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In a surprise televised address last week, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi apologised to farmers and announced that the controversial farm laws they had been protesting for a year would be withdrawn.
It did not cause the jubilation he might have expected from farmers.
The laws had been the subject of massive protests by farmers’ unions across the country and by the global Sikh community. Farmers unions said hundreds among their ranks died during the year of protests in India.
As headlines across the world hailed Modi’s announcement, many farmers in India were unimpressed.
“If you pay attention to his announcement, you will see that he still doesn’t believe the farm laws were inherently harmful,” Baldev Singh Nihalgarh, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, one of the farmer unions that took part in the protests, told VICE World News. “He said the government failed to convince the farmers as if the farmers could have been convinced about those laws in the first place. He also added that only a section of the farmers was unhappy about the laws.”
Collectively referred to as the “farm bills”, these laws were widely criticised for ending government support and subsidy in agriculture, undermining food security and encroaching upon the rights of Indian states to legislate on agriculture.
Many have noted that the government’s sudden backtracking was primarily in response to the state elections to be held early next year in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state, while Punjab is often referred to as India’s “bread basket” due to its high agricultural yield.
Kulwant Singh Sandhu, general secretary of the group Jamhuri Kisan Sabha, told VICE World News that the farmers were also protesting the Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020, which is set to be passed soon.
“The government is planning to repeal the three farm laws in the upcoming parliament session but is also scheduling the passing of the Electricity Bill in the same session,” he said. “If passed, it will make us nearly bankrupt because it proposes to remove all government subsidies and puts the burden to pay those high farm electricity charges squarely on the farmers. It will crush small farmers who have to use electricity-intensive farm machinery but still get a smaller yield.”
Modi’s decision to scrap the farm laws comes after a year of protests that have led to deadly violence. During this period, various ministers and the ruling party’s leaders had labelled protesting farmers as “terrorists, separatists and anti-nationals.”
“If the central government had withdrawn these laws earlier, the deaths of 700 farmers could have been prevented,” said Ram Iqbal Singh, a former legislator and member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Most of the 700 farmers he referred to died during the protests as they tried to brave the biting north Indian cold. Later, the north Indian heatwave also proved too much for the farmers who were camping on open roads in temporary shelters. A recent study found that most of the deceased farmers were poor, with small landholdings.
Protesters also faced a crackdown by police. Early last month, the speeding car of the home minister’s son rammed through a picket line, killing four protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh. One of the injured farmers alleged that the minister’s son was present in the car.
“The minister still has his job while the investigation is ongoing, despite the Supreme Court itself expressing concerns over the fairness of the probe,” said Sandhu. “The prime minister has not even mentioned our martyred farmers even once till date. What does that say about the government’s intentions?”
A government-mandated “minimum support price” guarantee on the crops has also been one of the biggest points the protesting farmers contested.
“We don’t mind private players purchasing our produce. All we ask is for the government to ensure legally that there will be a minimum price under which no purchase can be made,” Satnam Singh Pannu, president of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee told VICE World News. “We have been requesting the government to form a time-bound committee to look into this, composed of agriculture experts, farmers, and officers from the government itself. But there is still no word on it.”
He says the government should have consulted farmers before it passed those laws. “I don’t see any harm in having an atmosphere of peace and discussing any law clause by clause. All we want is a seat on the table, and not as an afterthought.”
The Modi government has often been criticised for skipping public consultations. Even for the upcoming winter session of the parliament, there has been zero public consultation on more than half of the bills to be tackled, according to researchers Arun PS and Sushmita Patel. These include key legislations on regulating cryptocurrency, banking, pension funds, and energy conservation.
During the year-long protests, a number of farmers were charged under laws meant for terrorists, and they have yet to be cleared. “If the prime minister himself has apologised and announced the rollback of these laws, why have those stringent charges not been revoked yet? What are they waiting for?” said Sandhu.
Now that the proposed repeal of the laws will give farmers a breather, they are hoping the government has learned its lessons.
Sustaining protests for over a year is no joke, says Nihalgarh.
“We provide food to the country. It was very heartbreaking when they called us terrorists and separatists. No one enjoys sitting for months on end on the highways, braving the cold and being away from your family,” he added. “All we ever wanted was for the government to repeal the laws so that we could sleep in peace at our homes.”
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