Since late November, hundreds of thousands of farmers have been protesting against three farm laws recently introduced by the Narendra Modi government at the thresholds of New Delhi.
While earlier, farmers from Punjab, who form a significant chunk of the agitators, were protesting in the state itself, they have been camping at the Singhu and Tikri inter-state borders since last month.
The government and farmer groups have held a number of talks so far, but they have been inconclusive, with the latest round concluding on Wednesday. This is because the farmers are seeking a complete repeal of the laws, while the government has offered to make amendments. New Delhi has even issued a written guarantee to continue the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime, which is one of the key sticking points.
While it is true that Punjab was the flagbearer of the agitation, farmers from other states and regions, such as neighbouring Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan have also extended solidarity in a big way.
A number of commentators and agricultural economists have tried to present this as a ‘Punjab-centric’ agitation, and have argued that Punjab, and to some extent Haryana, have benefited from the MSP regime. This conveniently ignores the economic challenges faced by the Punjab farmer, such as the increased price of inputs, and the contribution of the Punjab farmer towards India’s food security.
What is comfortably omitted in this narrative is the turbulence that Punjab faced in the 1980s and 1990s, with many losing their lives to the violence. While the mainstream narrative parrots the official line and talks about militant violence, there is never any reference to the killings of innocents by state forces and the collective trauma it has created in the state.
While a mention is made of ecological costs of the wheat and paddy cycle, it is as though the state is solely responsible for the current situation. No doubt successive governments have failed in terms of governance, but to hold the people of the state responsible is unfair and simplistic. Within Punjab too, there are many scholars and activists who have been suggesting crop diversification and development of a new paradigm for agriculture. But, this cannot be done overnight. There has to be a proper program for transition.
In fact, what these commentators miss out is that the Modi-led government is not restricted merely to diluting the MSP, but also disbanding the Mandi System through the Private Mandis (agrarian markets). Notably, in case of a contract farming dispute, farmers cannot go beyond the SDM’s court. The government itself has agreed to the concerns with regard to Mandis and also agreed that contract farming disputes can be taken to civil courts.
There are many other lacunae and omissions in the op-eds, including the fact that the laws impinge upon the federal character of the country (agriculture is a state, not union, subject). Very few commentators have tried to provide a more balanced perspective. Further, on social and electronic media, attempts to label the agitation as one propped up by the so-called ‘Tukde-Tukde Gang’, ‘Urban Naxals’ and Khalistanis have also not stuck so far.
There have also been some vicious attacks by sections of the right-wing on the funding for Langar Sewa (community meals) – a Sikh tradition – and charitable organisations such as Khalsa Aid. What is conveniently forgotten is the role of Sikh religious organisations and philanthropic organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic, not just in India, but also globally.
South Asian geopolitics and Punjab
Apart from the above issues, which are conveniently forgotten in the context of Punjab’s economy and agriculture, is the fact that the state is landlocked, and a perpetual state of conflict with Pakistan have taken their toll on its economy.
If trade with Pakistan was open, all walks of life would benefit. But ever since the suspension of trade with Pakistan since August 2019, the city of Amritsar itself has suffered losses worth Rs 30 crore. According to estimates, 20,000 families have been impacted. The tertiary sector has been especially affected. The losses are not just restricted to the border districts, but also other parts of the state.
Trade with Pakistan has been raised by the farmers and other commentators from Punjab on a number of occasions. Last year, at the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, issues of trade between the two Punjabs and connectivity with Central Asia and Afghanistan were discussed.
Even at the beginning of the ongoing agitation, this was high on the agenda, with traders and farmers demanding opening up of India-Pakistan for a few months. Only recently, Pakistan purchased 6,00000 tonnes of wheat from Russia at high prices (over 280 USD per tonne). Surplus wheat and other agricultural commodities can be sold not only to Pakistan, but Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Recently, Punjab finance minister, Manpreet Singh Badal, stated:
“German statesman Otto Von Bismark once remarked, ‘the road to Berlin lies through Vienna’. I sincerely feel that the road between New Delhi and Islamabad lies through Punjab. For Punjabis, a lot is at stake given their proximity to the shared border.”
Given the prevalent ultra-nationalist narrative in India and the political confusion in Pakistan, it is unlikely that bilateral trade could open up. But if it does, and the farmer is given the freedom to sell his produce overseas, he will certainly stand to gain and be empowered.
Foreign policy autonomy for Punjab
As stated before, the ongoing protests are not just about agriculture, but also increasing centralization by the Modi government. States need to have more say in not just economic policy, but also foreign policy.
On the issue of trade with Pakistan and ties with Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia (including connectivity) Punjab, with its geographical location, should have a greater say than it does right now. In recent years, Northeastern states have been made important stakeholders in the context of ties with Bangladesh and Southeast Asia. A similar approach is needed on Punjab
In conclusion, the farmer protests have sparked a debate on numerous issues, and hopefully apart from a resolution to the current impasse, these will pave the way for a broader discussion on issues of decentralisation – not just in the economic context, but also on international trade and foreign policy.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured image: Wheat farming in Punjab, Wikimedia Commons.