Delhi has never understood Punjab and does not do so even now. The Punjab I allude to is the territory that till 1966 extended from the borders of Delhi all the way to Amritsar, encompassing large parts of current Himachal Pradesh. Two decades before that, it extended from Delhi to Peshawar and even beyond to the Khyber Pass before 1901.
To understand the current farmers’ agitation, one needs to understand the history, culture and the people who are in the vanguard of this struggle. From the 10th to the 18th century onwards, at least 70 invaders who came down the Khyber to pillage India passed through these lands, facing the fiercest resistance. Thus, were consecrated by fire and fury a people who became accustomed to fighting and surviving even in the most adverse circumstances. In the process, they acquired a fatalistic realism that can be summed up in one phrase, “khada pita lahe da, baki Ahmed Shahya da (whatever you eat and drink is yours, the rest Ahmed Shah Abdali will take away)”.
In the wake of the failed first war of independence in 1857, the British moved away from their traditional recruiting grounds by coining the “martial race theory”. As a consequence, very heavy recruitment into the British Indian Army started taking place from undivided Punjab around the 1870s.
During World War 1, the British drafted about half a million men from the province. This process of enlistment intensified during World War II with the numbers crossing a million. When the Second World War ended in 1945, most of these soldiers were demobilised and came back to their respective villages.
Against the will and wishes of the people, Punjab was partitioned in 1947. More than a million innocents were slaughtered between July and September of 1947 in the erstwhile British Punjab alone from Peshawar to Delhi. This was the direct outcome of mutilating a heavily militarised region without thinking through its implications. That is why Partition in Punjab is referred to as Ujara (devastation) and not Batwara.
Post Independence, millions started life afresh as refugees. Agriculture, armed forces and immigration became the principal vocations of the people of this region. Over a period of time, due to the recruitable male population policy in 1966, the share of the region in the armed forces started dropping and, as barriers to immigration became higher, agriculture soon became the mainstay for the people. With war with Pakistan looming over the horizon in 1965, the armed forces were concerned that they would be constrained in their fight against Pakistan if there were internal disturbances in the undivided Punjab.
The Union government under Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri made three commitments to Sant Fateh Singh in return for giving up his threat to self-immolate at the Akal Takht on September 25, 1965. These assurances were the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state, open-ended public procurement and an assured return on agricultural produce. Thus, the Food Corporation of India established in 1965 started administering the Minimum Support Price regime and public procurement paradigm. These are the commitments that the farmers agitating peacefully for months, barring the obtuseness of a few on Republic Day, are seeking continuation of.
Incidentally, even today, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi along with the Union territories of Chandigarh and J&K have a 21.88 per cent share among troops and junior commissioned officers (JCOs) in the Army. Punjab alone sends 89,893 troops and JCOs — 7.78 per cent of the total strength. These numbers, unfortunately, are a far cry from the pre-1966 days. Incidentally, the collective population of this northwestern region is just 7.47 per cent of the country’s population.
For the agitating farmers, what are the economics of agriculture? Conventional wisdom holds that 84 per cent of the farmers in this region have landholdings of between three and five acres only. Most farmers grow only two crops. Wheat sown in November is harvested in April and rice planted in June is reaped in early October.
One acre of land in a good year yields about 20-24 quintals of wheat. A quintal is equivalent to 100 kilograms. In a bad year, the yield can go down by half or three-fourths, that is, to 7-10 quintals. At a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,925 per quintal, a farmer can get about Rs 38,500 per acre.
However, input costs roughly come to about Rs 11,300 per acre. He thus earns about Rs 27,200 per acre for six months of hard work that translates into roughly Rs 4,530 per month. If a farmer has a plot of three acres, it comes up to Rs 13,590 per month. This does not take into account the wages of an entire family of four or five persons who would be toiling day and night.
The economics of the second crop are as follows. The yield of rice per acre is about 22-25 quintals in a good year. At an MSP of Rs 1,870 per quintal, it translates into a figure of Rs 46,750 per acre. With an input cost of Rs 13,800, the farmer earns about Rs 32,950 per acre for six months of hard work that translates into Rs 5,490 a month. Now if he has a three-acre plot, it means Rs 16,470 per month for the whole family.
Thus, in a good year, a family can earn about Rs 15,030 a month. They supplement this income with some dairy and poultry farming. This is with MSP and public procurement. Those without it are far worse off. However, if there is any unnatural occurrence, it can all go down the drain. These figures do not take into account the all-pervasive spectre of rural indebtedness. These are the meagre numbers the farmers are fighting for, braving the cold and COVID-19 and the government wants to take this away too.
Public procurement and MSP, a solemn assurance given as far back as 1965, is thus the safety net of the agrarian community. The NDA/BJP government now wants to dismantle this social security architecture. Given the ethos of the region, there is no way the farmers would allow their lands to be handed over to oligarchs and chaebols to impoverish them any further. That is exactly what these farm laws envisage. That is the essence of the agitation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 28, 2021 under the title ‘Punjab ki Baat’. The writer is a Congress leader, lawyer, MP and former Union Information and Broadcasting Minister.