Between the shadow of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee building and a white masjid, saffron flags were up. By 10 am the Ramleela Maidan was already bustling with about 30,000-35,000 farmers, protesting the agrarian policies of the Narendra Modi government. These weren’t the unions from Punjab, Congress cadre or political farmers, but the RSS’s very own farmers’ organisation – Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) – that had assembled farmers from over 550 districts.
Lost in the sea of farmers, one could hear Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Assamese and more. As I approached the grand main stage, the four principle demands were written below in bold black Hindi. The government should ensure fair price to be defined by cost of production, increase the PM Kisan Niddhi, all agricultural inputs should be removed from the GST ambit and approvals on GM crops should be revoked.
On stage, Hari Kumar Singh, a farmer form eastern Uttar Pradesh, was reminding Modi about something: “You had promised to solve the problem of stray cattle before the polls, but even today nothing has happened. Farmers’ fields are being destroyed by stray cattle, we have to keep guard throughout the night. Give us the money to take care of our gau mata (cattle), not false promises.”
Singh was not alone; farmers’ representatives from across the country expressed their discontent on many regional issues. Sugarcane prices, GM mustard, failure of the PM irrigation scheme, no access to marketing and no direct benefit transfer payment figured among them.
Among the crowd of speakers, I caught up with Ngurang Tadapa from Papupare, Arunachal Pradesh. “Marketing is a big problem for us. Currently we have delicious oranges going to waste because of no marketing. The other issue is since 2019, no new people have been added to the DBT scheme. For PM farmers’ schemes, you need land documents but our state government doesn’t give the land documents we need. Systems of land ownership is also different in our state,” Ngurang said.
While we had this conversation, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ reverberated through the crowd. It was followed by ‘Jai Balaram’. The rally was gaining momentum as it time for Mohini Mishra, national secretary BKS, to address the crowd. I walked to the front of the stage and waited for the show to begin.
Mishra, wearing a blue kurta and a stripped blue Nehru jacket, presented a scathing attack on the government’s agrarian polices. “Is the prime minister listening? We need to make our voices louder, so he hears. PM, you have a commerce ministry, which appears to be the swore enemy of farmers. Once we get good harvests, they ban exports and allow for imports. Hence farmers don’t get incomes. This is not the way to double your incomes. Do you know maths? If you don’t ask, the BKS, India’s biggest farmers organisation. Today we are here to make you understand how farmers will get a fair price,” he said.
“We need a fair price system based on cost of production, and we are not asking for alms, but our right,” he added.
As the parliament was in session, he reminded the crowds about the GM mustard issue. “Herbicide tolerant GM crops cause cancer, they kill off all the medicine plants, bees and the environment, yet GEAC is giving approval. What kind of a government is this? The PM is saying conserve biodiversity and the environment minister is saying destroy it. This won’t do, PM, we want organic not poison.”
“If implemented we won’t get our sarson saag, and lose our native seeds across the country too. We are ready to protest and uproot the plants if needed. If we want fair price, we need to remove GM crops from our fields, ” his statement was followed by chants of “Zeher nahi, jaivik chahiye” (We want organic, not poisons) from the crowds.
Stepping up the attack, Mishra said, “The father of the government had given a slogan, har khet ko paani, but where is the water? Water is being wasted on Delhi’s parks and no water is left for the farmers. We grow food, we feed you, when will our fields get water? By joining rivers Modi needs to send water from Kutch to Bihar, and Tamil Nadu. Have you heard of the PM irrigation scheme, has it reached your village?”
During his speech, Mishra also attacked the seed industry, corruption in the mandi system and the government’s failure in doubling farmers incomes.
By 3 pm the protest was over, and farmers were departing from Ramleela Maidan. The whole event was a shocker. Never before has such an acerbic attack aimed at the prime minister directly, came from within. Mishra said that this rally is the very beginning – soon more echoes will be heard from the hinterlands if the government doesn’t listen.
Indra Shekhar Singh is an independent agri-policy analyst and former director, policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India. He tweets at @IndraSSingh.