Punjab: Over 13,000 Village Panchayats to Veto Centre’s Farm Acts

Gram sabhas have this federal power under the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act, 1994.

Mohali: There are over 13,000 gram sabhas or village councils in Punjab. Following large-scale protests against the Centre’s newly enacted farm Bills, in what is being called one of the largest democratic and federal processes in the country, almost all councils in Punjab are mobilising to pass resolutions against the Centre’s agri-marketing Acts and register their opposition.

As of October 3, over a dozen village panchayats have reportedly already arrived at a consensus against the farm Acts. In the coming weeks, more gram sabhas are likely to add to the count.

On September 30, member of parliament from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Bhagwant Mann was present in Sangrur district at village Gharachon, when the council of the village passed a resolution against the Acts.

On October 3, Gurdaspur district’s Bholeke village also passed a resolution against the Acts. BJP’s Sunny Deol is the MP from Gurdaspur.

As per the Punjab Panchayati Raj Act 1994, self-governing village panchayat bodies can convene special sessions after seven days prior notice. The council will then sit together and through voice votes or hand votes, reach a consensus.

A consensus, in this case a veto against the Centre’s farm Acts, will then be sent to the prime minister and president of India through the government’s administrative channels.

Village heads oppose newly formed Acts

The Wire spoke with the village heads of a few villages, all with a population of roughly 1,100 people. These villages are home to farm labourers, dairy farmers, daily wagers and even small traders. All village heads said they will pass a resolution against the Acts in the coming weeks.

Malkeet Singh, the village head of Chuharpur Kalan village, said that they will get the process going within the next few days, and that his village panchayat secretary will submit the letter to the sub-divisional magistrate of the district.

Manpreet Singh, the village head of Wazirpur village, said that the new laws will hit the landowning farmers’s income directly, and in turn affect the livelihood of everyone in the village – where most people work as farm labourers.

Also read: Three Farm Bills and India’s Rural Economy

Joginder Singh of Fatehpur village said that he is a farmer himself and everyone in his village opposes the Centre’s laws strongly.

A draft resolution, which The Wire has accessed, reads:

“The Gram Sabha is of the view that these bills are against the weakening of the federal structure of the country. The withdrawal of support price of crops, opening up of hoarding by corporate houses is against people, including farmers, laborers, traders. Therefore, the Gram Sabha unanimously rejects these bills and appeals to the Central government to withdraw it.”

“Act of civil disobedience”

“This is an act of civil disobedience, and this form of civil disobedience is a democratic one,” said Dr Darshan Pal of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC), referring to the voting process of the gram sabhas. He said that the gram sabhas have a right to reject a law and they are exercising this very right as a self-governing body.

Pal added that people of the village are stakeholders in agricultural decision making as most of them depend on agriculture. “So people for whom these laws have been passed, are now saying they don’t want it. This is the voice of the people from the grass-root level,” he added

General secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Dakaunda, Jagmohan Singh said that Punjab’s villagers, who are largely dependent on agriculture, have understood that by passing these Bills, the Centre has done them an injustice.

“Whichever village we [farmers’ unions] have gone to, we have got unequivocal support from them,” he said. “We feel that all gram sabhas of villages will pass resolutions against Acts, even the sarpanches (village heads) from the BJP have understood that a two-thirds majority will vote against the Acts.”

Photo: Reuters

Both Jagmohan Singh and Darshan Pal believe that this democratic process will be extremely effective in their struggle against the new agriculture laws.

“The gram sabhas of the entire country must now come together and do this,” Jagmohan Singh added. He said the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) may think about this and the future course of action as well.

Reportedly, DMK MLAs in Tamil Nadu have also called for gram sabhas to pass resolutions against the newly passed farm Acts.

A legally valid move

Speaking to The Wire, a senior journalist who closely covers rural Punjab, Hamir Singh, said, “Gram sabhas are not very active otherwise. If  they’re becoming active now then this means that this movement is now not just a farmers’ movement but a people’s movement.”

Hamir said that of the total population of Punjab, roughly 32-37% are Dalits who live in rural Punjab and this movement has got their support along with the support of small shop owners and farm labourers.

“Tomorrow if the matter goes to the courts, there will be a logical point, if not legal, to put forth – that the people of Punjab have rejected these Farm Acts,” he said.

Punjab and Haryana high court advocate R.S. Bains told The Wire that whether or not this move will help Punjab’s farmers legally will depend on the legal points which will be raised in the courts eventually. But he said that through this move in the gram sabhas, corporate buyers will get a direct message to not enter Punjab’s villages.

Watch: Farm Bill Protests: Who Are ‘Arthiyas’ and Why Are They Upset?

“It is a great message from grass-roots democracy to all the corporate purchasers. The Centre then cannot enforce anything after this,” Bains said.

Bain also said that the decisions of the gram sabhas are as constitutionally valid as those of the Central government because The Panchayati Raj Act, under which these resolutions are being passed, is part of the 73rd amendment of the Constitution which guarantees the gram sabhas these powers.

Speaking to The Wire, Devinder Sharma, a noted agricultural economist, said that everyone understands that Punjab’s economy depends on agriculture and so people are doing whatever they can to oppose these Acts.

“After all, MSP brings roughly Rs 50,000 crore to Punjab’s economy. Even if the new Acts bring Rs 30,000 crore revenue,  Rs 20,000 crore loss will be faced by the people of Punjab. They understand this. No one is a fool,” Sharma said.

Gram sabha resolutions from the past

In 2017, in Puntamba village in Maharashtra, the gram sabha of the village passed a resolution to hold a strike and halt all supply of milk and vegetables to urban centres. This was done to demand farm loan waivers in a state with a heavy water crisis.

The Puntamba gram sabha’s idea spread like wildfire and led to a massive movement to demand a farm loan waiver from the government. The Maharashtra government was subsequently forced to announce  a complete farm loan waiver to state farmers.

“If gram sabhas of the entire country realise that they can come together then this movement could become big,” Hamir Singh said.

In 2019, Maharashtra’s Islak village in Ahmednagar district became the first gram sabha to pass a resolution against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Earlier this year, 402 gram sabhas in 15 districts of Odisha also passed resolutions asking the state government to stop the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.