Time to take note

February 28, 2021

Indian farmers protesting against the new Farm laws are fast becoming a source of inspiration for their counterparts across the border

The Indian farmers’ prolonged protest against the new Farm Laws passed by the Modi administration has garnered attention worldwide. Many in Pakistan are also sympathising with the farmer community in the neighbouring country. The new regulations are seen as an act of state high-handedness against poor farmers.

The recent move by the Indian government aims at dismantling the price security for farming goods. The law nominally allows the farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price. The farmers, protesting against the government since November, fear that the new laws would end up exposing them to ruthless strategies of big companies that will dictate the prices. The Indian policymakers, on the other hand, are adamant that the new laws will actually increase farmers’ incomes and enable them to sell their goods to more buyers.

The negotiations have continued but the situation is far from resolved and the farmers have continued their protest demonstrations and the sit-in at the Dehli border. With every passing day, they have gained support from all over the world.

Farmers in Pakistan may face similar hardships. However, they have been unable to mount resistance like their counterparts in India.

Like India, agriculture plays a vital role in Pakistan’s economy, especially for the rural population. According to government statistics, the agriculture sector contributes 18.9 percent to the country’s GDP, and 42.3 percent of the labour force is dependent on it for their livelihood. Unlike India, Pakistan’s agriculture sector is dominated by large land holders who influence state policy. Farmers with small/medium land holdings have little or no say.

Khalid Mahmood Khokhar, central president of the Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, says in recent years has become a net importers of farm produce. He says the lack of government support is the reason for farmers’ problems.

“Pakistani farmers are facing more problems than their Indian counterparts,” Khokhar says. He points out that under the prime minister’s support package for various sectors during the Covid-19 lockdown, Rs 63 billion was allocated for the agriculture sector out of the Rs 1,200 billion. He says the farmers never saw a paisa from the funds.

According to Kissan Ittehad leader, the main problem is that production cost for most crops has risen and the prices they get have not kept pace with it. Farming, he says, is not sustainable any longer. He says the government continues to force the farmers to sell their produce cheaply.

Saeed Mughal, a veteran journalist covering agriculture, says that the agriculture sector has declined for several years. He says Pakistan has become a cotton importing country after being an exporter for many years. Cotton growers, he says, have been the main losers. This year the government also purchased wheat on the cheap and eventually sold it at a premium. “The middlemen were the ones who benefitted from this,” Mughal adds.

It is not as though farmers in Pakistan have never protested against the government. In the most recent episode, they staged a sit-in in Lahore in November. The protest ended with the death of an activist following a baton charge and teargas shelling by police. One of the protesters’ leaders was arrested.

Another attempt is currently afoot to press the government to agree to more favourable terms.

Khokhar says that a rally featuring 500 to 600 tractors was organised in Pakpattan a few days ago. He says the farmers will march on Islamabad if necessary to force the government to revise the support prices for their produce.

Asked why protest by farmers in Pakistan has not matched that in India, Khokhar says that India’s farmers are not alone in their effort. They are supported by local communities. This has helped them sustain their resistance. In Pakistan, he says, no one appears willing to help them. “We were not even offered a glass of water in Lahore; we were all by ourselves,” he laments. He sees a lack of effective leadership as a primary reason for the farming community’s inability to force the government to accept its demands.

Mughal, too, believes that lack of strong leader is why Pakistani farmers cannot get their way. He says farmers’ leaders in Pakistan are quick to strike deals and poor at bargaining.

Kissan Ittehad’s Bahawalnagar district secretary Muhammad Aslam praises the efforts of Indian farmers. He says he believes that the Indian farmers will get their way because they have not backed down from their demands. The farmers in Pakistan, he says, cannot launch similar resistance as they lack resources. “We do not have the money to travel to Lahore and stage a protest. After the two-day journey we will not have enough left to feed ourselves for another day,” he laments.

Altaf Hashmi, a farmer from Minchinabad, says farmers face problems everywhere. Whatever they [farmers] are doing in India is good as farmers are not receiving a living wage. Compared to India, he says, Pakistani farmers have much to lose. Therefore, he says, it is hard to get large-area farmers to protest for the farming community’s rights.

The writer is a freelance    journalist

Time to take note: Indian farmers protest becoming source of inspiration for Pakistani farmers