The farmers’ movement is no longer about the three controversial farm laws

Synopsis: Despite the Supreme Court issuing a stay on the controversial farm laws passed by the govt, the protests which started against them, have carried on. They are now less about the farm laws but more about the issues and problems being faced by our farmers since long. A brief look at some of these issues.

Introduction 

The death of farmers participating in the farmers’ protest in Lakhimpur Khiri, Uttar Pradesh, is turning into a political contest.  Attempts to prevent the politicization of the event led to a restriction on political parties.

All this has brought the farmers’ protest back into focus. 

Why farmer protest is more than just being about the farm laws?

The 2020 farm laws led to country wide protest in India. What has surprised many is the longevity of it. More so because the 2020 farm laws they oppose are technically under a Supreme Court stay and there has been no push by the government to implement them, or even to have the stay vacated.  

Clearly, the farmer protest today has less to do with a demand for the laws’ withdrawal than broader concerns on issues related to the sustainability of farming and farm livelihoods.

What is the background of the protest and situation in various parts of India? 

The current agitation started after the three farm laws were forced through Parliament without consultation with the sector’s stakeholders. But in reality, farmer protests have been going on for the last five years in various parts of the country.  

A mobilization in Maharashtra witnessed two long marches. Similar demonstrations were witnessed in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and several other states. In Madhya Pradesh, farmers in 2017 were fired upon, resulting in death of seven farmers. 

The causes of these protests were different but had a common theme and reasons. 

Why India has been witnessing farmer protests since few years? 

Declining profitability of farming– driven by rising input costs, weak farm-gate prices and the withdrawal or dilution of protections available from the state.  

Decline in income– not only incomes of farmers have declined between 2012-13 and 2018-19, but the majority of them have turned to wageworkers from farmers. This has resulted in an increased share of casual-wage income in the overall earnings by farmers

Increase in number of workers in farm sector- With jobs drying up in non-agricultural sectors, the number of workers in the farm sector has risen up, resulting in decline in per- worker income. With rural wages also falling in real terms over the past three years, farmers’ hardship have worsened.

Attempting to malign the farmers protest– this has angered farmers. This was visible in the early months, when their movement was sought to be linked with foreign elements. 

Trust deficit- The absence of consultation with farmers and criticism of farmer unions has led to a widening trust deficit between farmers and policymakers. Such a situation may not be conducive to allowing and facilitating greater market penetration and participation by private players. Instead, it is likely to contribute to farmer resistance to all reforms in the agricultural sector proposed by the government.

No major efforts by the govt: Govt Efforts to negotiate with farmers have been superficial and lacking any enthusiasm. Even the report of the Supreme Court-appointed committee has not been shared publicly, with no further attempts from the judiciary.

What is the way forward? 

Since farmers along with other people dependent on agriculture still account for almost two-thirds of the country, a prolonged protest could also turn into social and political unrest.

More so given the large pool of unemployed youth in rural areas who only have a slim chance of getting absorbed meaningfully by an economy suffering from a slowdown and pandemic-induced economic distress.

In times of such a multi-dimensional crisis, a confrontational attitude taken by governments towards farm-protesters will only strengthen their movement. 

Consensus for structural changes in the farm sector needs trust-building and onboarding of all stakeholders.

Source: This post is based on the article “The farmers’ movement is no longer about the three controversial farm laws” published in Livemint on 8th Oct 2021.

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