Sugar siege melts Delhi Unceasing tide of farmers forces price review

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  • Published 20.11.09

New Delhi, Nov. 19: The capital got a fulsome dose of the country today, and the country a swift pledge from the capital.

Within hours of swarming in from the restive western Uttar Pradesh neighbourhood and trapping New Delhi in feisty gridlock, farmers had forced a retreat by the government on sugarcane pricing and sent the Congress panicking over the electoral consequences of provoking rural anger.

Rahul Gandhi, who is blue-printing the Congress’s comeback bid in Uttar Pradesh, was quick to sense the alarm ahead of the 2012 assembly polls, and rushed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with a review request. The party couldn’t afford to brush aside farmer fury, he is believed to have argued. Left untended, the fires could spread and char the party’s revival prospects.

The government retreated quickly enough, promising to cast the ordinance afresh after all-party consultations scheduled for Monday.

Meantime, the issue is likely to ripple nervously through the cabinet and the Congress backrooms where demands will be made for urgent corrections to assuage farmers’ ire.

To add to the agitated advice from within, the government faced assault from outside. In the Lok Sabha, it lay besieged by the entire Opposition from the CPM to the BJP demanding the withdrawal of the sugarcane ordinance and the uniform fair remunerative price (FPR) order that fixes sugarcane rates at Rs 129.84 a quintal.

It was a “black law” the government was trying to thrust on farmers at the instance of sugar industrialists, agitated Opposition members alleged. Many of them, including Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ajit Singh, milled about shouting in the well of the house, forcing a chaotic adjournment that extended all day.

Not far from the tumult in Parliament, swelled a much larger protest, reminiscent at its peak of the stirring seven-day siege of Delhi by the same constituency of west Uttar Pradesh farmhands in 1988. Not least because today’s demonstration had the same brooding emblem as the show of strength two decades ago --- Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Mahendra Singh Tikait.

His men were on sporadic rampage in their Baghpat-Muzaffarnagar strongholds all day, tearing into sugarmill front-offices, burning up minor bits of property as a trailer-show of what could follow. Their formidable kulak boss wore a more composed mien, perhaps assured that memories of the 1988 India Gate sit-in he led would offer enough reason for the government to lend a quick ear.

Tikait had turned New Delhi’s central vista into pulsating vignette of how the other half lives --- a vast rural habitation carted on tractors from the heartland and unloaded onto the capital’s showpiece lawns. Smoke swilled from a hundred dung-cake fires, and midway into the vibrant bivouac the air had begun to putrefy from the lack of latrines. They would cook, eat, drink, dance, scream, sleep and lounge around as though they had determined to stay there forever.

Every once in a while, Tikait would forsake his hookah for the public address system and issue a long rant full of dire warnings. At night, he had permitted the play of music on the megaphones; it wasn’t sonorous stuff, and that was part of the design: bite into New Delhi’s ears until it is prepared to listen.

The 1988 effect still works, it would appear. For all the political anxieties of the Congress, recollections of that sit-in could well have been part of the reason why they quickly relented to Tikait’s men today -- not too many in the capital would have risked a repeat.

Even so, the countrymen had a fair run of their capital this balmy winter day. They came in early, and in unceasing droves, filling out the arterial streets in such excess that all traffic in central Delhi ground to a halt.

Janpath’s fashionable shopping mile was a sight to behold mid-afternoon -- menaced without cause, the shops had rolled down shutters, the traffic lay stilled and outflanked, it was the day of the farmers, and their unrestrained saunter through their capital city.

Many of them picnicked mid-road in Connaught Place and on Parliament Street, unknotting their little snack satchels; there were home-made parathas and farm-fresh radish to be had, and bites of jaggery to wash that down.

They didn’t need the McDonald’s next door. It had shut itself in anyhow, like most other establishments.

But in their throes of facile victory, the countrymen seemed barely bothered the business district had closed its face to them. “Dilli aaye, Dilli jeet li, aur kya lena hai (we arrived in Delhi and we won Delhi, what else do we want)?”one of a crowd swaggering home rhetorically countered.

“Lekin hamari naa suni to phir milenge (but should you not listen to us, we’ll meet again),” he turned to add, like a warning dropped in his wake.