Put brakes on farm protests; they pose risk to public health

The disastrous spike in Covid cases has changed many mindsets. The Election Commission was slammed for a lengthy voting schedule in the recent state elections, helping spread the disease. The Kumbh Mela at Haridwar was castigated for promoting mass contact. The IPL was suspended, and the Tokyo Olympics will probably be abandoned. The Uttarakhand government has suspended the annual pilgrimages to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri. Allahabad High court has flayed the holding of panchayat elections in UP.

Once, elections were seen as so fundamental that political parties and courts insisted on holding them even in the most difficult circumstances. Now Covid has forced second thoughts.

But while many contact-promoting activities have been halted, neither Opposition parties nor supposed intellectuals are calling for a halt to an indubitable Covid spreader — the farmers’ agitation surrounding Delhi. Whatever the merits of the massive sit-in agitation, it should be halted like other Covid-spreaders.

I am no fan of BJP chief ministers like Yogi Adityanath and Manohar Lal Khattar. But I agree fully with them that the farmers’ agitation around Delhi spreads disease and death. Given the cynicism in Indian politics, no one can expect Opposition parties to ask the farmers to go home. But all those claiming to espouse human rights should call for the suspension of the agitation.

This argument would hold even if the farmers had the best case in the world. In fact, their agitation represents the vested interest of the richest, most subsidised farmers of the north-west. It does not represent Indian farmers overall. Venerable farmers’ organisations such as Maharashtra’s Shetkari Sanghatana and Hyderabad-based Federation of Farm Associations have supported the government’s farm reform laws and opposed the agitation.

Punjab farmers are less opposed to the reform laws than fearful that this is the start of the dismantling of government procurement of rice and wheat at Minimum Support Prices. The government has assured the continuance of MSPs and procurement, but to deaf ears.
Only 6% of farmers, almost all in the north-west, benefit from MSPs, says Ashok Gulati, one of the agricultural experts nominated to an expert body created at the suggestion of the Supreme Court (but rejected by the agitators). Gulati calculates that Punjab farmers get annual power subsidies of Rs 8,275 crore and fertiliser subsidies of Rs 5,000 crore, averaging Rs 1.22 lakh per farm household. In addition, they get subsidised credit and PM Kisan grants. Their high farm income translates to high land prices of Rs 50-100 lakh/acre. Industries do not invest in Punjab because land is exorbitantly expensive.
Marginal farmers are defined as having one hectare or less of land. But in Punjab even one hectare is worth Rs 1.25-2.5 crore. They may not look prosperous, but the agitators are crorepatis getting annual subsidies exceeding Rs 1.2 lakh. Naturally, they love the existing system though it is a financial, environmental, and human disaster.

Mohinder Gulati, former CEO of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All campaign, says farmers around Delhi burn 100 million tonnes of crop stubble annually, generating 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 12 million tonnes of other polluting gases, and 1.2 million tonnes of particulate matter. Smog in Delhi and neighbouring areas chokes 50 million people, closes schools, and causes irreversible lung damage to 2.2 million children and adults. Burning stubble “also destroys the nitrogen and carbon potential of the soil, kills microflora and fauna beneficial to the soil, removes a large portion of organic matter, and unavoidably leads to increased use of chemical fertilisers.”

Burning stubble is illegal, but the farmers of Punjab and Haryana ignore laws with impunity: politicians dare not arrest them for fear of losing votes. The farmers want to earn a few more rupees through early sowing of winter wheat after harvesting the summer rice crop. They burn their rice stubble to quickly clear their fields. They do not give a damn that this inflicts disease and death on their neighbours.
Political competition for farm votes means free electricity for pumps. Excessive tubewell pumping has lowered the water table disastrously. First, drinking water wells ran dry, followed by shallow tubewells of small farmers. Only the deepest tubewells of the richest farmers, using the most electricity and emitting the most carbon, now pump water. Punjab is a low rainfall region that simply should not grow rice, but free electricity makes rice cultivation very profitable while destroying aquifers. So, the farm agitation supports a terrible farming system that kills aquifers, maims neighbours through stubble burning, and now kills them by spreading Covid. Those failing to condemn this are hypocrites or cowards.

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