.why don’t farmers like what is good for them?
by Sudarshan, a mathematician based in Paris, who grew up amongst farmers in Sangola. He is an avid Ghalib fan.
In times of Lal Bahadur Shastri, a former prime minister of India, a substantial portion of Indian society earned their livings by agricultural activities. Naturally in order to appreciate their efforts and to encourage them, he coined the slogan "Jai jawan, jai kisan” ("long live soldier, long live farmer"). However, things are different today. The number of people involved in farming has been reduced to 58% and the contribution of the agricultural sector to GDP is 15%. Clearly, the sector no longer enjoys the same political patronage as it once did. That being said, in a country which is home to 1.3 billion people, the dream of universal access to food is yet to be realized. Agriculture remains an important sector.
In 2014, India elected Narendra Modi as its Prime Minister. Modi promised “acche din” ("good days") and started privatising almost everything that was previously owned by the Indian state. The opposition accused him of enriching his friends. In September, 2020, his government hurriedly passed 3 bills aimed to ensure private investment in agriculture despite various protests from farmers. The prime minister Modi and his entire PR team were keen on explaining how the new laws were good of farmers but they failed. Over the past weeks, several thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana marched towards Delhi to register their protest. The Delhi police used everything at their disposal to disperse them but farmers continue their protest.
In this piece, we shall briefly discuss a couple of proposed changes and farmers’ objections.
As per the new rules, the farmers can directly sell their produce to private parties which does not necessarily involve middlemen. Sounds good right? But, there is a catch. First, there is no assured price, known as Minimum Support Price (MSP). In a country where 86% of farmers own less than 2 hectors, the bargaining ability essentially lies with the buyer. Imagine a farmer bargaining with a company like Reliance! It is true that the government’s argument that APMCs (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) i.e. government regulated mandis are seriously flawed is valid. However, the idea that let’s get rid of them altogether is hasty and pointless. To give an analogy by P. Sainath, an expert on agriculture in India, APMCs are like government schools. They can substantially be improved but getting rid of them would be disastrous lest one wants millions of children without education. The government keeps on insisting that MSP will always be there even outside government regulated markets although it is not willing to put it in writing and the farmers, perhaps rightfully, have no faith in this government.
Secondly, if a dispute between a farmer and a buyer takes place, the farmer cannot even approach the courts. S/He is instead expected to contact the local administrative officer to seek “justice”. However, these laws do not require the contracts to be written down in which case dispensing justice becomes totally random. One might as well flip a coin!
Of course our farmers are very naive, why else would they not believe the agricultural experts like Amit Shah and Narendra Modi!