Real farmers were hidden from a parliamentary team visiting Bathinda villages on Tuesday.
The agriculture department hijacked the show and kept the aggrieved, common cultivators, non-government organisations, whistleblowers, and the media away, and let only some activists of the NGO Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM) and select journalists near the committee.
The squad is in the region to understand Punjab's agrarian crisis, but the department shepherded it to the farm of big landlord Jagtar Singh and presented him as a progressive farmer. Speaking in English, he said it wasn't pesticides but their excessive use that created the issues, and tillers were to blame.
A few other "progressive farmers" and agriculture department officials present saw everything right in the policies of the state and Punjab Agricultural University (PAU). "Are bhai, koi neem kisan hai to aage ao (if there is any small farmer, step forward)," Saini Rajpal Singh, member of the Rajya Sabha, called out. "Jagtar Singh is a big farmer he can afford progressive farming. We also want to understand the problems of small farmers, if we have the opportunity to speak with them."
No genuine farmer came forward, for none fitting the profile was aware of the visit. The KVM activists were alone to raise objections. It was a dummy audience, which the department had planted to avoid genuine exchange of ideas between the farmers and the team, said sources who were at the event.
Forget farmers, even the media were told not to approach the team. The department circulated wrong venue information to sabotage coverage. Director of agriculture Mangal Singh himself told journalists to not grill the team much.
HT asked Behera Shashi Bhusan, officiating leader of the team, if the department had hijacked the show. "We are trying to call common farmers from the crowd," he said. At Jajjal village, he had to cut short his interaction with villagers because the district administration had not arranged for a translator.
Even as the team struggled to understand the villagers' Punjabi, the administration was more interested in going over to the next venue. Jarnail Singh, a villager keen to see cancer discussed on the Aamir Khan television show "Satyamev Jayate", suggested that the administration was trying to cover up the mess. "It's hiding the real figures of deaths because of cancer in the village," he said. "I don't know the motive."
In the comfort of a hotel, state officials met the team again. A few members of the agricultural trade unions who participated were made to sit in the last row. "The department explained only its achievements," said Shingara Singh, a BKU activist. "I did not hear a word on agro crisis. We felt like aliens."
"The department hijacked the visit," said Umendra Dutt, executive director, KVM. "The team looked serious but it was kept& away from genuine farmers and real issues. Officials only pitched for more money from Centre."
MM Behl of the joint action committee against fly ash from the thermal-electricity plant of Bathinda rued that his organisation was kept out of the meeting. "We have fought 10 years against the emissions' impact on crop," he said, "and we had no information of the visit."