By Shubhomoy Chatterjee
Patna/New Delhi, Sep 25 (efe-epa).- Thousands of farmers in India on Friday held nationwide demonstrations and blocked roads and railway tracks in protest against controversial new agriculture laws that allow big retailers to procure farm products directly from growers.
The government has defended the reform measures approved by the parliament on Sunday, saying these will pave the way for private investment to boost India’s agriculture sector, which accounts for some 15 percent of the country’s economy.
“Hundreds and thousands of people, including students, have joined the resistance to protest against the government across India,” peasant leader Hannan Mollah, also a former parliamentarian of Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M),, who participated in a demonstration in New Delhi, told EFE.
Mollah, the general secretary of All India Kisan Sabha, a peasants front affiliated to the Left parties, underlined that the government “has bulldozed these reforms” in the parliament, where they enjoy a majority, and that the new regulations would enslave farmers.
“Peasants will be destroyed. We won’t let the government make farmers slaves of the corporate world,” he said.
The reforms seek to deregulate prices and quantity sold of certain commodities deemed essential, permit and facilitate contract farming, and allow private markets outside the physical boundaries of the government-regulated wholesale markets, also called mandis.
As per the earlier act, farmers needed to sell their produce at the Agriculture Produce Market Committees’ (APMC) mandis. The middlemen would help farmers sell crops to either the state-run company or private players.
The government has termed these changes as “historic” and claimed they would benefit farmers by helping them get better prices through a more open and free market, and better integrate themselves in the supply chain.
Farmers fear that once private markets are set up, the APMC will have few buyers, and will result in the gradual erosion of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for purchasing crops, leaving producers without bargaining power for selling their goods.
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a video address earlier this week, assured farmers that “the MSP system will continue as earlier” and the government would continue to purchase crops as before, farmers are concerned about the absence of this guarantee in the text of the legislation.
That has led to concerns that the current legal changes would serve as a precursor for the eventual deregulation and privatization of the farming sector that could leave peasants at the hands of private players, without government safeguards on price and procurement of goods.
“This will gradually pave the way for the government to stop buying farm produces at guaranteed minimum selling prices and open the path for a dangerous contract farming done for corporates,” another peasant leader and All India Kisan Sabha Joint Secretary Vijoo Krishnan told EFE in the national capital.
He stressed that the government “didn’t even bother to seek suggestions from farmers” before drafting the bill.
Widespread protests, backed by farmers unions and opposition parties, took place across the country, including in the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana – which produce most of the wheat – and the region around the national capital of New Delhi, as well in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and across Maharashtra in the west.
Punjab farmers blocked rail tracks and highways under the slogan of “rail roko” (stop rail transport) and “road roko” (stop road transport) in various parts of the state, prompting the cancellation of several trains.
Roads and highways connecting to the capital of New Delhi were also blocked, while protests also occurred in several parts of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
As many as 35 farmer organizations blocked major highways in and around Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka.
“It is the beginning of the movement. We will continue our protests till the government revokes the new measures,” Krishnan warned.
The opposition Indian National Congress also expressed its support for the nationwide strike by the farmers and called for the inclusion of MSP safeguards in the legislation.