It was always obvious that there was more to the farmers’ stir than meets the eye. First, it was the violence on the Republic day. Now we have a host of international celebrities jumping into the fray, adding a global spin to the over two-months-old agitation.
Within days of the protests starting on November 25 last, there were marches against the three farm laws in various parts of the world. The fact that these protests were dominated by the usual India baiters backed by Pakistan was not lost on anyone.
The three farm laws have surely disturbed a small but resourceful section of Indian farmers. They suspect these reforms, allegedly commenced at the instance of corporates, would ultimately end government procurement of foodgrains leading to the closure of Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) and eventually result in the transfer of agriculture land from farmers to big companies.
Repeated government assurances that all existing systems and practices — including APMCs and MSP — would continue undisturbed have failed to put the farmers’ apprehensions to rest. The three laws, no doubt, seek to transform Indian agriculture, which has been stagnant for over five decades, and in the process, created a class of neo-rich farmers cum commission agents, the Indian version of kulaks, who are spearheading the current movement.
To understand the emergence of these kulaks, a little flashback. In the 1960s, India was starving. It neither produced enough food to feed its teeming millions nor did it have the foreign exchange for imports. Low-quality wheat was imported from the US under Public Law 480 (PL 480) against rupee payments. The desperate food situation was termed as “From Ship to Mouth”.
The discovery of hybrid seeds, increased use of chemical fertilisers, steady mechanisation of agricultural operations, hard work by farmers and the introduction of minimum support price (MSP), changed the situation in the following decades. Once plagued by shortages, India now has a surplus in cereals. Today, we produce a lot more than we can consume, store or export.
The Food Corporation of India (FCI) and state agencies are saddled with huge stocks of grains almost three times the buffer stock norms. The economic cost of that excess grain, beyond the buffer stock norm, comes almost to Rs 2 lakh crore — dead capital, locked in without much purpose. That’s the result of the current agricultural policies, based on MSP and open-ended procurement.
For lack of storage facilities, a good part of procured grains rot, are pilfered, or eaten by rodents. Exports of wheat and paddy too are difficult — for MSP is usually higher than the international price.
More than half of all the rice and wheat procured by government agencies comes from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. No wonder, the farmers from these parts of the country are at the forefront of the agitation.
Cultivating wheat and paddy in Punjab, Haryana and western UP is a highly remunerative business. While most of the inputs are either free or heavily subsidised, the returns on farm produce are assured. Skewed land distribution further adds to the problem. The top 2.2 per cent of farmers (owning over four hectares) in the country own 24.6 per cent of the land. In Punjab-Haryana, the top 3.7 per cent of farmers have 36.3 per cent of the land. Dalits, 32 per cent of Punjab’s population, hardly own three per cent of the land.
The number of top farmers in Punjab-Haryana — those who own 6.3 hectares or more — is estimated at two lakh. They are the ones who have a large marketable surplus, pocket a bulk of MSP, manipulate small and marginal farmers and most of them also don the commission agent (arhatiya) hat. Since income from agriculture is exempt from income tax, wearing two hats comes handy for tax purposes.
The amount disbursed as MSP during 2020-21 adds up to Rs 2.84 lakh crore for four crops — wheat, paddy, pulses and cotton. Note, only six per cent of the farmers are beneficiaries of MSP. And 86 per cent of farmers in the country fall in the small and marginal category — net buyers of foodgrains.
While the rich farmers are making a killing at the cost of taxpayers, an average farmer, in most parts of the country, continues to fight for existence. According to National Crime Records Bureau, 10,281 farmers had committed suicide in 2019, despite the fact that in the six years leading up to 2019-20, 10 states had announced farm loan waivers totalling Rs 2.14 lakh crore. The three farm laws are aimed to end such anomalies in the farm sector.
It’s an open secret that disparate elements, ranging from frustrated opposition leaders to Khalistani sympathisers and professional Modi-baiters, have joined the movement in pursuit of their respective agendas. The luxurious lifestyle of the agitating farmers is a far cry from Munshi Prem Chand’s Kisan.
The three farm laws have been passed by Parliament. A motivated mob — supported by forces inimical to India at home and abroad —is fighting for the status quo and to retain its privileges. Will the forces of change fight back or give in?
The writer is a former Member of Parliament and columnist