Thousands of farmers from Punjab, on Wednesday (21 April), headed towards Delhi to protest against the now-stalled farm laws. The three farm laws, first introduced as ordinances by the Narendra Modi government last year, were aimed at liberalising the agricultural sector by opening up trade and commerce beyond the purview of Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and middlemen.
The protests, which began in November last year, saw farmers in huge numbers turning up on Delhi’s Singhu, Tikri, and Ghazipur borders. Eventually, the protests led to the violence on Republic Day when thousands of farmers, on tractors and lorries, went on a rampage in the capital including in the Red Fort.
Following the violence on Republic Day, lack of media attention, and the summer heat in Delhi, many farmers started moving back to their villages with only a few choosing to remain behind.
However, led by farmer organisations like the BKU (Ekta Ugrahan), the protesters are now looking to hijack the highways to Delhi once again.
The government and the middlemen in Punjab, the latter backed by the Congress government in the state, have been engaged in a battle on the sidelines.
In March, the Food Corporation of India’s (FCI) Punjab office wrote to the director of food, civil supplies, and consumer affairs in order to request the land records of farmers to ensure direct bank transfer of minimum support price (MSP) for the approaching procurement season. The land records have been made mandatory for wheat procurement and must be updated before the commencement of the rabi marketing season 2021-22.
After some futile protests by the associations representing the interests of the middlemen, the state government agreed for direct payment transfers to the bank accounts of the farmers and cultivators, thus eliminating the middlemen in the payment process who would otherwise take a lion’s share of the payment for debt servicing or else delay it.
The new payment system has become another point of contention between the middlemen and the Narendra Modi government.
Earlier this month, it was reported that middlemen in various parts of the state were forcing farmers and cultivators to sign blank cheques to have their crops auctioned and sold. The middlemen intended to use the blank cheques once the payments had been made to the farmers.
Ignoring the greater interests of the farmers, the Congress government in the state has also been attempting to make middlemen a part of the payment process.
Earlier this month, Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh announced that the State Food Department will amend the procurement software to engage middlemen in the payment process. The procurement software will have a provision for the middlemen to allow payment to the farmers. After the middlemen allow the payment, the money will be credited to the bank accounts of the farmers in 48-72 hours.
Punjab has more than 28,000 middlemen or arhatiyas, each representing anywhere between 20 to 200 farmers. As per the state government, this will ensure that the payment made to the farmers is first used to service the debt to the middlemen and not used anywhere else.
The government, however, should not stop at direct payments and double down against the middlemen who threaten the law and order situation in the capital once again.
Firstly, water and Internet supply must be cut off to all the protesting sites. With the national highways being blocked for months, the government is under no obligation to help the protesting middlemen and farmers with water, electricity, or Internet supply. Any permanent constructions must be disallowed or demolished as well.
Two, the government must make it clear to the protesting farmers and associations that the procurement from Punjab will be discontinued for the upcoming season if the protests continue. Even at the peak of the protests earlier this year, Punjab had a significant procurement share within the agencies of the central government.
Three, protesters blocking the highway must be legally dealt with by the government. Citing the pandemic and the movement of critical resources like oxygen, the government must come down heavily on the protesters blocking highways. Detention and arrests should be an option to deal with the protesters.
Four, the government must cancel all future rounds of talks unless the protesters move back to the villages.
Given the implementation of the laws has been stalled by the Supreme Court, the government must use the leverage to have the protesters go back to their villages. While the government must be credited for being accommodating to the protesters’ interests and apprehensions, this is where the government should draw the line.
Lastly, unlike before, the government must communicate with the voters and stakeholders more efficiently, effectively and without delay. The government has been guilty of narrative mismanagement in the past on the farm laws, even with its noble intentions, and therefore, going forward, the stakeholders within the government must proactively dismantle the misconceptions pertaining to the laws.
The political context around the protests cannot be missed either. Middlemen and their associations enjoy significant political clout on the ground and are therefore critical to all the parties as the 2022 state assembly elections approach.
Thus, no political party, barring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has little to lose in Punjab, would want to be on the wrong side of the middlemen associations.
However, for BJP, it would be ideal to look at the larger picture and continue on its pursuit of liberalising Indian agriculture, especially that of Punjab, constrained and plagued by middlemen and primitive practices.
The government must not weaken before the second wave of protests, and act sternly.
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