Farming is the only economic sector that has defied the Covid-driven contraction in the national economy. A bumper kharif crop is awaited due to above average precipitation of monsoon. Paddy is likely to be arriving in the markets of the north-western states by September 25. These factors in all likelihood, prompted the BJP-led NDA Government in pushing the three bills in the Parliament during the last seven days. The BJP in its eagerness to please its corporate friends/allies was in no mood to let the opportunity slip through its fingers although the Parliament session has been curtailed severely. It is manifest that in the undue haste in passing the bills, farmers’ apprehensions have been ignored and wider consultation of public was anyway not possible in view of the Covid-spawned restrictions.
There have been pressures to open the farming sector for the entry of corporate houses since long. The Government maintains that the bills would transform the farming sector, raise the farmers’ income (the promise is to double the income by 2022) and free the kisans from Government control over the market. The protests by farmers in Punjab and Haryana have made it abundantly clearl that the intended beneficiaries—the farmers—of the bills are the only ones up in arms. The Shiromani Akali Dal, the oldest ally of the BJP has asked its minister Ms Harsimrat Kaur to quit the Modi cabinet, although the Dal is still part of the NDA. In Haryana, BJP’s ally Jannayak Janata Party has threatened to come out of partnership with the BJP Government in the State, if Minimum Support Price (MSP) is touched.
Back to feudalism
Although the Government has promised that it has no intention of dismantling of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) regime, the current Bills speak of providing an alternative channel for farmers ‘to bargain for’ and ‘get better and remunerative prices’ for their produce. Between-the-line reading of the three bills suggests that the Government is trying to skillfully clothe the real intention of helping the corporate houses who have been waiting on the margins to enter the farm sector and bargain for crops, build storages for grains in wait for prices to shoot and make hefty profits on what were hitherto termed essential commodities. MSP and APMC have although not come in for dismantling as of now, but provision of alternative channels is all likely to be their swansong in due course. If the Food Corporation of India (FCI) decides against buying the grain, MSP will be of no use. There is an overload of euphemistic terms such as ‘facilitation for farmers’, ‘freedom of choice of sellers and ‘movement of grains between states’. The British protected and promoted feudal lords (zamindars). The Nehruvian economic model struck at them with the Zamindari Abolition Act. The corporate houses would be the new feudal lords over crops.
While feudalism returns in a new avatar, federalism takes a big hit. The Opposition has alleged that the Centre has transgressed the jurisdiction of the States. The States have been totally bypassed while hustling the bills through the Parliament. The inter-state movement of crops and permission for storage are just the facilities the corporate houses had been looking for. The input cost for farming varies drastically across states which also impacts the farmers’ income in a commensurate measure. Take for instance Punjab where the average annual income of a famer is Rs 2,17,450 against Bihar’s Rs 44,172. It works out to monthly income of a farmer in Punjab at Rs. 18,000 against Bihar’s Rs 3,558. (It is Rs 14,500 in Haryana; Rs 5,671 in Chhattisgarh; Rs 8,832 in Karnataka; Rs 7,386 in Maharashtra; Rs 4,923 in Uttar Pradesh; Rs 4,721 in Uttarakhand; and, Rs 3,980 in West Bengal.) What would happen when Corporate Houses find it easy to buy grains from Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh and dump it in mandis in Punjab and Haryana? Not just the margin of profit of these corporate dealers, the spectre of agrarian distress it might trigger should be disturbing.
The Bill terms it facilitation of movement of crops for the farmers. Do the farmers have the wherewithal to move crops across the states? It is akin to telling the common men that licensing for flying an aircraft is being abolished and everyone would be free to buy, own, and fly an aircraft even as one know that 90% of them cannot own a bicycle. The fact of the matter is that the facilitation is designed for those who have access to bank credit, can proffer bank guarantees, and can even default on payments if a friendly government is in the saddle and can recklessly indulge in profiteering.
Storage or hoarding
The Bills also permit storages, yet another euphemism for permission to hoard. One knows too well that an ordinary farmer in India cannot afford to store the grain in the hope of an upswing in the market prices. Building granaries, protecting the grain against elements and pests, guarding them against damage and pilferage has been a prerogative of the Food Corporation of India which has been the repository of the food stocks lifted from the farm gates. Clearly, the corporate friends of the ruling dispensation would be the new substitutes for the FCI. All that the facilitation for storage implies is that hoarding is being legitimized, not by individuals, but by corporate outfits. They will sell or withhold the produce at will and may manipulate the market to create artificial scarcity to make a huge cut in the market.
Left to the vagaries of market forces, more farmers will give up farming in the years to come, sell their land and join the huge workforce of farm labourers. The trend has been observable all through the years since independence despite the MSP and APMC safeguards. Look at the figures: In 1951 the nation had a farmers population of seven crore. In 2020, the figure stands at 11.5 crore. But farm labour population has risen from 2.73 crore in 1951 to 29 crore in 2020. Now that the current Bills incentivize barrier-free movement of crops and storages, more farmers are likely to abandon the vocation that brings them little money and no cheer. The Bills are the perfect recipe for immiserization of people who delivered India from perpetual famine and indignity of hunger.
M.A. Siraj is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru