What farmers fear the most

P Sainath — the doughty journalist and founding editor of People’s Archive of Rural India — whose grip on agriculture, and socio-economic inequalities in rural India is almost legendary, explains lucidly the ill-effects of the three farm bills, which President Ram Nath Kovind signed September 27 making them into law.

“The UPA was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The NDA is the gang that can’t stop shooting. They (the Modi government) are shooting at anybody, everybody, all directions, shooting themselves in the foot,” the Magsaysay Award winners he tells Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com while espousing his four-point recommendations that could go a long way in building the confidence of the farmers about the provisions of this farm law.

Sainath also wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray appealing to him that Maharashtra should oppose the three bills that are ‘detrimental to the farmers, labourers and general public of Maharashtra.’ (in English; in Marathi).

What are the fundamental changes that you would like to see in the new farm law? Why are you opposed to the law in its current form?

If you go to the Union ministry of consumer affairs Web site you will see one report of the working group on consumer affairs. It doesn’t give any names but this is a 2011 report(external link).

Point number 3 tells you the Recommendations and Action Plan of that working group (external link).

It says no transaction between trader and farmer should be permitted below the MSP price.

Now, why is it important today? Because the chairman of the working group was one Mr Narendra Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat.

I am suggesting a law with four elements. First of all, agriculture is a state subject, but the Centre has passed three bills — The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill — which are encroaching on the state subject of agriculture.

So, they (the Modi government at the Centre) are saying we don’t give a damn for federalism. But, if you have passed these three bills, let’s pass one more small law in which guaranteed there will be 100 per cent unanimity (of all political parties).

Now, during the debate after the debate (in Parliament), Mr Modi has repeatedly said I am guaranteeing MSP; nobody will take away the MSP.

The second thing he has said 2,000 times in the last three years is I will double the income of farmers by 2020. In fact, this time in Parliament, one of his justifications for these three bills is it will help pave the way for doubling the income of farmers.

Now you have the Consumer Affairs report. You have him saying that he guarantees MSP and he would double the income of farmers. So then why not pass a small five-paragraph law?

Four elements the law should have everything that the then Gujarat chief minister — who was the chairman of the Working Group on Consumer Affairs and who submitted the report to then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh — Narendra Modi wanted.

First, MSP guaranteed as per the M S Swaminathan formula, which is the promise of the BJP and Mr Modi in the 2014 election. And he is even now saying I guarantee MSP. But it has to be as per Swaminathan formula which is the promise he made.

The second element is there should be no transaction between farmers, corporations, and traders at below MSP as per his 2011 recommendation as chairman of the Working Group on Consumer Affairs.

The third element is guaranteed procurement because in the time of (the late) Vilasrao Deshmukh (then Maharashtra chief minister) perfected the art of declaring high MSPs.

Whenever distress was high, they (the Maharashtra government under Vilasrao Deshmukh) would declare a high MSP but they would not procure (the farmers’ produce). That used to happen in Vidarbha (a cotton producing belt in arid northern Maharashtra) and still happens, but really happened very badly in Mr Deshmukh’s time.

He would declare a high MSP and then he would do three things: One, he would open far fewer MSP procurement centres than necessary.

So, suppose in an area you need a 10 (procurement centres), he would open only four. Suppose you needed 300, they would open 140.

That would mean huge queues at the procurement centres and farmers would sell off to the (private) trader (instead of at the APMCs).

Second thing they would do is open the procurement centres 20 days late.

Now the farmer has to feed his family; he has to pay his bills; he has to pay his electricity; all his creditors, his borrowings, input dealers, he has to pay all those bills, and just that his family has got to eat, he needs cash.

So, he can’t wait 20 days for the procurement centres (to purchase his produce). He will sell to the sahukar (trader).

And then they would open fewer centres. They would open them late. And they would shut them 15-20 days early.

So, late arrival of cotton would be channeled off directly to the private trader. This was the game (played at that time). And Maharashtra invented it and many other states adopted it.

The fourth element concerns cancellation of debt. You have been going to town with doubling of farmers’ income. But how do you double anyone’s income when they are drowning in debt? It has not been heard of in history.

The fourth element is keep that original promise of complete cancellation of debt. Instead of loan waiver, use the word ‘cancellation of debt’.

Nobody’s income is going to be doubled by 2022 or even by 2042 if they are drowning in debt. And, their indebtedness has only got deeper in the last 20 years.

So you (Modi) put these four (elements in the law); these are all in keeping with your public statements and promises.

The question is: Why is Prime Minister Modi shying away from incorporating these guarantees into the law that has just received the President’s assent?

What the government is saying is that the MSP is an administrative measure, not a law. And by the way you should also ask him, if he is so firm on MSP (guarantee), why is it that none of these three bills uses the word MSP? These are your promises, aren’t they?

You are saying it’s an administrative measure; it’s not a legal measure. But you didn’t mind bulldozing the states while making a law on agriculture which is also a state subject.

Using the same logic, why should it (MSP guarantee) being an administrative measure stop you?

If one watches TV news, the English press, the regional TV channels, one feels that the protests are concentrated only in Punjab and Haryana, and some other parts of north India. There seem to be no protests happening in the south or in Odisha or Telangana or south India.

Please note that the protests have taken place all over the country and are still continuing.

There is a reason why Punjab and Haryana will (have) more (protests) than others (states).

But please (don’t say that the protests are not widespread).

50,000 people in Maharashtra came out across 25 districts on the Mumbai-Baroda-Jaipur highway there were 10,000 people (protesting against this law). Please look at the local newspapers in Thane and elsewhere.

Please go to the All India Kisan Sabha Web site (external link) and see the thousands of photographs and videos shot by farmers.

Now the thing is the reason for channels not carrying it I’ve already mentioned that on TV five times. I’m saying the television coverage of farmers’ protest came a poor third.

After Sushant Singh Rajput case, where Rhea Chakraborty was summoned, and Deepika Padukone left for the airport.

And the second big trending event was that the Election Commission of India chooses that very date to announce Bihar elections. Now this is very deliberate.

But may I point out something to you that among the top 10 trending topics on Twitter on that day, one to four was farmers’ protests, number one to number four.

By 5.30 pm, the number of tweets had reached 485,000 and by 6.30 pm, they had crossed 500,000.

Neither Sushant Singh or Rhea Chakraborty, or Deepika Padukone came close. The television channels, they have their own interest.

While I don’t take social media that seriously, what I’m trying to point out to you is that farmers don’t have paid troll armies.

If half a million tweets between 9 am and 6.30 pm it means that even the general public is worried.

Farmers don’t have an army of paid trolls.

The Modi government and its ministers allege that it is the Opposition that is inciting the farmers’ protests.

Which Opposition party been able to do it on other issues? Please show me the last time they did it (protested vigorously against the government).

Do you think that all the millions of tweets that came on demonetisation were organised by the Opposition? You did something stupid (the passage of the three bills) and people are responding to it.

Please don’t see these three bills as separate from something that has been happening from 1991. It is a part of the process of neo-liberalism, a neo-liberal path of development. Please note that the Congress party, in its wisdom, promised repeal of the APMC Act in its manifesto.

Now (P) Chidambaram (the former finance and home minister in the UPA I and II regimes), being one of those smart, smooth-tongue guys says we said (we will repeal APMC Act) only when there are enough farmers’ markets, etc, etc. But they called for the repeal of the APMC Act.

So every political party has got a spin to what their positions were and everybody wants to prove that they are the messiahs of the farmers?

That’s what I’m telling you.

Look, there are political parties which are with the farmers; the Left parties were always with the farmers. By the way, I have summed it (how political parties change colour based on expedience) up in a simple line. You know that famous film and the famous book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

It was about an incompetent mafia in New York. The book also was a fiction story, based on one real family. It was a work of fiction, obviously, otherwise, that author would be sued to death. But the phrase became famous: The gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

I have gone on record and you can quote me: The UPA was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The NDA is the gang that can’t stop shooting. They (the Modi government) are shooting at anybody, everybody, all directions, shooting themselves in the foot.

Now, I’m very glad that the Congress party has joined the protests. But these protests are not organised by them and you are taking away the credit of the farmer.

Go and see the Web site and Facebook page of All India Kisan Sabha (external link) and the Facebook page of the All India Kisan Sabha, Maharashtra.

You will see how many people came out on the streets. 50,000 people coming out when there is a pandemic is huge.

Did you see the huge protests all over Karnataka on TV today (September 28)? The day the laws were passed there was a meeting of 8,000 people in central Bangalore.

On the day of the protests on September 25, there were protests in every district of Karnataka and I was talking to farmers’ groups right through the day. Davangere, Tumkur, Mysore Bengaluru, Mangalore, Hubli, Dharwad, even the cities had major protests.

Today (September 28), the whole day, there were major protests in Maharashtra and in Karnataka.

In Tamil Nadu, 22,000 arrests were made. Now, in any protest, hundred percent of people are never arrested. Only 30-40 per cent people get arrested.

So, at least 40,000 people across Tamil Nadu, which is like Maharashtra where the pandemic is soaring. And still people came out to protest.

Kerala had the most interesting protests. They had dharnas and gheraos of central government offices, organised with social distancing and all COVID-19 protocols in place.

What one fails to understand is the Modi government, which rode to power in 2014, and then again in 2019 backed solidly by the farmers. Why is the government Modi going against their political support base?

Successive governments of India are representing, basically, the interests of the corporate world. And that is the game.

It was there before 2014 (when Modi became prime minister); it is there today. The NDA is the UPA on steroids.

What do the farmers fear the most now that these three bills have become law?

I need to explain one more thing to you.

The entire propaganda on the APMC (that they benefit only the middlemen and rich farmers and is a rent-seeking institution) is fraudulent.

First of all, please see the figures. 65 per cent of trade in marketable surplus of agriculture in the main products of rice, wheat, which command most of the MSP, and many such products, are in private trade (are bought and sold outside the APMCs) already.

At one time, private trade accounted for hundred percent; then APMCs came to break that monopoly, just like the Essential Commodities Act came to break the hoarding monopoly.

You see more vociferous protests in Punjab and Haryana because the main MSP amounts go to rice and wheat, of which these two states are the largest producers.

There is overwhelming number of farmers out in the streets in these two states is because their dependence on MSP is huge. They have managed to make those APMCs work relatively better for them than in other parts of the country. Therefore, they will feel the loss worse.

Let me explain for your readers, in simple words, what the APMC is all about and what the farmers fear.

Put it this way: Government schools are the APMCs of the education sector. Now, government schools are flawed, they don’t have toilets; 80 per cent of schools don’t have proper toilets for girls.

They have no proper infrastructure, because India deliberately is one of the lowest spenders on education, and you’re forcing people towards private education.

Bad as the government schools are — not all of them are bad, but bad as they are — they are the only hope for millions of children to go to school. And they are the only hope of one good meal a day — the mid-day meal.

If you take them away, what will happen?

That’s exactly what I’m saying about APMCs and what will happen to farmers if APMCs are made redundant directly or indirectly.

What’s the experiment in Bihar where the APMC Act was abolished long ago?

I’ll explain that to you. But you need to understand this first.

The APMC was never a monopoly; the private trade was the monopoly. And the APMCs, to some extent, broke that monopoly.

Now, this new farm law wants to break the so-called monopoly of the APMCs, which till now has somewhat broken the monopoly of private traders. That is the aim of the law.

Whether they achieve it I don’t know because there is going to be very strong farmer resistance.

The private players in this country, the corporate world, do you think they are going to rush in and put their own money and build market centres? Forget it!

Maharashtra is the best example.

By the way, not many people realise that Maharashtra adopted this kind of act in 2015, which clipped the wings of the APMCs in the state and said only within so many thousand square feet, it (the APMCs) can function. It has no jurisdiction beyond that.

The reason is that people thought that once you clip the APMCs, private trade will come in and set up private markets.

But that hasn’t happened on the ground in a significant way. But if you check the turnover of private players and you check the turnover of the APMCs, you’ll figure out who is preferred by the farmer.

And this happened despite private trade being encouraged and APMCs being discouraged.

Do you know that when most of your CEOs keep their money or conduct transactions of their own personal money, they prefer the public sector banks and global banks?

Look at what happened to all your Yes Banks. What happened to all of them?

So, while you were trying to break the public sector monopoly of banks, you broke the banks, but those private banks broke the public.

Let me put it again this way: PHCs (public healthcare centres) are the APMCs of the health sector.

PHCs are very poorly funded, again deliberately so; our expenditure on health is again one of the lowest in the world.

In the last Budget, before the pandemic, this government even put up district hospitals for privatisation of management.

Now these PHCs and district-level hospitals are overstretched, under-funded and there are fewer people than they need. But what should we do? Should we close them? How many more people will die?

You tell me tell me during the pandemic, which sector is doing the hard work? It is the PHCs and public sector hospitals are bearing the burden. And now imagine you take them away (just like this Farm Act would take away the APMCs).

Now, Bihar abolished their APMC Act in 2006 thinking all these private players would come. Private players came as traders to pick up at low prices and sell them at incredibly high prices.

The makai (corn) from Bihar is sold in Haryana at incredibly higher prices in those markets, and earn huge, huge, margins.

The same is the case with papaya from Anantapur; by the time it goes to Hyderabad (its cost multiplies manifold); all this trade is in private hands.

There is no APMC in the picture at all in Bihar, but it has not brought better prices for the Bihar farmer.

Now, let’s take Maharashtra’s example. We pay Rs 48 a litre for cow’s milk; 48 to 52 depending on fat content.

We pay Rs 55 to 60 for buffalo milk. Because of struggles and protests of the Maharashtra farmers led by the Kisan Sabha and other institutions, by March this year, the dairy farmer in western Maharashtra, was managing to get Rs 30 out of Rs 48.

Within one week of the pandemic they were getting only Rs 17 out of Rs 48. Almost a 50 per cent collapse and please note that milk trade nowhere appears in the APMC; it’s entirely a private trade.

Another example: Kerala has never had an APMC Act. Where are the great private chains driven by markets economics?

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