Fight to the finish

The Govt, which could have avoided the stir with a consensual approach, is ready to amend laws but farmers are adamant

The farmers’ protests are no longer confined to a sectoral concern. As the agitators have descended on Delhi, hoping to be heard justly in the corridors of power, they have gathered traction from transport, taxi unions and civil society. And they have held their own admirably, shunning all politicians and even Government hospitality, choosing to drink their own tea, having their own food, sleeping in their own shelters and even making their own presentation on gaps in the contentious new farm laws. In fact, such is the spontaneous combustion that the stir is turning into a people’s movement that, though leaderless, has a beehive unity about it and tugs at most who have chased big city dreams, coming as they do from farming families themselves. Besides, it epitomises the subterranean resentment of the citizenry at top-down impositions of an autocratic and arrogant dispensation that interprets all dissent as anti-national than rational. If the stalemate drags on, there is a real chance of food supplies getting affected. With sustained pressure, the Government is now not only willing to give the farmers a listen, it is keen to walk the whole distance to the extent of giving a written assurance on Minimum Support Price (MSP) and procurement, just stopping short of legalising it. And given the corporatisation that farm liberalisation entails, the Government is also willing to consider the farmers’ demand to approach the courts in case of a dispute over contract farming to shield them from being exploited. The big question is why did the Government act in haste and repent at leisure? Much of the issues raised by farmers, including convening a special Parliament session to debate the farm laws, had already been a part of the Opposition’s demand for a consensual approach akin to that followed in rolling out the Goods and Services Tax (GST). If only the Government had been reasonable, consulted all stakeholders and worked a common ground with States than road-rolling the legislation through a voice vote for political point-scoring, things would not have come to such a pass. The prickliest issue has been that of the Minimum Support Price (MSP), which has ensured Government pick-ups of crops, mainly wheat and paddy, at an assured rate and volume. It takes no rocket science to understand that any competitive market policy would ultimately have an impact on a parallel, protected market and shrink it, especially one that has for years led to the prosperity of farmers and has led to an over reliance on and excess production of rice and wheat to the detriment of other crops. Besides, even the corporate majors wouldn’t want to deal with trade markets that are under hostile State Governments. Most importantly, the cost of inputs has gone up exponentially, sometimes higher than the MSP. Given the unremunerative nature of the MSP itself, farmers are but naturally wary of any contracted price that could drive them down further and, therefore, seeking an equivalence.   

Finally, the Government may claim that reforms embedded in the farm Acts would help the small and marginal farmers access markets anywhere, sell directly and get best prices. This argument doesn’t fly simply because 86.2 per cent of land holdings are small and marginal, or less than two acres in size. Hence, a majority of our farmers really don’t produce enough or are aware enough to get their way around any model, the existing or the proposed, without an interventionist on their behalf, agents or arhatiyas. Besides, small farmers can hardly afford the infrastructure to transfer their goods to the local mandi, leave aside ferrying them outside their geographical limits. Liberalisation of the farm economy also means putting other farmer-friendly enablers in place, from cold storage to warehousing to connectivity between markets. Only then can the rest make sense. In fact, Bihar did away with Government mandis in 2006 but farmers there are still struggling, as dependent on their agents to get the prices, because of the absence of supporting infrastructure. And as farmers in Gujarat, who were sued by Pepsico, and sugarcane growers chasing their dues will tell you, corporatisation hasn’t worked. The Government needs to be more transitional and graded when it comes to farm reforms. Some  concerns are worth a listen. For example, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020, allows buys and sales outside the notified Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis, thereby limiting their cartelisation tendencies. A licence won’t be required to trade in farm produce and anyone with a PAN card can now buy directly from the farmers. So they want clarity on what “outside” means and contrary to perception that they want the middlemen out, they actually have a trusted bond with their existing commission agents, as their licence is proof enough of their credibility and delivery abilities, and would not want to experiment with an untested model. With most farmers not literate enough about exercising their rights, dispute resolution could also end up being loaded against them. Besides, they would want direct payment rather than have the money routed through banks which could deduct amounts as loan recovery. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, does allow the farmer to enter into a contract with a corporate entity at a mutually agreed price. But the mechanism for price fixation is not codified, it’s not mandatory for a company to make a written contract and companies may not be penalised for not registering their contracts. So farmers fear that corporations could use their institutional heft to manipulate or browbeat them into accepting their terms. History proves that farmers’ movements have been revolutionary and this being the biggest in recent times, cannot be shrugged off easily.

Source: The Pioneer

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