceful protest is a very great tool. The beauty of this whole thing is the general nature of people all over the world. Here people have come together on such a platform. And if they are there, it is like a gardener who is actually seeing his flowers blossom every day. For us, it is a very new kind of awakening and a great sense of pleasure, a great feeling. Like, we are trying to tell the country that this is the right path. Every farmer sitting there is trying to have that feeling that they are on the right path.
I think the government knows very well, that this is not going to go away. They are actually trying a game plan of trying to create differences, to show a break in the unity of the farmers by continuously putting up and propping up some stooges, demoralizing this protest. The government’s game plan is not working. The base of the moment is just too big for the government to handle. These tactics could have worked for a moment, if the movement was restricted to a few districts or a small area. They may demoralize and break up protests in one district, but in another district, it then gets rejuvenated. For them to try something on a huge scale which they tried on the 26th of January, they failed, because the anger of the farmers was just too big. They couldn’t handle it.
Local and International Support for the Indian Farmers
Big support is the protests taking place worldwide. And something that I feel should grow even more, with international seminars, and international media writing more about it. And, the biggest thing is people coming on the streets. And number two is people writing about it. But protests do and should be held appropriately, at the embassies, at the government’s headquarters of the countries in which they are being held, asking the government to send directives, send emissaries and send messages to the Indian government that this is too much. That will be a good support we can get. And we are getting quite a bit. The Canadian government did and a number of other governments also passed resolutions asking for the Indian government to look into the problems of farmers. The Canadian government was more forthright.
Given all these, the farmers’ protest is not diminishing and the hope that their demands and proposals gain space in a non-violent way, may usher in a better future, not only for farmers but for everyone who needs food on their tables and to improve health.
About the Interviewee:
Dr. Ashish Mittal did MBBS from AIIMS in 1982. Studied Community Medicine and thereafter joined the farmers’ movement. Is amongst the founding members of All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS) and became its General Secretary in the year 2016. AIKMS works mainly amongst landless and poor peasants, tribals and fishermen in the states of Punjab, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal. It takes up livelihood, forced displacement and farmer’s economic issues.