Needless war on farmers : Don’t bite the hand that feeds

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
07 Dec 2020

In Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, one of the greatest novels in world literature, there is a conversation in which someone says that the farmers themselves do not know what they want. To that, there is a reply, “The farmer knows very well what he wants. Much better than you and me. His needs are quite different from that of us”.

This conversation sums up the present situation in the country, although Dr Zhivago was written 63 years ago in 1957, the year when an elected Communist government came to power in Kerala. The Narendra Modi government insists that the three controversial laws enacted by it are intended to benefit the farmers. It adds that the farmers are misguided by some vested interests and Opposition parties.

This has been the standard tactic adopted by the Modi government. It said that the people were misguided about the demonetisation of high-value currency notes, about the citizenship amendment Act and about the harsh steps taken against the starving people who were forced to leave for their villages from cities like Delhi and Mumbai during the lockdown.

It says that the three laws enacted during the last brief session of Parliament were for the welfare of the farmers. Now, who benefited from the laws? Let’s look at how the share prices of Mukesh Ambani’s companies have behaved. One report said that every hour Ambani’s wealth has been increasing by Rs 90 crore.

The economy is on a downward spiral. Millions of people have lost their income, totally or partially. How come that Ambani’s wealth has been growing exponentially, even during the lockdown and post-lockdown periods? Ambani’s share prices went up the moment the three Bills were passed and the President gave his almost-instant assent to them.

Whatever may the government say about the farm laws, the investor knows very clearly who will really benefit from them. Dictatorial regimes everywhere have used the Covid pandemic to push their divisive agenda down the throats of their citizens. India is no exception. 

The three Bills were passed by voice vote, without listening to the members’ demand for a critical evaluation of the same by a parliamentary committee. Members who protested were thrown out of the House forcing them to protest outside Parliament House, in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue, all set to be removed from there.

The government knew that if the Bills were put to the vote after a thorough discussion, they might have been referred to a committee for further deliberation. One of the BJP’s allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal, withdrew its representative from the government. The government should have known that the farmers would not accept the new laws.

It thought that the brute majority it enjoyed in the Lower House would help it to have its way. Before I proceed further on the subject, let’s see why the farmers protest against the new Acts. The government has the power to promulgate ordinances to meet extraordinary situations. 

There was no such situation in the farm sector in the first week of June 2020 to issue three ordinances. The farmers in Punjab were the first to protest against them. The State Assembly even passed a resolution against them. It was supported by all the parties barring the BJP.

When Parliament met in September it passed in a hurried manner the three Bills – the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

In India, 82 per cent of the farmers have only 2.5 to 5 acres of land. Their condition is pathetic. They are in heavy debt, estimated at about Rs 3.5 lakh crore. The government says that the farmer can enter into a deal with a “sponsor” under which he will produce “quality” grains or pulses or tubers or vegetables or fruits and get any price he wants. Now, who is that sponsor? Let’s take the case of Reliance which has a large number of retail stores in the country. He promises to buy the farmer’s produce at a predetermined price.

He will tell the farmer what to grow and how to grow — what kind of fertiliser and pesticides should be used.

When the farmer is finally ready to supply his produce to Reliance, the latter can reject it on the ground that the “quality” of his produce is not good. Of course, the farmer can go to the court because there is a written agreement between him and Reliance. Do you think a farmer who owns five acres of land will be able to fight Reliance in a court of law? 

In short, the new laws will result in corporatisation of farming. Profit is what drives the corporates. What drives the farmer is the need to make a living, not profit which is non-existent in his vocabulary. He knows that bumper crops can at times be detrimental to his interests. Why? Because the price will fall.

There have been umpteen instances when the farmers threw thousands of kilograms of tomato on the roads because there were no takers for them. 

Now, it is the cauliflower season. A farmer will consider himself super lucky if he gets Rs 10 per kilogram of cauliflower, which is actually less than the cost of production. Of course, the farmer does not include the cost of his and his family’s labour while calculating the price. He is at the mercy of the middleman who may get three or four times the price he pays to the farmer when he sells it to the retailer.

The new laws do away with the minimum support price (MSP). Not all crops are covered by the MSP laws. Take the case of Basmati rice. What is the minimum price? It is less than Rs 20 per kilogram. When the same rice is packaged with a brand name like Reliance

Fresh, it will sell at Rs 110 or more. The same rice will sell at Rs 250 or more in a foreign market.

Agriculture marketing etc is a state subject. In most states there are Mandis where the farmer can sell his produce through an auction system by paying the relevant fees. The Food Corporation of India also buys rice and wheat directly from the farmers. The farmers are assured of a minimum price. While the MSP has been growing, the growth is not commensurate with inflation. The new laws do not punish those who pay less than the MSP. 

The government says that the farmers will be able to sell directly at any price they want. Even now, the farmers can sell their produce at any price to anyone. But, alas, there are no such buyers. Farmers who sell sugarcane to sugar mills have to wait for months, if not years, to get their price. The sugar mill owners know that no one else will buy their produce. The farmers are simply at their mercy!

Under the farm laws, there will be no compulsion for the FCI to procure food grains by paying the MSP. This would have disastrous consequences for the public distribution system without which millions of people would face starvation. There are reports that the FCI, which has not been receiving subsidy from the government, has started giving its warehouses to the private players for rent. 

In the long run, the disappearance of the FCI like the growing disappearance of the government from the education and health sectors will affect the ordinary citizens, not just farmers. If a person visits a large retail store in America, he will find large-sized banana of a particular variety only. In contrast, in a vegetable market in India, there will be a dozen or more varieties of bananas, of different shapes, colours and tastes.

Similarly, in a Reliance Store, only one variety of banana is available. The store will decide what to sell and what not to sell. The argument that the corporates will transform the agriculture sector and the farmer’s income will double and triple is just a pipe dream. Take the education sector. While the corporates like the Birlas and the Goenkas have built schools in the cities and towns where they charge astronomical fees, they have no presence in the villages.

No corporate invests its own money in any big project. When the Prime Minister went to Paris and struck a deal with the French Government to buy the Rafale fighter aircraft, it identified a company belonging to Anil Ambani as a partner. Today, Anil Ambani claims that he is bankrupt and has to use his mother’s credit card to buy provisions!

Take the case of the Tatas, who refused to pay even a penny  to the farmers whose land the West Bengal government acquired and handed over to the Tatas to manufacture their Nano car. When the Modi government promised more land, the Tatas abandoned their project in West Bengal. Around the same time, they paid a huge price to buy the European steel company Corus which was actually facing closure. Today, Nano is not sold and Corus continues to bleed the Tatas.

Reports suggest that over two lakh farmers in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra and Punjab have committed suicide. The government is not prepared to write off their dues, while it periodically writes off the dues of the corporates. No corporates, save someone like the Coffee Cafe Day owner, have committed suicide. Today, the non-performing assets of the banks are over Rs 7 lakh crore.

No farmer has so far fled the country like Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya. A person like Ramdev has in less than six years built a business empire worth thousands of crores of rupees. Just before he entered noodle business, the government helped him by banning the popular two-minute noodle on some pretext or the other.

To expect Ramdev and others of his ilk to help modernise agriculture is to ask for the moon. Now that three lakh farmers have reached the gates of Delhi to demand withdrawal of the three laws, what has the government been doing? 

In a democracy, the people have a right to protest. How did the government try to deal with them? The roads were closed and the farmers were lathicharged and water-cannoned on wintry evenings. Finally, they had to be allowed inside Delhi.

Last week, Narendra Modi made a visit to various pharmaceutical companies in places as far apart as Pune and Hyderabad to study the progress of rolling out the anti-Covid vaccine. He was not accompanied by either the Health Minister or science and technology minister.

However, the same Modi has left the task of dealing with the farmers to the Agriculture Minister. The PM has, over the last six years, visited states over 1,000 times to campaign in various elections. Why can’t Modi meet the farmers? He is keen to visit foreign countries to meet leaders like Donald Trump for which he has at his disposal two state-of-the-art Boeing aircraft. Why can’t he invite the farmers and listen to their problems? That is what any sensible and sensitive leader would have done. Instead, he keeps telling the nation that the farmers are misinformed.

If Modi calls them for a meeting, it would have a salutary effect on the farmers. They would certainly listen to him. He should also show readiness to listen to them. He should convince them that the three Acts are in the farmers’ interests. Otherwise, he should either repeal the laws or put them in abeyance till Parliament meets again.

Nothing is more important for a government than the interests of its people. For the countrymen, they can manage with or without Narendra Modi and Co at the helm but they cannot manage even a day without the farmers. The farmers need concern and care, not water cannons.

The farmers have as much stake in the future of the country as this government has. When a BJP leader like Manoj Tiwari calls the farmers “tukde tukde gangs”, Modi should have the courage to show him the door. Give the farmers respect, for they feed you day in and day out. Don’t call them Khalistanis just because they wear a turban and are ready to fight injustices inherent in the three farm laws.

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