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From Tractor to Trolley: An Interview on Farmers Protests

Two young girls go in-depth on what keeps the farmers going

While the seething winter spells its chilling waves, and the pandemic is seldom taking a breath to slow down its impact; gigantic crowds of a sundry of people can be seen on the outskirts of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. The most notable sites of protests are the Singhu, Tikri and Kundli borders. As we see the movement intensifying along with overcoming obstacles and the infusing fervour of the country’s youth, it becomes imperative to understand what motivates such tenor.  

The following in an interview conducted by human-rights activist Sanjana Agrawal with Simran Kaur Thandi, activist and the host of Talk Series, Satyagraha “Voices from Punjab and Haryana in the Farmer Movement”

How have the agrarian laws evolved since Independence? Have the changes wrought uniform throughout the country?

 Post-independence, the government did not abolish landlordism and instead introduced agrarian policies that reconstructed the feudal system to a more capitalist structure. As a result, a category of wealthy peasants was created. The subsidies and benefits included in the legislative measures ensured that these peasants would be compensated largely and would hold onto the substantial amount of land. The redistribution of land to small agricultural labourers and destitute peasants that was agreed to didn’t occur. The development of the capitalist agricultural system led to monopolies over the land and a marked division between the affluent landlords and farmers and the mass peasantry who were riddled with the burden of debts. 

When the country faced severe shortage of food in the 1960s-70s, a New Agricultural Plan was introduced and India witnessed its ‘Green Revolution’. The goal was to make agriculture more productive through technological progress and price incentives. While the ‘Green Revolution’ lifted the state from poverty through elevated employment and increase in wages, it ultimately benefited the rich peasants. The revolution also pressurized several farmers into focusing on high-yielding or cash crops instead of indigenous varieties. The farmers have had to take up large loans to acquire equipment for irrigation, and fertilization which led to further cycles of debt.

 Much of the impact of the laws and policies in the past can be ascertained by referring to the resistance they faced. In 2004, the agricultural crisis in Maharashtra culminated in a series of farmer suicides as the cotton-growing farmers in Vidarbha faced intense decline in profits as a result of withdrawal of the state, low import tariffs, failure of Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme.

What are the main concerns regarding the farm bills passed by the government? How will the laws introduced affect the small and marginal farmers as a whole?

The basis of opposition stems from the neoliberal stunted notion of “choice” forcefully infused into the production and sale of agricultural produce through a series of deregulation measures which bring private traders and agricultural corporations to the fore. Small and marginal farmers constituting 85% of agrarian landholdings would be disproportionately impacted as they possess the lowest bargaining power as well as have the highest level of vulnerability. 

The BJP-led government introduced the three farm bills, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020  in near complete derogation of principles of a liberal democracy by disallowing any debate or prior stakeholder consultation.  It subverts a chunk which is 65% of India’s population who contribute to about 17% of the GDP. 

Some argue that it will build upon value chains by reducing marketing costs, enabling better price discovery, there will be price realisation for farmers and reduction in the price paid by consumers. It mandates private investment in storage, thus it would be a clamp down on wastage and erratic price volatility. But no one would tell that the absence of regulation and exemption from mandi fees creates a dual market structure which is not only inefficient but will also aggravate unregulated trade detrimental to providing market access to farmers for assured prices.

The dichotomy of the landscape the law seeks to create is such that the core agriculturally dependent states, such as Punjab and Haryana, and the farmers of these states would be the most adversely affected due to the weakening of the MSP structures as opposed to the industrially advanced states, that have big diversified business interests based who would be the beneficiaries owing to easier access to foodstuffs and agricultural raw materials from other states. This will in a huge way increase regional and barriers based on economic disparities. Neither does the Bills build upon the capital of the farmers, but on the other hand depletes the relief system that bases itself on the reality of contractual inequality. The traditional middlemen system in the farming structure is sought to be totally wiped away who work in tandem with farmers for selling their produce. 

The rapid legal developments taking place in the form of public and socio-economic laws being amended, have scrambled the federal structure by amassing the traditional fields of law that fall under the sole purview of states. This has been made possible by giving unabated and extraordinary powers to the Centre which has further hurt the autonomy of the states and replaced it with huge scope for private players to spearhead. 

This movement has been characterized as building upon formidable organizational principles and structures that we often study about, in subjects such as Political Science. Do you agree with this? 

It is by far the most organized movement and self sufficiently sustaining major fight to the hilt. Its essence lies in upholding Satyagraha and Ahimsa, both key ethos to the search for truth. From the transparent management of finances which the masses generously donate, to the way food is served with harmony and patience, is an example of organizational management on an unprecedented scale. I find the literature on Political Science taught at law schools frankly to be parched and bereft of having any invigorating spark to generate an inclination for nation building. For students studying social movements, the discourse of the Farmer Movement renders a complete need for revamping the way study of social science disciplines has been viewed. It deserves to be taught as a repository for the fight for taking back democratic rights inclusive of dignity and right to livelihood and as to how the leaders and protestors prevent any digression from the main focus and thrust of the resistance.

I am reminded of a hard hitting, ground breaking quotation by Pithily who remarked that, “In order that some classes may have human rights, masses have to cease to be human”. This wedge between the rich and the poor is the outcome that has already been fairly estimated by the farmers and Kisan Leadership as a whole. The astute understanding of Farmer Leadership over India’s economic situation screams out vociferously when a breakdown of our country’s deplorable performance on the recent Human Development Index and Global Hunger Index 2020 reeks of stagnant inequality, is done during the protests for everyone to take a cue.

This movement is continuing in a deeply polarized society at a time when deliberation over pure policy issues is met with doubting one’s patriotism, it brings us closer to data centric arguments and the need for evidence based policy decisions driving change on all levels.

What has kept the momentum of the movement going on so far on so many fronts? What is it that distinguishes this from other dissenting movements in the past? 

The past few years have seen dissent as being an essential facet of free speech, moulded into narrow confines, for its interpretation has sadly fallen into those minds which choose to remain oblivious to the past that led to the formation of the world's largest democracy. As the previous movements like the anti-CAA movements have shown the stifling way in which the current discourse regarding ‘protests’ or ‘dissent’ is shaped. 

The complete non proliferation or interference of any political party into the stream of the Farmers’ Protests including the thorough vetting process for speaking on stage, and ensuring that no political party is affiliated with the manifesto, they have made it their own fight by sticking to their sole demands. The Tenth Guru’s Laadliyaan Faujan (Beloved Standing Army) stationed permanently at the protests site has sworn to take the first attack on their chest and carefully protects the protestors each day without fail however long it takes.

 The doling out of integral natural resources to privatization strikes at the root of social equality and constitutional mandate enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy. The whole process is justified by linking it to ‘development’ and ‘development for all’, which begets a serious question which is, ‘Development for whom’. I situate the quest and the holistic meaning of social justice accurately in the framework of these protests. The basis of social justice renders a strong foundational character of well being in the whole social life and is said to be the yardstick for allocating resources equitably.

Such a dissent serves as a multi-pronged attack on privatization as it explicitly mentions and includes education, health and farming sectors which are being trapped by the corporates. People have openly shown their distrust and dismay on the rapidly creeping system of privatization into every walk of life which makes access to quality and dignified lives difficult for many. This movement is about retaining and restoring a balance of rights for distribution of resources amongst everyone. 

Francesca Polletta (Prof. of Sociology) has noted in her work that the success of  movements lies in pursuing multiple goals and objectives. Based on this, how do you think the farmers’ agitation secures this, especially in regard to the role of women in the protest? 

Polleta defines a social movement as, ‘an organized effort to change laws, policies, or practices by people who do not have the power to effect change through conventional channels.’ While the aim of the movements is based on legislative change, they also confront the institutional policies and practices outside the government, along with popular beliefs and common behaviours.  The farmers’ agitation has favourably achieved this; staunch rural outlook and agricultural activities have been associated largely and symbolically with men. However, women across all ages- from those who work in the fields, to young students, and grandmothers are participating in these protests.

According to a report by Oxfam (2013), almost 80% of the women are employed in farming activities but own only 13% of the land. They remain a muted section of the agricultural sector whose roles are restricted to labour intensive work. The large presence of women at the protests reflects the awareness of women farmers of the political issues and how they are affected by them. The recent remarks made by the CJI asking the women and elderly to refrain from attending the protests shows the ignorance of the government to the value of women’s agricultural labour. It also reflected the contempt for women that spearhead and participate in movement who are assured that their households are running successfully and are taking the responsibility of logistical support during the protests by taking care of the rations, medical supplies, blankets and other supplies. 

Moreover, the deeply entrenched gender roles are being subverted at the protest sites. I see the men folk who are taking care of cooking and cleaning at the protest sites while women are on the front lines, shouting slogans, distributing the bi-weekly and managing finances. They are given the helm of the ‘wheels’, as Haryanvi women are being trained in operating the trolleys. 

Has the media covered the agitation comprehensively? Did the media coverage impact the people’s perception of what is going on? And how have the protestors and farmers responded to the coverage? 

The mainstream media has tried to paint an image to the world that farmers have been misled. They propelled the reasoning given by the government as to how the masses have misunderstood the law and tried to infuse separatist tendencies by calling them Khalistanis and terrorists. 

The response of the movement to discrediting the intentions of the protesters through distorted and bitter remarks by the media is the hallmark of the farmers’ agitation. Farmers called out the powerful media houses who had chiseled their tools to manipulate the narrative of violence and protests. They were bold and clear in saying that they did not trust the media by any means, countering the all encompassing nature of media reporting that impinges on truth and silences it. The media peddled out false notions of farmers being uneducated and bereft of wealth in an attempt to launch attacks on the dignity and virtue of the protestors. The dissatisfaction of the farmers and their faith in power of real stories, with the coverage of the protests has resulted in protestors coming up with their own official editorial newspaper, Trolley Times which is also circulated beyond the protest sites. 

It stands to be a semblance of lost India that unifies diverse social and linguistic barriers. The masses on ground are only getting more informed and determined to maintain a correct unified flow of information to parry the attempts of misappropriation of the movement. 

It is probably the first time that a befitting reply is being given even from the International spectrum, to such a callous convenience.

What has been your personal experience attending and taking part in these protests on a frequent basis? What feelings have you experienced? 

As soon as I set my foot on the protest sites, I knew I was in some sort of a heavenly stretch, astoundingly grounded in harsh reality and vagaries of the world. Walking through, to my left someone called me out tenderly “Ni aaja Dheeye meriye, alsi diyaan peeniyan banayian ne (nourishment prepared with ghee for winters in Punjabi households), to the right I raised both my hands to fold them for a warm “Fateh'' (greeting) to a bunch of old farmers roughly of my grandpa’s age, resting in their trolleys.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the innocent and gentle expressions on their faces; it was like meeting one’s large long lost family.

The way the movement is interacting with the outside environment is interesting to note as it firmly establishes a stronghold in everyone’s hearts and minds. There is a method to madness which is unmatched in these protests, depicted by imaginative deployment of art, revolutionary songs and strict discipline. There are regular summons by Union Leaders to maintain an interconnectivity of purpose, how protestors, and are also imparted regular lessons on cordial conduct for greeting everyone. 

I am sure there will be a very graceful meltdown of the arrogance of anyone who wished otherwise about the Movement. 

Any message of hope or encouragement to the disgruntled youth about this monumental moment in history. 

In India 2021, we live in this stark denial of the problem emanating from deliberate ignorance and unflinching attachment to a set of political thinking that thrives on hegemony of hate. 

The pain I feel interacting with such people who hanker this, I wish to make them meet the extreme range of selflessness that pervades the whole movement. It reminds me of a historic and religious anecdote tracing back to the times when the founder of Sikh religion wandered the lengths and breadths of the country to spread the message of humanity with his faithful fellow, Bhai Mardana. When his fellow was taking his last breath, Guru Nanak told him tenderly that he wishes to make a tall tomb for the world to celebrate him, alas in reply he replied that the mere fact that I was your follower, and my name will eternally be intertwined with you is enough for me. With this sense of selflessness, this movement is giving a chance to everyone to awaken from a slumber of to renew faith where everyone’s voice matters. 

For me, we had reached a tipping point which is now a conflict between humble fighters who demand for nothing more than what they need to thrive with equality and hallow walls of might.

This interview was conducted by Sanjana Agarwal. Sanjana is an alumni of GLC Mumbai, and JMC Delhi a passionate student of Human Rights, nature lover, avid reader and someone who has a remarkably astute command over the subject of Political Science across various spectrums. She aspires to be an advocate and work in the United Nations

About the author

Simran is a final year law student at Panjab University Chandigarh and a former Public Policy Fellow at Citizens for Public Leadership. She is inclined towards social change and discovering intersectionalities. She also hosts the Talk Series, Satyagraha “Voices from Punjab and Haryana in the Farmer Movement”, daily with a host of experts and activists to take forward the fight in rapidly evolving circumstances. Listen to her latest podcast episode on farmers here



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