Jaspreet Oberoi: The Modi Government Continues to Target Punjab In Order To Break The Farmers’ Protest

After months of repeatedly labeling farmers anti-nationals, the Modi government has fired a fresh salvo

Jaspreet Oberoi
April 9, 2021 | 3.5 min. read

Since the start of the Farmers’ Protest, the Indian government has desperately attempted to discredit the demonstrators. After months of repeatedly labeling farmers “Khalistani terrorists” and “anti-nationals”, the Modi government has fired a fresh salvo. 

Punjabi farmers have now been accused of holding out-of-state workers captive and practicing bonded labour, which is effectively modern-day enslavement. Many have seen this as an attempt by the BJP to split labourer and farmer unity that has been building up over the Farmers’ Protest. 

On March 17, the Central Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) asked the Punjab government to take action on a probe by the Border Security Force (BSF) that reportedly found evidence of migrant bonded labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh employed in the state’s farms being administered drugs to extract long hours of work. 

Captain Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister of Punjab, divulged that, while the state government was compiling data for a response, the MHA leaked a letter to the media that twisted valid concerns about an incident on the Indo-Pak border into claims of bonded labour in order to defame Punjab and its farmers. He went on to provide an investigative record of the listed individuals in the letter and it showed no evidence of bonded labour or related misgivings. 

“It is yet another conspiracy by the BJP-led central government to malign Punjab farmers. All 58 cases have been investigated thoroughly and nothing of this kind has been found,” Singh said. 

The BSF operates in nine border states of India, including Punjab, and apprehending suspicious individuals along the national border is a routine affair. Even more dubious than the timing of this MHA letter is the absence of any mention of other states. 

Historically, bonded labour has been much less of a prevalent issue in Punjab compared to other Indian states. In a recent report by the Modi government itself, since 1975 the total number of identified bonded labourers in Punjab has been 252, compared to the national total of 313,687. 

While even a single case of bonded labour is unacceptable, the question remains: why is Punjab the only state to receive central government and national media attention, when it only accounts for 0.08% of India’s cases?

This is not the first time the Modi government has specifically slandered and targeted Punjab, even just during the Farmers’ Protests. 

When farmers started their Rail Roko agitation in September 2020, the train services in Punjab were completely halted. In October, after noticing the resultant loss to the state, the Farmer Unions decided to exempt goods trains from their protests, while continuing to block passenger ones. After a few smooth days, the Central Railway Ministry decided to suspend the goods trains as well, falsely stating farmers were still blocking the tracks.

While both the Farmer Unions and the Punjab government kept assuring free passage to the goods trains, the service was not resumed by the Central government. This resulted in a power crisis in Punjab because the thermal plants were severely hit by the low coal supply. It also adversely affected the supply of fertilizers for crops for the spring harvest and the movement of food grain stocks. Additionally, the state economy saw a huge impact because it was unable to receive raw materials or send finished goods to the rest of the country.

Later in December 2020, in a bid to squeeze the state financially, the Modi government deliberately delayed the disbursement of a 12 billion INR ($161 million USD) Rural Development Fund (RDF) payment to Punjab. The RDF comes from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) which buys around 13 million tonnes of wheat and 16 million tonnes of paddy every year from Punjab. It is used for providing relief for the loss and damage to agricultural produce, facility of street lights, canals and drains, government health infrastructure, drinking water, sanitation, and government educational institutions in rural areas.

Lastly, in a rather sudden move two weeks ago, the FCI proposed stricter norms for foodgrain procurement. For example, the acceptable moisture content for the wheat grain has been tightened to 12% from the earlier 14%. Wheat is harvested in the peak summer days of April and May, which theoretically should aid in reducing the moisture; however, Punjab often sees April showers and thunderstorms, which many times destroy the crop, and if not, at least leave it wet and damp. This new proposal is destined to make it harder for the farmers to get their produce to the market, for essentially no fault of theirs. 

It is diabolical that while the farmers from Punjab are sitting patiently on the borders of the national capital, Delhi, their determination and resolve are being constantly tested by the Modi government using every trick up its sleeve. The intention is to break them, emotionally, physically, and financially.

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Jaspreet Oberoi was born and raised in Patiala, Punjab, and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is a columnist focused on socio-political issues concerning India and Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @ijasoberoi.


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