Premkumar Mani: ‘Farmers critical to nation, farming should be redefined’

The Indian National Congress became part of the national movement only after it reached out to the farmers of Champaran. Under the leadership of Gandhi, a powerful farmers’ stir was launched there. As a result, the farmers began gravitating towards the party in huge numbers and that, ultimately, made Independence possible, says Premkumar Mani

About a year and three months after their enactment, the Government of India has repealed three farm laws – Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act (ECA), 2020. The farmers had to stay put on the borders of Delhi, braving the elements, for a year to make this happen. Premkumar Mani, a former member of the Bihar Legislative Council, a Bahujan thinker and an author, spoke with Nawal Kishore Kumar, Forward Press Hindi editor, about the implications of the farmers’ movement and the conduct and the attitude of the central government towards the movement. Edited excerpts:

What is your first reaction to the repeal of the three farm laws by the Union government?

I am happy, though not from the depths of my heart. It is quite late in the day, but at least the government did see reason. The laws were bad and so their withdrawal is good. The laws triggered a nationwide uproar. Parliament may not have debated the laws – both at the time of enactment and repeal – but the nation did discuss them threadbare for more than a year. The government realized that if it tried to put a stop to this debate, the consequences would be serious. Parliament represents the people, hence it should debate any measure that affects them. The Bills should have been discussed, debated and returned. The Bills were not passed. They were tabled amid commotion and were declared passed. Akali Dal, one of the constituents of the ruling coalition, had opposed the Bills from the very outset. The party asked its representative in the council of ministers to resign. The government should have realized at that time itself that it was playing with fire. Whom should we hold accountable for the manner in which the government dealt with this issue? Whom should we hold accountable for the farmers having to brave searing heat, biting cold and heavy rains? The government allowed anarchic conditions to prevail for more than a year. Ultimately, it realized that the farmers would not give in or give up and that their stir was adversely affecting the country’s farm production and its image as a democracy. By withdrawing the laws, the government has not done any good to the farmers but has protected itself. I would like to congratulate the government. At least good sense prevailed, better late than never.

It is being said that this is a political decision taken due to the upcoming assembly polls in five states. Your take? 

When the laws were enacted, the government knew when Uttar Pradesh would go to the polls. What happened was that the government couldn’t comprehend the implications of what it was doing. Farmers form a majority in the country. The percentage of population dependent on farming is 68-70. Why should such a large chunk of our people depend on agriculture for a living? There was no debate at the national level on this issue. The country had never witnessed a farmers’ movement at this scale. The industrialization of the country did not happen in the way it should have been. It was anarchic and rogue. Even today, villages and farmers are the fulcrum of the country’s economy. India is a country of the villages and the farmers. They are the foundations of the production system of the country. How can you run a democracy by pushing such a huge population to the margins? The government’s adamance on the issue of farm laws also disrupted law and order. The government was losing its grip on the people. This is not for the first time that the farmers displayed their might. If you study the national movement you will realize that, initially, the Congress was a party of educated lawyers and landlords. They used to hold annual conventions. The party was divided into the moderates and the extremists. Both the factions worked in their own ways. The Indian National Congress could become a part of the national movement only after it reached out to the farmers of Champaran. Under the leadership of Gandhi, a powerful farmers’ stir was launched there. As a result, the farmers began gravitating towards the party in huge numbers and that, ultimately, made Independence possible. But for the farmers, the barristers and other elite sections of society would have held conferences and conventions for hundreds of years and nothing would have moved. It was the farmers who won us our freedom. It is often said that the farmers have no interest in politics and democracy. This is wrong. Without the aid of any political party, the farmers showed their strength and the government was forced to capitulate. No party was with the farmers, and the farmers didn’t declare support for any of the parties. The government should have understood the sentiments of the farmers. It should have accommodated their sentiments. Currently, the farmers are not central to the politics of any political outfit. Some are talking of business, others are talking of industries. It is the farmer who is the biggest producer. We say that the farmers produce food grains, milk, fruits, vegetables and cotton. This is how we define farmers. But don’t the farmers have a role in industrial production? Don’t farmers have a role in the production of salt? Aren’t milk producers farmers? We see the farmers in a narrow sense. Farmers grow food grains, vegetables and fruits but they don’t get a fair price for their produce. Dairy farmers don’t get a fair price for milk. Today, petrol sells for Rs 100 per litre and milk for Rs 40. Why so? How hard one has to work to produce milk! Just see the price of onion, potato and other farm produce …

The farmers are demanding a law to guarantee purchase on Minimum Support Price (MSP)? What are your views on this? 

The farmers’ demand for purchase on MSP is valid and legitimate. Today, they have to produce as well as find a market for their produce. Thanks to the government, they have been caught in a vicious cycle. Milk can’t be stored for long periods. In Gujarat, milk used to get spoilt by the afternoon. Who suffered due to this? The milk-producer women would start looking for buyers early in the morning. The sethias would refuse to buy the milk. Around noon, the women halve the price of their milk. And then the same sethias would buy it. Verghese Kurien proposed setting up milk banks. Arrangements were made to store milk and process it to make different products. It was then that their exploitation ended. Industrialization should be linked to farming so that the labourers don’t have to migrate. Farmers should stay in villages. That is what the government says and that is what we want. But that does not mean at all that we are anti-labour. The farmers should be introduced to mechanization. The means of production used by the farmers are obsolete. They should be replaced. Only then the farmers would prosper. But capitalists should not be allowed into this process. Why has Adani built silos all over the country? He wanted to starve the nation. They would lock up wheat in the silos and would dangle the keys before us. They would say they would sell it at such-and-such a price. You would have to pay Rs 100 per kg for the wheat which you used to buy for Rs 10. We would ask why? They would say, “We have performed some magic on the wheat and now it will be sold for Rs 100.” When wheat is locked up in their godowns, they will dictate the prices. They will have the power to starve us. If there is no MSP, how will it be possible to provide food grains to the poor at low prices? There are many issues. Today, the government doesn’t talk with the farmers. Shouldn’t they have a role in the country’s development? The government talks of compensating the farmers four times but compensates them only once. Adani and Ambani are producing different commodities in their factories and making crores in profits. Make farmers a part of the industries. Make them shareholders in the industries; or guarantee them such-and-such a share in the profits. Farmers spend a major part of their income on the marriages of their daughters and so on. They turn paupers, labourers. There are many such issues. When you think of development from the perspective of the farmers, things will solve themselves. When the farmers were on the roads to protest the farm laws, the educated people were sitting in their homes. Some of them did beat their chests before the TV cameras but none of them joined the farmers on the roads. They kept on saying that the farmers didn’t understand. Now, the Prime Minister says, “We could not make them understand.” You [the government] will not be able to make the farmers understand and you won’t be able to understand them. That is because you do not share in their pain. 

Prem Kumar Mani, Bahujan thinker and author

Supreme Court Chief Justice N.V. Ramana has said that the legislature does not conduct studies or assess the impact of the laws that it passes. President Ram Nath Kovind has said that the judges must exercise “utmost discretion” while pronouncing judgments. How do you see these statements in the present context? 

Discretion, debate and discussion are very important. The judiciary only interprets laws. The executive made a law that everyone should have enough to eat. But if that is not happening, is the judiciary responsible for it? If you don’t discuss a law before enacting it, you will have to face the music. The anti-defection law was passed by Parliament without any discussion within or without the House. Has there been any discussion on what it has led to? It is because of that law that today parties do not have leaders. They have supremos. Presidents of the parties enjoy untrammeled power. If any legislator or MP quits the party, he or she loses her membership. It has indirectly encroached upon the natural freedom enjoyed by elected representatives. But this was not contemplated. Similarly, there was no discussion on the issues of the farmers. Why was the government in such a tearing hurry? You could have talked with 20-25 agriculture experts. Then, maybe, instead of the black laws, you would have come up with better laws. The farmers had been in the struggle for more than a year. They wanted the laws to go. They wanted an MSP regime. But you kept saying that the laws were meant to benefit the farmers. You kept on talking about abolishing MSP. You diluted the laws to help the capitalists. You don’t give weight to the opinion of the people’s representatives sitting in Parliament. You do not give weight to the opinion of the political analysts. Parliamentary panels have been rendered ineffective. That is why our democracy is weakening by the day. You can see the same situation in the distribution of tickets. Earlier, the Congress used to give tickets to workers on the ground. The proposals had to be endorsed by the district, state and national bodies of the party. Now, every party just authorizes the supremo to decide on the tickets. The supremo distributes tickets like a dictator. This is the situation in all the parties. Let us not blame one party. What the BJP is doing today, the Congress used to do earlier. In all parties, the workers are not involved in the internal discussions. The workers have only one job – humouring the leaders and prostrating before them. The top leaders hold durbars. There is a great dearth of genuine discourse and discussion in society. That is affecting politics, too. Adani’s godowns were there before the farm laws were made. The government decided to bring the laws under Adani’s influence. It did not hold discussions with the farmers. Now, if you bring laws because Adani wants it, that is bound to lead to mayhem. The judiciary will also be affected. 

On 19 November 2021, the Prime Minister announced the decision to repeal the farm laws without the assent of his cabinet. The same had happened when the laws were made. How do you see this?   

This is what happens in dictatorships. It is unfortunate that the Prime Minister made the announcement. What is the council of ministers there for? Talk to the council and then make a decision. Who are you to take unilateral decisions? Democratic ethos is being given a go-by. Democracy is a culture. This government is undemocratic. Its norms are undemocratic. Regretfully, no editorials were written on this – there was no debate. The situation is the same in all the parties. This is a matter for research. In all parties, decisions are made first and endorsed later. In our homes, we hold discussions and then make a decision, whether it is marriages or something else. Are the council of ministers, Parliament and the people only meant to receive information that such-and-such a thing has been done? Is the Prime Minister meant to only inform the people and Parliament? What can be more dictatorial? These are major issues but no one talks about them. 

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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