Written By Divya Mangla
Food is the most essential component of life. As soon as a child steps into the world, a mother feeds the infant. After several months, it is the farmer that carries on with the custom of providing nutrition to a child throughout her life. However, it is this sector of society that is ignored the most. In a country like India with close to 1.4 billion people, more than half of the workforce is involved in farming. During the 1960s, India faced a huge crisis of food shortage accompanied by drought leading to famines. This ushered in the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution led to surplus production of wheat and rice and consequently, a fair-price food marketing system was established across India. As a part of this system, farmers can sell their crops at “mandis” to traders through open auctions or at Minimum Support Price determined by the government.
The central government in September passed three farm laws that threaten to alter the dynamics of mandis and MSP. It got farmers to march to Delhi in protest. According to activist Kavitha Kuruganti, agrarian laws cannot be revised by a top-down approach of the central government but only from the bottom-up with social equity and economic viability for farmers. She believes that the most appropriate path for the government on these laws is to repeal them as the passing of these laws doesn’t assure that farmers will actually be benefitted. She added that a pro-reform government with “nationalism” at its core does not have to adopt the reforms of the West on the lines of wholesale notions with a framework of neo-liberalism. In her opinion, the current laws are made for rich, upper-caste farmers and not for marginal, small farmers. The women also feel an affinity towards mandis which provide them safety; this way the farming sector will grow only if the rural population has the purchasing power. Hence, she believes that merely copying western policies wouldn’t suffice. Instead, the diversity in India needs to be considered.
To understand the impact of government policies in recent years, we spoke to a few farmers from various regions. Madan Pal Singh, a farmer from Jatpura Shumali village of Uttar Pradesh, thinks that the government has supported the farmers well and he has benefitted from various schemes initiated. He has received the money as a part of the Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme of the government and has been able to sell his farm produce (sugarcane, wheat) at the societies set up by the government at MSP or above that price. He avails the benefits of Kisan credit card with 7 per cent annual interest of which 3 per cent gets subsidised. During the pandemic, the government provided them with free ration twice a month. He remains unconcerned by the current farm protests. Another farmer, Shankar Singh Chauhan of village Ibrahimpur in UP was of similar opinion where all of the members of the house that have farmland under their names receive the benefit of Kisan Samman Nidhi. The issue of electricity on farms was resolved when domestic and farm supplies were separated and the electricity on farms come for 8 hours during the day. Although he expressed discontent over the rising cost of urea and fertiliser and sugarcane prices, which have not increased in the past five years. He too did not express any interest or opposition towards the new farm laws and the ongoing protests. However, another farmer, Mahesh Yadav from village Majra Gurdas of Haryana vehemently opposed the laws. He argued that the government is trying to absolve itself of its duty to ensure fair prices to farmers and is favouring private players by planning to discontinue the MSP regime. He mentioned the poor conditions of Bihar farmers where Agricultural Produce Market Committees were abolished in 2006 If these bills are allowed to be implemented, the Haryana farmers too would have to bear the consequences, he felt. He supported the arthiyas in agricultural markets who work at commissions fixed by the government as opposed to the middlemen, who buy the produce below MSP outside the mandis.
The opposite narratives for the protests from the farmers in two locations are stemmed from the fact that in Haryana, 85 per cent of paddy is procured as a percentage of its output while in UP only 18 per cent of the harvest is procured. As for wheat, 33.74 lakh tonne of wheat was procured in Haryana till May 1, 2020, while the figure is merely 5.92 lakh tonne in UP.
In the past year, agriculture is the only sector that has seen positive growth despite the overall economy seeing a downturn. The government has tried to discredit the farmers’ protests by bringing in the narrative of anti-national elements, threatened and filed cases against the activists and leaders, attempted to repress them via force and doesn’t seem to be interested in resolving the issue. Yet, the farmers have been resolute in their demand for repealing the laws. A mature response alone can help the government to resolve the crisis. In a year like this, the Essential Commodities Act can be dropped altogether (where there is a genuine fear of hoarding by corporate, for example, in pulses where there is only a marginal surplus or deficit) and when the situation is right next year the government can think of changing the laws in consultation with the farmers. India’s diversity should prompt the central government to adopt a federal approach to agriculture and allow state governments to decide the course of action in their regions.
The farmers’ protests have taken the shape of something much bigger than just the demand for repealing the laws. It is a new form of agitation that has the potential to democratise the Indian polity and change the direction of policymaking from being pro-corporate to pro-people.
The writer is a student at IIM Indore