Thursday, March 10, 2011

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Indian Farmers Call off a massive planned siege of New Delhi after talk and commitments from Prime Minister

India's farmers movements have been trying hard to get the attention of the Government. They have requested several appointments with no response from the PM. It is only after the farmers threatened to lay an indefinite siege of Delhi by cutting off all the major highways that connect Delhi with the rest of the country on March 9 2011 that the PMOs office suddenly decided to acquiesce to arranging the much sought after appointment with top government officials following which the Delhi siege was called off. The farmers however were already prepared. About 12000 farmers who were already on their way reached Delhi from all across India while the majority were asked to cancel their plans to come to Delhi. Instead a public meeting was organized in New Delhi. Even the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had sent about a thousand farmers. The farmers were met by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Agriculture Minister Mr. Pawar, Minister of State in Prime Minister's Office V. Narayansamy, Planning Commission Member-Secretary Abhijit Sen and Agriculture Secretary P.K. Basu.

The worsening condition of the Indian agriculture sector has led to half a million farm suicides since 1995 - the largest recorded rate of suicides in human history. However the Indian government continues to formulate polices to favor the agri-business model of agriculture that increases food insecurity and dispossesses small farmers of their lands, seeds and productive resources including markets. Recently it is negotiating more than 30 FTAs, engaging in land grabs, reorienting the agricultural research establishment to the corporate agenda and setting up authorities to expedite GM crop entry, signing various deals between international seed companies and state governments among other things. It is to make specific demands to challenge these failing neoliberal policies and to promote food sovereignty and the farming community's rights that the farmer movements had decided to block New Delhi. The PM finally did agree to some constructive things.

The first thing that the PMO has agreed to do is to organize a meeting with the farmers on the Land Acquisition Act. This has been a long standing demand of the farmers movements. This is a colonial act from 1894 that has been misused by the government to gift peasants lands at throwaway prices to companies for the development of townships, malls, Special Economic Zones or what the farmers movements have called the “colonization of the countryside”. All across India farmers have been mobilizing on the sites of land grabs not only for just compensation but also to stop unfair grabbing of fertile agricultural lands. The farmers position is clear – agricultural land is for the peasant and can not be used for any unproductive purposes. Furthermore farmers want the entire act to be scrapped – no amendments will do. They want a totally new act which will address the land question and development in a holistic manner. They want a discussion and debate to take place on what is the meaning of “public purpose” - the clause in the outdated act that is being used by the government to grab land for private infrastructure projects [in the name of public purpose]. Most importantly they want that decisions in this country are taken in a democratic fashion, and those whose lands are being grabbed are not just consulted but play a significant role in the decision making and formulation of policies. Given the fact that the government did not make any effort to even address them until major agitations were launched in north India in August 2010 (see- http://lvcsouthasia.blogspot.com/2010/08/lvc-farmers-pushing-for-amended-land.html), they have now managed to get a high level meeting with the Rural Development Minister and Prime Minister in the future to further discuss their demands for this act.

The second thing that the PM has promised is that he would organize a farmers meeting with the Finance and the Agriculture ministers to specifically discuss the issues raised by the farmers. He also told the delegation that every year before the budget, the government would bring out a white paper report on the state of Indian agriculture.

The main demands of the farmers were to improve farmers incomes through more remunerative and scientifically calculated support prices, to provide health care to farm families, to scrap all agriculture deals in the various ongoing secret negotiations of bilateral FTAs and the WTO, to ban GMOs permanently since there is no need for them, to reduce the rate of farm loans. Farmers also stressed that there needs to be government support for a shift towards agroecological models of farming. The government and the agricultural establishments should support pro farmer and not pro corporate research.

Farm incomes are an especially sensitive topic. The Indian government has increased the incomes of government employees by 4 or even more times in the last 15 years but the farmers income has only deteriorated. In fact even the lowest level government employee -the peon makes a monthly salary of Rs 15000 (approx 333 USD) for a 9 to 5 job along with other services like health. But the farming family that toils 24x7 made an average income of Rs 2,115 (USD 50) in 2003-04 and the prices they receive are not even corrected for inflation. There is not even a body to fix their pay. See this article for a discussion on farmers incomes – http://www.countercurrents.org/dsharma151210.htm
The farmers have therefore been demanding that just like government employees their incomes need to be increased too and they too deserve health care. The solution to maintain the food security and sovereignty of India is to pay its farmers well not reduce the farm gate prices as is usually done to keep food prices low for consumers or for the industry.

The prime minister was in agreement with the farmers despite the contradictory policies his government has promoted and stressed their full commitment to India's farmers. Farmers have promised to carry on the pressure on the government and the PM to live up to the promises of the planned meetings.

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