A Timeline of the Farmers' Protests in India
Farmers have been protesting against the highly controversial farm laws that were passed by the Indian Parliament in September 2020. Till date, the government and farmers’ unions have not reached an agreement on this matter. The agitating farmers had also intensified their protests by boycotting the products of Reliance, as they believed that the new laws would benefit the company. Recently, the Central Government put forth an offer towards the farmer groups. They have proposed to suspend the three farm laws for a period of up to 1.5 years.
Let us now have a clear understanding of the important events that have taken place over the past few months.
What are the Three Farm Laws?
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act were passed by both houses of the Parliament in September. The bills mentioned were turned into laws on September 27, after receiving the approval of the President.
The Union Government stated that these laws would help in accelerating the overall growth of the agricultural sector. It would encourage private investments in improving infrastructure and supply chains for farm produce in national and global markets. The laws were essentially intended to help small farmers get a better price for their agricultural produce. The primary aim of one of these laws was to allow farmers to sell their produce to any buyer of their choice. They would be able to bypass middlemen or commission agents at state-controlled marketplaces (mandis).
The legislation on contract farming will allow farmers to enter into a contract with agricultural business firms or large retailers on pre-agreed prices of their produce. The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill seeks to remove commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions, and potatoes from the list of essential commodities. This will end the imposition of stock-holding limits, except under extraordinary circumstances.
Why are Farmers Protesting?
Farmers are afraid that these laws may allow the government to introduce a price-discovery mechanism that would completely replace/scrap the current system that they are content with. Many farmers see the minimum support price (MSP) as a vital safety net and fear that it could be removed. In the absence of state-owned market places (mandis) and MSP, farmers would be forced to sell their products at a cheaper rate. They have even alleged that large companies such as Reliance Industries and Adani Group would benefit from these laws. We recently saw that farmers damaged more than 1,500 telecom towers of Reliance Jio in Punjab. You can read more about it here.
Since November 26, lakhs of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh have been protesting and camping at the borders of Delhi. They have become extremely angry at the government for introducing laws that could potentially harm them. The farmers and support groups have stated that they would not stop until all three laws have been repealed. They have also demanded the government to ensure a legal guarantee of MSP. Protests are going on at agriculture-dominated states in India as well. As we know, there have been violent clashes between the agitated protesters and police.
Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar assured that the MSP mechanism will be continued. He also stated that adequate protection of land ownership was in place to protect farmers’ interests. PM Narendra Modi had also stated that these laws are meant to protect and provide benefits to all farmers in India. However, the farmers are not ready to stop their protests until their demands are met.
What Happened Next?
Since the beginning of December, the Central Government and farmers’ associations have conducted numerous talks/discussions to find a middle ground. All discussions have failed miserably, and farmers have further intensified their protests. On December 15, it was reported that the farmers' protests affected trade and other economic activities worth Rs 5,000 crore during the past 20 days. The blocking of national highways has led to disruptions in supply chains. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) stated that the protests could also affect India’s ongoing recovery from the economic contraction due to Covid-19.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court (SC) had to intervene, as it observed that the farmer’s protests had become extremely violent and even led to several deaths. On December 16, a Supreme Court bench, led by Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna & V Ramasubramanian, stated that it intends to form a committee consisting of representatives from farmers unions, government, and other stakeholders to end the deadlock. Since then, the special bench of SC has been hearing statements from all concerned parties.
On January 11, the Chief Justice stated that the court was extremely disappointed with the way the Centre was dealing with the farm laws. It also observed that current negotiations between a delegation of protestors and several Union Ministers were not reaping any results. On January 12, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the Centre’s three farm laws till further notice. It constituted an expert committee that will take inputs from all the relevant stakeholders regarding the protests and the farmers’ concerns. The committee comprised of the following members:
- Bhupinder Singh Mann, President of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and Chairman of the Kisan Coordination Committee
- Policy expert Dr. Pramod Joshi
- Agricultural economist Ashok Gulati
- Anil Ghanvat of the Shetkari Sangathan (A Maharashtra-based farmers union)
The farmer unions have welcomed the stay on the three bills but have rejected the committee. They argue that all four appointed members had openly supported the laws in the media. The protesting farmers and support groups said that the committee is one-sided and will work in favour of the government. On January 14, Bhupinder Singh Mann opted out of becoming a part of the SC-appointed panel. He said, “Since protesting farmers have announced not to appear before the committee, there is no point in being part of it.”
The ninth round of talks between the government and farmers’ unions was held on January 15. Both parties were still not able to reach an agreement. "It was a 120% failure. We suggested that the government remove the changes made to the Essential Commodities Act instead of scrapping it altogether. But the Agriculture Minister has not said anything on this", said farmers’ leader Dr. Darshan Pal. Leaders of 40 farmers' unions negotiating with the Centre stated that they want direct communication with top government officials, and not “brokers”.
The Way Ahead
Time and again, the farmer groups have reiterated that they would not stop their protests until all three laws have been repealed. On January 20, the Central Government proposed to suspend the three farm laws for 1-1.5 years and set up a joint committee to discuss them. The farmer leaders did not immediately accept the proposal, stating that they would hold internal consultations first. In a full general body meeting of Samyukt Kisan Morcha (the umbrella body of 41 protesting farmer unions), the members rejected the government's proposal.
Meanwhile, Reliance Industries (RIL) has been facing the heat of the protesters. The farmers and support groups had called for a total boycott of the group's products. Recent reports state that retail stores of RIL were forced to shut down due to the farmers’ protests, which caused losses for the company. RIL has outrightly stated that the farm laws would not benefit them in any way. The company said it would continue to show its support for the upliftment of farmers in India. On the other hand, they even made a serious allegation that Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea had created false propaganda, which led to the telecom tower vandalism and Reliance Jio losing its subscribers. For now, the "blame-game" between these companies has seemed to quiet down.
The agitated farmers are planning to show their dissent by organising a tractor march on Republic Day. Let us hope to see positive results from these negotiations and Supreme Court judgments in the days to come. It is disheartening to see reports stating that more than 70 farmers have died at the protest sites. Will the Central Government fulfill the demands of the farmers? We will have to wait and watch.