India facing ‘unprecedented’ situation

Special India facing ‘unprecedented’ situation
Tens of thousands of farmers have set up barricades on roads into New Delhi since November 26, vowing not to move until the laws are repealed. (AFP)
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Updated 11 December 2020

India facing ‘unprecedented’ situation

India facing ‘unprecedented’ situation
  • Nationwide farmer strike demands end to ‘corporatizing’ laws

NEW DELHI: A nationwide strike by Indian farmers and 15 opposition parties demanding a rollback of three agricultural laws has brought the country to a standstill.

The laws were passed by New Delhi in September, and following months of agitation, experts have called the situation “unprecedented” for India.

“Never in the past three decades have I seen such unprecedented, organized farmer protests,” Urmilesh Singh, a New Delhi- based political analyst, told Arab News.

 

“This is a movement which is not led by any political party. It is very organic. If a political leadership emerges out of the protest, then it would be a huge challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime,” he added.

Farmers claim the reforms work against their interests due to deregulation and allowing private players unhindered production access.

“We are observing a strike from 9 a.m. in the morning to 3 p.m. in the afternoon to register our protest against the new farm laws that threaten the existence of farmers,” Sunil Pradhan, leader of the Indian Farmers’ Union, told Arab News.

“Our agitation will continue until the government withdraws its laws that would lead to the corporatization of the farm sector and marginalization of farmers,” he added.

Tuesday’s strike follows several rounds of inconclusive talks between the two sides, with another meeting due to take place on Wednesday.

While Pradhan and several other farmers blocked the national highway in Greater Noida, the intensity of the protests could be seen in the northern Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, while other states reported clashes between opposition leaders and police.

“Modi should stop stealing from farmers,” Rahul Gandhi, opposition leader and former president of the Congress party, tweeted on Tuesday.

“All our countrymen know that today is a nationwide shutdown. By supporting the shutdown, please help in the success of our food growers’ struggle,” he added.

Meanwhile, in a statement released in New Delhi on Tuesday, another farmer leader, Rakesh Tikait, sought to distance protesters from political parties.

“Our shutdown is different from that of political parties. It is a four-hour symbolic strike for an ideological cause. We want that there should be no problem for the common people. We appeal to them not to travel during this period,” he said.

The protests began almost two weeks ago when tens of thousands of farmers from Haryana and Punjab marched to New Delhi, urging the government to withdraw the latest legislation, which allows traders to stockpile grains. Farmers fear it will lead to rising prices and more profit for traders amid the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the government argues that the move would allow growers to be self-sufficient by setting prices and selling products directly to private firms, such as supermarket chains.

Farmers are not buying that and say the new laws would instead pave the way for the government to stop purchasing the crops at guaranteed prices, leaving them “at the mercy of private buyers” who will aggressively fix prices.

The legislation exposes the agriculture sector to market forces. It has a provision to allow farmers to sell their produce directly to private players and allow corporate investment in farms.

Until now, produce prices had been fixed by the government under the Minimum Support Price (MSP), which farmers say is usually higher than market rates.

Farmers fear that once the free market assumes a significant role in the agriculture sector, the government will withdraw from the MSP.

One of the main demands made by farmers is for statutory support of the MSP.

“We want legal status for the MSP because the state government regulates mandis (markets). Verbal promises won’t work. Farmers need statutory support,” said Shiv Kumar Sharma, president of the National Farmers Conglomerate.

The government has blamed opposition parties for “misleading farmers,” and accused the Congress party of “indulging in duplicity” by supporting the protests.

“The opposition parties are politicizing the farmers’ agitation,” said Sudesh Verma, spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

“The opposition has been losing elections; they don’t have adequate presence in the parliament and see an opportunity in the farmers’ protest to oppose Modi,” he added.

Verma said the government was willing to listen to the “genuine concerns” of farmers.

“The government is willing to address all the farmers’ concerns and discuss all the sticking points, but to demand that the laws are wrong and should be repealed is not justified,” he added.

He questioned the rationale behind calling for an all-India strike on Tuesday “especially when the next round of talks is on Wednesday.”

Verma said: “I believe that farmers have been misled to call for a nationwide strike.

“There has been a consensus that there should be reform in the agriculture sector. Why are those parties advocating reforms now opposing it?”

However, agriculture experts said that “farmers are not foolish enough to protest against laws had they been beneficial for them.”

Devendra Sharma, one Punjab-based agriculture expert, said: “The present crisis is there because the farmers have been denied their rightful income over the decades.

“The simmering anger finds its echo in the protest against the central laws. Farmers fear that in the days to come their livelihood is going to be hit very badly.”