Tractor Terrorism: Ignoring Punjab, BJP Must March Ahead With The Farm Laws

Tractor Terrorism: Ignoring Punjab, BJP Must March Ahead With The Farm LawsA scene from 26 January violence in New Delhi. (via Twitter) 
Snapshot
  • By losing control within the capital, the rioters or farmers have lost their cause as well.

    Now, the government and the judiciary are well within their rights to close any and all negotiations and move ahead.

It is only a resilient republic that allows for misinformed anarchists masquerading as social reformers, claiming to represent the interests of millions of people, the same people who don’t know them and wouldn’t even vote for them as a class monitor, to occupy public spaces for weeks, hijack the national capital, vandalise public property, attack police forces, and almost crush a police officer under a heavy farm vehicle, and yet play victims at the hands of the same republic.

Yesterday (26 January), the resilience of the republic was put to a difficult test. The nation was not done cheering the celebrations of the 72nd Republic Day in the capital when news reports about farmers (middlemen, rioters, vandals, goons, anarchists etc) breaking barricades, defying law and order and attacking the forces started pouring in.

The farmers, on their tractors and on foot, took random routes within the city, and in no time occupied critical junctures around ITO, Delhi Police Headquarters and the Red Fort.

The farmers, in the days following up to the Republic Day, had negotiated a route with the relevant authorities for a tractor rally in the capital. They had claimed that the rally would complement the celebrations at India Gate, would be about promoting the interests of the farmers, and would be entirely peaceful.

Reluctantly, the forces had agreed. The government had agreed.

The police were attacked with sticks and swords. Tractors were weaponised to crush officers doing their duty and perform stunts suited to a circus. Those on foot took to stone-pelting and heckling the media persons of channels they disagreed with. At the Red Fort, the vandals attacked the police, forcing them to jump off a high wall, resulting in injuries.

Another group, led by Deep Sidhu, as evident by the video on his Facebook page, hoisted a flag known as Nishan Sahib.

More than what the flag represents, it’s about the way it got there. Also, the relevance of the flag to the cause of the protesting farmers is zero, so spare the theatrical declarations.

There are two schools of thoughts when it comes to how the government should have responded.

One states that restrain was the ideal choice, given the protesters had been begging for the stick and giving it to them in the form of rubber pellets, warning shots, or firing would have ensured quick dispersion but deaths.

It was believed that had the firing resulted in the death of a few farmers, the narrative would have been of Delhi becoming another Jallianwala Bagh, and of a Hindu nationalist government suppressing a religious minority of poor land tillers.

Worse, it could have destabilised the peace in Punjab, drowning the state in another civil-war like situation between two religious groups that have always been united.

To put it simply, to save the capital from a day of chaos, a state would have to be risked for an indefinite time in the immediate future.

The second school elaborates on the weakness of the state. Clearly, images and videos of rioters brandishing swords, threatening the officers on duty, attacking them with sticks and forcing them to jump from high walls does not make for an ideal sight on a day the nation celebrates its Constitution.

The argument is rooted in the fact that allowing the forces to take blows to appease to the protesters for political stability will only encourage them further. Examples from Kashmir were rightfully quoted about how what is an anomaly today could become a routine tomorrow.

Using the benefit of hindsight, one can conclude that restraint was perhaps the best option, given the loss of life was contained, barring the one protester who chose to crash his tractor into police barricades. The sight from the Red Fort, however, will always be distressing.

To put it simply, the sanctity of the capital was compromised for a day to ensure thousands did not go on a rampage in Punjab for weeks. Not ideal, but the lesser of the two evils.

So, what must be the next step of the government?

For now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must not shy away anymore from marching on with the farm laws. The government must chuck the carrots earlier offered, and unapologetically, drive the reforms that stand to benefit 600 million people directly or indirectly.

The government has done all it could have to convince the farmers aka rioters. Amendments offered on 9 December addressed the gaps in the laws, gave farmers and states the upper hand in dealing with the private players by virtue of mandatory registration and taxation and legal recourse in civil courts amongst other measures.

The government also went a step further and offered the farmers an 18-month buffer period before the laws came into force, and even offered them the opportunity to come back with their own version of the laws in the dozen-odd round of talks that were conducted. Above all, the government has exercised commendable restraint in dealing with the rioters on 26 January.

Thus, the BJP has no obligation to cater to the cause of these anarchists for the following reasons.

The protest is more about maintaining the status-quo in Punjab’s agri-setup. Even though the private sector has been offered as a choice to the farmers, the existence of Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMCs) and minimum support price (MSP) has been promised, the middlemen, using their political patronage, have led the dependent farmers to believe that the protests are about lands being snatched, about MSP being abolished, and about corporates taking over.

The same middlemen, for the benefit of the commission on MSPs, has stagnated the agri-growth of the state, plaguing the fields with pesticides and other harmful chemicals and destroying the water tables to ensure excessive growth of wheat and paddy.

The central government too is guilty of encouraging this obsession with wheat and paddy, given the disproportionate MSP procurement that occurs each year.

Post the Green Revolution, in terms of percentage share of cropped area in Punjab, paddy went from 4.8 per cent in 1960-61 to 6.9 per cent in 1970-71 to 31.3 per cent in 2000-01 to 39.6 per cent in 2018-19. For wheat, the percentage went from 27.3 per cent in 1960-61 to 44.9 per cent in 2018-19.

Of the 7,830,000 hectares of cultivable land available in Punjab, 3,520,000 hectares is under wheat, and 3,103,000 hectares is under rice. As much as 75 per cent of the crop production in the state is made up of wheat and rice alone (2018-19).

The procurement justifies excessive cultivation. In 2017-18, as much as 90 per cent of the produced paddy crop was procured, and 66.4 per cent of the wheat crop was procured.

Punjab’s share in national wheat and rice production is 18 and 12 per cent respectively, but in the central pool that year, Punjab’s wheat share stood at 38 per cent, and rice’s share was 31 per cent. Highly disproportionate.

Of the 310.6 lakh tonnes of paddy procured in 2019-20, as many as 202.5 lakh tonnes were from Punjab, and of the 389.5 lakh tonnes of wheat, around 127 lakh tonnes were from the state itself.

The protests might want to claim that they are about the MSP, but in the ongoing paddy procurement season (kharif) of 2020-21, the government has procured 583.31 lakh tonnes worth of paddy until 24 January 2021, 20.53 per cent more than the last year.

Turns out, the procurement share of Punjab amounts to 34.76 per cent or 202.77 lakh tonnes. So much for Punjab’s MSP being taken away.

The status quo is Punjab’s problem to solve. The state’s economic survey of 2019-20 has advocated the diversification of crops away from wheat and paddy, restoring the over-exploited groundwater levels in the state, and fixing the decaying fields. All this would have been made possible with the implementation of the farm laws, the same the state and state-backed rioters are protesting today.

Punjab has another problem to solve. Even with the MSP not going anywhere, the state is moving towards desertification and would not be in a position to grow wheat and paddy forever. Already, many farmers have let go of paddy due to the high costs of extracting water due to the falling water table levels.

Of the 138 assessed blocks in Punjab, stated in the Dynamic Groundwater Resources Assessment of India – 2017 report, 109 are over-exploited, two as critical, five as semi-critical, and only 22 as safe.

The groundwater used by Punjab for irrigation is almost equal to that used by Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan, and merely 5 billion cubic metres (BCM) less than what Uttar Pradesh, a state 4.9 times bigger than Punjab, uses. The problem, however, lies in the future. The net groundwater availability in 2025 for Punjab is not even enough to cater to its domestic requirements.

The central government must use this protest to start considering the idea of making the MSP procurement proportionate to a state benchmark, thus ending the pampering melted out to Punjab for decades at the cost of other states.

Modi has won the national elections twice while registering little success in Punjab. Given he has the public sentiment in his favour, a third-term without Punjab’s support is easily possible. Therefore, it is imperative that Punjabis smell the coffee, and stop mistaking their stupidity as their strength.

Thus, more than Modi needing Punjab, it is Punjab that needs the Centre’s generosity to continue, be it in MSP, or be it as an enabler for private sector participation in the state.

Lastly, by losing control within the capital, the rioters or farmers have lost their cause as well.

Today, the government and the judiciary are well within their rights to close any and all negotiations and move ahead. The violence at Red Fort and ITO and the threat to disrupt the Budget day at Parliament was the final nail in the cause’s coffin violently hammered by the rioters themselves.

Even though the chances of it happening are remote, the apex court too owes an apology to the Centre. Its selective inaction on the tractor rally and injunction request by the Centre, and the decision to stay the laws while ignoring some credible points made by the government encouraged the anarchy that descended on the streets of Delhi on 26 January. The apex court was warned. The apex court chose to trust Prashant Bhushan, claiming to represent the unions.

Ideally, the apex court must scrap the committee, and let the legislature do its job.

Even though BJP had been walking on thin ice as the crowds at Singhu grew, the farmers had been cornered by their mindlessness. Today, they stand exposed before an angry nation, distraught by the sight in Delhi.

While choosing to exercise restraint with the stick, the BJP government leveraged all its carrots and patience. Now, it must lead India to its next agricultural revolution.

For the farmers of Punjab, the choice is simple. Diversification and development, or desertification and doom.

Tushar Gupta is a senior sub-editor at Swarajya. 

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