Farmers’ stir shows well begun may not be half done for reforms

Poornima Advani is partner, The Law Point and formerly served as the chairperson of National Commission for Women.

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Farmers protest Delhi
Farmers protest Delhi. Source: Google Images.

Farmer Ajit Singh has reached the national capital of New Delhi along with a group of friends from Punjab to protest against the three new farm laws that the Government introduced in early winter season with the promise to reform an antiquated system that tied growers to multiple layers of intermediaries.

But Singh and his friends are not impressed. They have promised to camp through one of the harshest winters that the capital is seeing in years until the new laws are repealed.

The scale of protests and the duration has surprised observers. Most analysts agree that the new laws would empower farmers by enabling them to sell directly across the country while giving them the choice of taking their produce to private wholesale markets rather than just sell in traditional APMC markets.

The aim of the new laws  — Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) as well as the Farmers Empowerment and Protection Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services 2020–was to weed out go-betweens who corner all the profits and put it instead in the hands of farmers. 

Enabling farmers to sell to bulk buyers also offers more room to negotiate prices directly rather than accept whatever pittance is handed out by the middlemen.

This move by the Government should have resulted in a positive response but what has resulted requires serious thinking into the cause and effect. 

Erase deep-seated anxieties

Why then are farmers protesting at all?

There seems to be a deeply instilled fear that the entry of the private players in setting up alternate markets would lead to an erosion in the established system of Minimum Support Prices (MSP), despite repeated government assurances to the contrary.

They fear that efforts to encourage more contract farming would gradually bring in a choke-hold over the sector. Instead of procurement by state-run agencies like the Food Corporation of India, buying their produce will slip into the hands of overzealous companies.

Moreover, since the appeal in any disputes between the farmers and such corporations would lie in the hands of no higher authority than the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM), virtually their scope for redressal would be very limited. In short, what is aimed as farm reforms, are being seen as benefiting the industry?

Especially northern Indian farmers –who have been the primary beneficiaries of MSPs because they prefer growing wheat and rice–are wary. It is well-known that no more than a third of the grain output is bought under support prices, but the growers think that whatever little income security they enjoy would also go out of the window.

They want assured support prices to be brought under the new laws, access to higher platforms for hearing their grievances and all-around better farm infrastructure so that the reforms become meaningful.

Apparently, there seems to be a communication gap, real or created by vested interests, which has now blown into a full-fledged crisis. The concerns that the farmers have expressed appear to be as much a reflection of historical neglect as the insecurities stemming from the new laws.

Northern Indian farmers’ over-reliance on wheat and rice has its roots in decades-old government policy that the country should never suffer from a shortage of grain staples. It has been a long-held belief that any such deficiency could make the country vulnerable during times of emergency such as war.

That is why the MSP system has always been centred mainly around wheat and rice, though it is supposed to extend to nearly two dozen Agri commodities. What has arisen as a result is a skewed system where northern farmers have gravitated to grains output year after year despite plunging water tables.

Should the Government accede to providing a legal guarantee for MSPs?

Even under the present system, which is without any such legal obligation, the state-run Food Corporation struggles to store all the grains that it procures. Government warehouses routinely overflow with stocks and officials have to hunt for premises like schools for keeping the supplies.

A Dire need for a new approach

On the other hand, the situation of plenty has served India well on other counts. The country has become the largest producer and exporter of rice to the world.

What is needed is a new approach to farming and not entrench an antiquated system. But bringing this about would require a sensitive process that deftly puts at rest worries of farmers. They should feel confident that the historically low incomes, especially of small and marginal farmers, would only increase.  They need to realize that the Government is committed to their welfare and that dialogue should substitute protests. 

Currently, the majority of farmers can’t imagine how new laws that give them the freedom to sell their produce anywhere will benefit them. They simply don’t have the means at their disposal even to hire a truck and take their produce to nearby markets. More often than not, they rely on intermediaries to do the job.

Few farmers have access to cold storage or even warehouses–where they can store their produce–to sell their produce when they get the best produce. Instead, it is large traders who after buying their produce, can hoard the products.

Unfortunately, despite India’s strengths in information technology, there are few digital platforms for helping farmers sell their produce directly to end-consumers.

Technology such as drones is only used when a locust swarm threatens to attack the crops across a quarter of India. Soil composition has been degraded because of imbalance in the use of fertilizers, while a majority of crop protection chemicals are substandard.

There is no gainsaying that the farmers’ demand for better infrastructure, inputs and technology would be fundamental to any reforms for the sector. They are justified in demanding such critical inputs if they have to gear up towards a market-driven approach.

Disparate voices have emerged out of the current farmers’ protest. While some farmer groups have shown that they are amenable to talks over the new legislation, others have taken a more obstinate position.

In either case, there is little option except for efforts to conduct a meaningful dialogue that will convince the farmers about how they will benefit from the proposed changes. It should be abundantly clear that the task of farm reforms will need more confidence to be instilled rather than just laws for them to take root.

Related: Is the PM-CARES fund a private or public trust?

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