The coffee club meets once every 10 days. It consists of retired bureaucrats, former judges and army personnel as well. It was the think tank behind the farmers’ protests in Delhi and surrounding areas. And for them, it came as a pleasant surprise when the Prime Minister repealed the three controversial farm laws. Says SS Boparai, retired state cabinet secretary, “I am glad that the bills have been called off. The government has realised that it was not helping the farmers. But our battle is not yet over. We have to now fight for a legal guarantee for MSP or the minimum support price.”
MSP is a kind of safety net or insurance for farmers when they sell some selected crops. The government agencies buy these crops, usually paddy and wheat, at a stipulated price, which covers the costs for the farmers and no product then can be sold below this decided rate. The farmers, buoyed by the repeal of the three laws, are now pushing the envelope to ensure that this demand too is met. This legal guarantee becomes important because it ensures that tomorrow no changes are made and the farmers can go to court in case the MSP is tampered with.
It’s a pitch that is being put forward by agriculture experts like Devender Sharma. He tells News18.com, “It’s most unfair. Punjab farmers contribute about 45% to the agro produce in the country and therefore they need to be assured that the prices won’t hurt.” He rejects the view of the experts and economists that MSP as a legal guarantee would put an additional burden of about Rs 17 lakh crore on the exchequer.
As News18.com travels to the outskirts of Chandigarh where most mandis are empty as the harvesting season is over, a handful of farmers get ready to leave for Delhi where the one-year anniversary of the protests is going to be celebrated. But these farmers tell us they don’t understand why they need to carry on with their protests as the farm laws have been repealed. Sukhdev Singh says, “The cause was so strong for us that we decided to leave our pind (village) and stay put on the Delhi border. Our family back in the villages had to face hardships but they supported us. Now we want to go back…but we have been asked to stay back. Don’t know for how long.”
But in Punjab, MSP has now become a poll issue. Sources say that at a meeting of the Congress leadership in Delhi, it has been mulled that the minimum support price and legal guarantee should be the next point of agitation and this will be part of their manifesto if the legal guarantee has not been ensured by the Centre.
Ousted Congress chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, who looks set to fight next year’s Punjab polls in alliance with the BJP, told News18.com, “MSP is important but then the government keeps announcing it periodically. I think the farmers should trust the PM now that he has repealed the laws.”
It’s early days yet. Punjab is now facing elections on a different landscape as the poll plank has now changed. MSP could be the next new flashpoint. The coffee club of retired bureaucrats now plans to step up its campaign.