Protests against the Farm Laws in Tamil Nadu have been taking place almost daily. However, the scale of these protests are not to the level of Punjab and Haryana. Understanding the different contexts among the states might explain why.
The ongoing protests against the farm laws passed by the BJP led Central government, have seen widespread media coverage for the past few weeks. Farmers unions along with trade unions, and various political parties have joined the protest against the laws, with the opposition to the laws now being termed a ‘pan-India movement’ by several news outlets. These protests have mostly been led by farmers and unions from Haryana and Punjab.
Thousands of farmers are currently camped at different borders of the capital, mainly from these states, including Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The laws in question are The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act.
Protests, hunger strikes, bandhs, and other forms of resistance to the laws have been reported country-wide. However, the protests have been on a smaller scale as compared to the farmers protesting from Punjab and Haryana. This may have something to do with how the three farm laws specifically affect the trading practices of the farmers in Punjab and Haryana.
The presence of the mandi system is not quite the same in a state like Tamil Nadu, where private players dominate the agricultural trading sphere. While looking into the nature of protests against these bills in Tamil Nadu, it is important to understand the context of trading agricultural produce in the state. However, while the laws don’t affect the states in the same way, the larger threat they pose to food security via eroding of the public distribution system, cultivation of traditional and regionally-specific crops, and security among agricultural workers, will affect the whole country adversely.
An Already Weakened Mandi System
One of the key criticisms to come from farm unions against the laws, is the weakening of the public regulated market system i.e. the mandi system, whereby government agencies procure produce in bulk at the minimum support price (MSP), for public distribution. With these markets running the risk of fizzling out, farmers will be left at the mercy of private buyers, where questions of MSP remain unanswered by the government.
The mandi system is not as dominant in Tamil Nadu as it is in Punjab and Harayana. Currently, there are around 283 state regulated markets under 26 market committees in the state. Only around 10% of the total produce, sometimes 25%, is sold in these markets. In addition, the system of surveillance on taxes, imposed outside of these regulated markets is very low.
Private buyers have dominated the trade for around 25 years, with taxes on the produce kept at a low price. In contrast, the system in states like Punjab and Haryana is heavily public procurement based. In the year 2019, more than 75% of the rice and wheat produced by these two states was procured by government agencies. According to a survey shown by Gaon Connection, the procurement of paddy by the government in the last three months was highest in Punjab and Haryana, while the lowest being Tamil Nadu at 1.2% of the total procurement. Ultimately this climate of the dominance of private buyers, which is being protested so heavily by farmers from Punjab and Haryana and other states in the north, already exists to a certain extent in Tamil Nadu.
Pushing out of farmers into other Sectors
Gaurilankeshnews.com team spoke to Bhaskar, an activist from Tamilnadu. Bhaskar provided a number of reasons for why the protests in Tamil Nadu are on a lower scale. According to him, The Tamil Nadu workforce’s lower engagement in agriculture is a key reason. While in Punjab a majority of farmers are engaged in agriculture for around 8 to 9 months in a year, the season in Tamil Nadu only lasts for 3 to 4 months, sometimes 6 to 7 months in a year. Once the season is done, many agricultural workers find work in cities (oftentimes manual labour). According to the 2011 census, 42.1% of the working population were engaged in farm work, with the rest working non-farming jobs in urban areas. In addition, key crops such as rice and wheat are imported into Tamil Nadu from states such as Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Wheat is imported from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
With the state’s high rate of Industrialisation, engagement in agriculture among the workforce is thus much lower as compared to Punjab and Haryana. In fact, the 2011 census reveals that from the years 2001 to 2011, around 8.67 lakh farmers have left agriculture to work in other sectors. Along with this, there has been an increase in landless farm labourers in the state, with many farmers selling their land, to work for a daily wage, according to Federation of Agricultural Associations Secretary, S Nallasami. Industrialisation, import policies, and legitimization of private agricultural trade by various policies of the Tamil Nadu government are significant factors, which have created such a precarious agricultural economy in the state.
When looking at the policies of the state government, a withdrawal of the state in regulating agricultural trade can be seen. The prohibition of commission agents, as well as the low commission fee (1% of the total value of produce) on trading outside of regulated markets, are some of the ways in which private buyers are encouraged into the market. The low public procurement of produce also contributes to such circumstances. The bargaining power of farmers, one of the key themes of protest today, is diminished in the face of large corporate bodies, as a result. In addition, the contract farming law introduced in the state prior to the passing of the three farm laws further legitimises non-state regulated channels of trade. Contract farming puts the farmer in an extremely precarious situation, with unexpected flooding, drought, etc threatening to disrupt the expected output and leaving the farmers in debt and at the mercy of powerful corporates.
The Union and state governments over the years have also provided clearance to a number of private and state corporations to grab farmlands to be used for non-agricultural purposes and thus repeatedly attack the agricultural workers in Tamil Nadu. The hydrocarbon exploration projects carried out for years together by the ONGC and private companies such as Vedanta in the Cauvery Delta have hindered paddy production significantly, with farmer suicides occurring in the region in large numbers. Currently in the Western districts, farmers are agitating against the GAIL pipeline project, the Chennai Salem Green Corridor, and the high tension electric line, all of which pass through farmlands.
The idea that Tamil Nadu is more ‘advanced’ owing to its high level of industrialisation and urbanisation is a clear misconception when keeping the above points in mind. The state’s withdrawal from regulating agriculture is accompanied by an ever-growing partnership with corporate interests. In this neoliberal atmosphere, agriculture becomes all the more precarious and has pushed out a huge bulk of the workforce in search of jobs. The strong anti-corporate assertion present in protests in the state is thus not surprising. However, the lower scale of protests can be attributed to this erosion of the agricultural sector, whereby many have been driven away from it.
Protests still Continue
Protests against the laws have been taking place in Tamil Nadu almost daily. Protesters have been arrested in large numbers at the protest sites as well. Many of the protests and demonstrations have been organised by opposition parties such as DMK, VCK, CPM, as well as a number of trade and farmers unions across districts. The DMK specifically has been vocal in its criticism towards the AIADMK government for voting in favour of the farm bills in parliament. In a statement issued by DMK President MK Stalin, he called the laws “anti-people and pro-corporate”, and demanded the centre convene in parliament to meet the demands of farmers. He has also criticised the government for its haste in imposing projects such as the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (EIA) and the recent labour reforms, which only seem to work in the favour of corporate interests at the cost of the livelihoods and dignity of the people. Ultimately, these protests are not only being organised to oppose these laws, but also the larger push towards privatisation, and convenience of private interests by both the state and union governments.