On 20 September, the Rajya Sabha passed two contentious bills related to the farm sector— the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill. On 22 September, it passed the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. The Lok Sabha had earlier passed these bills amid stiff opposition from farmers. The bills introduce changes in the way agricultural produce is stocked, marketed and sold. Farmers in Punjab have been opposing the bills since they were first introduced as ordinances in June. Farmers’ organisations say the new rules will lead to corporate monopoly and fear that it will end the current system built around a government-guaranteed minimum support price, or MSP.
Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of Bhartiya Kisan Union, a farmers’ organisation, told me that close to 30 farmer unions in Punjab have come under one banner and called for a bandh on 25 September in protest over the farm bills. Supporting the protests, the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee, another farmers’ organisation in Punjab, announced a “Rail Roko”—or stop the trains—agitation from 24 to 26 September. “Had these legislations been revolutionary in terms of benefits to farmers, then the farmers would not have left their fields unattended to protest in hot and sultry weather without any water or food on roads,” Rajewal said.
The dispute over these farm bills has led to a heated political debate in Punjab. On 17 September, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, a leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, resigned from the union cabinet in protest over the farm bills. Harsimrat was the union minister of food processing industries. SAD is one of the BJP’s oldest allies, and the two had jointly ruled Punjab between 2007 and 2017. However, SAD’s position on the farms bills shows that it has been struggling to choose between its ally and the rural vote bank of farmers in Punjab.
SAD’s initial stance was to support the farm ordinances. On 26 August, Narendra Singh Tomar, the minister of agriculture, wrote to Sukhbir Singh Badal, the SAD president, stressing that the ordinances were meant for “safeguarding the best interest of the farming community.” Tomar said that bills would have “no bearing” on the MSP, which would continue to co-exist with the new system. Soon after, Sukhbir reiterated Tomar’s statement in a virtual press conference, and defended the ordinances, emphasising that they were in the interest of farmers.
However, in the face of increasing anger among farmers, SAD began to change its stance the next month. In a statement on 12 September, Daljit Singh Cheema, the SAD’s spokesperson, said that in a core committee meeting, the party had decided to request the central government to address the concerns of farmers before bringing the ordinances in parliament. On 15 September, Badal spoke in parliament against the bills. Two days later, Harsimrat resigned from the cabinet. Subsequently, Sukhbir tweeted, “Akali Dal opposes all the three agriculture ordinances of the Central Government.” SAD also announced a chakka jam for three hours, on 25 September, in protest against the farm bills. A chakka jam is a blockade of transport as a form of protest. However, the party did not officially end its alliance with the BJP. The SAD currently has two members of parliament from Punjab in the Lok Sabha. It has 15 seats in the 117-strong Punjab assembly.