From farms to roads

Organised protests by small farmers have forced the government to take them seriously

From farms to roads

The Parliament House building in Islamabad was in the news last week for a totally different reason this time. Popular TV channels and newspapers of the country carried footage and images of the road, in front of this edifice, turned white with a fluid flowing on it.

After a closer observation, the viewers could realise it was gallons and gallons of milk spilt by disgruntled farmers to protest anti-dairy farming policies of the government.

Though farmers hold small-scale protests in routine, block roads in their close vicinity and even go on strikes, they have never marched on the capital like this and registered their protest in such a novel way. This time they reached the federal capital in large numbers from all over Pakistan, especially Punjab, and succeeded in making it to this highly sensitive area in terms of security.

The act of wasting thousands of gallons of milk has been criticised by many but the protesters are of the view that they have been successful in attracting more public and media attention this way. Their complaint was that the farmers were unable to sell fresh dairy milk at reasonable prices as the government had allowed import of skimmed milk powder and whey powder at low import duty rates. Besides, they are highly uncomfortable with the never-ending increased input costs including that of cattle feed due to imposition of import duties.

The protest was called off by farmers after a meeting with government representatives and the customary promises by the latter to help resolves their issues.

Whatever is the result of these negotiations, a trend that has emerged recently is that farmers are organising and adopting active approach instead of passive one. They have started moving to big cities in large numbers to show their strength and, on occasions, have crippled city life by blocking roads and highways. This has forced the government to take them seriously and succumb to their demands.

The protest outside the parliament was organised by Pakistan Kissan Ittehad (PKI), an organisation of small farmers from all over the country, with its headquarters in Multan. The same organisation brought farmers to Thokar Niaz Beg in Lahore in March this year and blocked the main Multan Road to push the government to accede to their demands. Their main concerns were the increasing costs of agricultural inputs and diminishing rates of agricultural outputs.

Farmers are organising themselves and adopting active approach instead of passive one. They have started moving to big cities in large numbers to show their strength and, on occasions, have crippled city life by blocking roads and highways.

The protesters clashed with police and some of them were even taken into custody. But they had to be released on the orders of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif who heard about the episode during his visit to China. The Punjab law minister had to reach the spot for talks with the protesters who finally called off the strike on getting certain assurances.

No doubt this movement of farmers has progressed phenomenally over the last couple of years and one feels compelled to ask the secret behind its success. The reason simply is that it comprises small farmers who know each other’s everyday issues and want to get them resolved with a unified struggle, says PKI President Khalid Mehmood Khokhar.

He tells TNS that it was around three years back that some farmers in Multan, including him, decided to organise themselves against exploitation by revenue department officials, irrigation officers, Wapda staff, agriculture department people and so on. At that time the electricity prices had increased too much making it impossible for farmers to survive. The news of the setting up of this forum spread like a jungle fire and farmers from all over the country started approaching them, he adds.

On the financial matters of PKI, he says, farmers pay from their own pockets when they are supposed to travel to a spot to show their numerical strength. He says farmers from Sindh and Balochistan also join them in reasonable numbers, but participation from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) is not significant.

He states farmers always come on their call as they have seen the benefits of organisation. Whenever there is an issue with a farmer regarding transfer of land, undue electricity bill, demand of bribe by officials, the PKI members in that area reach the place and get the task done in time and free of cost, he adds.

So, how does this movement differ from the one launched by Anjuman Mazareen Punjab, Okara or the Haris’ movement in Sindh. These two are struggling for land ownership rights and wage rates/share in crops respectively, whereas KPI is focussing mainly on farming issues such as removal of subsidies, imposition of taxes on inputs, non-availability of electricity, high cost of energy, black marketing of fertiliser and excessive import of agricultural products, says Khalid Mahmood, director Labour Education Foundation (LEF) -- an organisation that supports unionisation in different sectors.

Mahmood says it is not the fist time that farmers have formed a group to get their voices heard, but the impact this time has been great due to the scale of the initiative and the media coverage it attracts. Explaining his points, he says, the protests started in early 1990s when the government started removing subsidies, but one could read the news the next day. Today, the media shows these protests in real time and sometimes even over-blow the news to put an extra pressure on the government.

He says farmer organisations have mainly comprised elite farmers like Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Sardar Fakhar Imam and others who have not done anything for the small farmers despite being elected to the assemblies. It is a good development that small farmers have got organised and decided to pursue their matters themselves.

Has the movement succeeded in getting any relief from the government or its efforts have gone into vain? PKI President Khokhar tells TNS that though there is a very long way to go they have been able to get a few of their demands fulfilled. Besides, he says, the federal and provincial governments have sought some time from them to work on the proposals that the alliance has submitted.

Khokhar says the farmers blocked main highways and demanded relief in the prices of electricity. He says this demand was finally honoured and they succeeded in getting the tariff reduced to Rs 10.35 per unit along with exemption of tax on this rate.

On the numbers, he says, the biggest success so far was the congregation that they had announced in March 2014 to protest against government’s support for agricultural products’ import from India. On that day around 40,000 farmers had gathered in Bhai Pheru but they were denied entry into the city by blocking traffic and placing containers on roads.

Khokhar has plans for the times to follow but hopes the government fulfils the promises it has made and they do not need to take to the roads every time. It is not easy to bring people to sensitive locations like the red zone in Islamabad, he says, adding farmers do not have enough money to spend under this head. They come out only when they feel their inaction will make their survival impossible, he concludes.

From farms to roads