They have come to Delhi not with a begging bowl but to present the pitfalls of an unplanned farm liberalisation agenda. Listen to them, build trust
The fate of India and our food system rests with a peaceful army of farmers besieging Delhi. They have blocked borders and are constantly sending envoys seeking justice. Medieval fears have gripped citizens as food and vegetables prices are already shooting up and hoarders (no longer illegal post farm Acts) are celebrating an early Christmas. Meanwhile, police in riot gear are anxious to lathicharge their own brethren. They have set up unnecessary road blocks all around the city, delaying and immobilising traffic.
Yet, in the freezing cold, our annadattas brace up for the water cannons and tear gas. And in distressed times, they have given up self-preservation and stand united as ever, demanding fair prices and resisting a “neo-Company Raj.” For this has indeed turned into a war between the big agricultural corporations, who are reassuring the public with their propaganda through the corporate media, and the farmers, who anyway are struggling with input costs higher than the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and now see the rates being driven down by the inevitable competitive pricing in an open market. They have some legitimate and practical concerns that need transitional hand-holding that the Government is not quite doing.
While the farmers’ agitation trends on Twitter, the Government uses an old strategy of “divide and rule” to break the unions, whose representatives have so far even refused Government hospitality during the talks. The Government has so far called “32 Punjab-based unions,” leaving out others outside the negotiating room. Howard Zinn sniggers at us, as despite his work exposing the American “robber barons” and their modus operandi, the land of Gandhi is falling prey to them.
The Government may now play favourites, choosing one union leader over the other, and present a turbid discourse, buying itself time to incriminate dissenting leaders, and in the final stage may even bring in “strike-breakers” or pro-establishment farmers’ groups and corporate farmers to sign an accord and end the matter. But in case the matter gets out of hand, one shouldn’t be surprised to hear rumours of the resurgence of the “Khalistan movement” in Punjab and how farmer unions are sympathetic to it. Attempts have already been made to classify the agitation as a sectarian uprising.
But back to the deadlock, the farmers want MSP for crops and the Government says it can’t do that. And one doesn’t expect the Government to promise something it is powerless to execute. If it introduces MSP as a legal right, it would automatically overturn the three farm Acts as farm majors won’t buy into a protectionist market. Additionally, how will the Government implement the MSP at the rural market or local level is a big question. If, since its inception (1960s), the MSP has only covered a small percentage of farmers, what is different in 2020? Hence the Government can never make MSP a legal right. It may try to trick the farmers with the “grading” jargon, stating that the MSP would only be given for graded produce, but by accepting this deal, Indian farmers would be destroyed the same way American farmers were. Corporatisation of agriculture in the US, where factory farming birthed an uninterrupted chain of “farm to fork,” has wiped out rural communities. It all began in the 1970s with the dream of becoming big enough to command the world’s food market with industrialised processes, merging of lands and shifting priorities to commodity crops. But in no time there was a glut due to over-production; farmers could never get the commensurate prices and were driven to debts. They had no option but to foreclose and sell out. Now farmers do not even make up a quarter of the total US agricultural production. Buying into the promise of “making it big,” they stretched their resources and were subsumed by food giants.
Barring Punjab and Haryana, MSP is already a distant dream for farmers. Even if some States make MSP the legal right, corporations have the choice of bulk buying from States that don’t do so. What happens to the farmers in that case?
Farm life is tough. Imagine waking up at the crack of dawn, running to the fields each morning or any odd hour when the irrigation and electricity supply are selectively guaranteed. The farmer’s day passes with weeding, ploughing, seeding and carefully guarding his crop for the season while debts and bills burden the family. When the harvest arrives, it brings more losses in the absence of remunerative prices. If it is the middleman now, it would be the corporations later. Effectively, he has no negotiatory power either way. When he can’t earn enough, he drinks pesticides or commits suicide. More than 300,000 debt-burdened farmers have committed suicide in over a decade. So farmers are not misled or ill-informed, they live the hard reality. As Pepsico sued them in Gujarat and they are still struggling to reclaim their dues for sugar, they know how corporatisation hasn’t changed their fortunes and required Government intervention in the end. And as their resilience is breaking, city people flippantly discount them as rustic, mock their intelligence and yet we dare not face their courage. The policy makers can’t answer their questions. Let’s go back to the
Rs 2.5 lakh crore dal scam of 2015 when consumers paid the price by buying arhar dal at Rs 210/kg. It was reported that a cartel of agri-business companies was responsible by buying dal at low prices through the supply chain network, storing it overseas and then creating artificial scarcity. It profitted immensely by selling it back to Indians at high prices. The Government used the power of the Essential Commodities Act (ECA) to bust hoarders and recover 75,000 metric tonnes of dal. But ECA limits on hoarding and stocking have been done away with in the new Acts except for some emergency scenarios.
Let’s take the example of apples from Himachal Pradesh, which make for a huge cash crop for local farmers. In two decades, three big Indian agri-business giants have consolidated the markets. They store almost all the apples coming out of the State, dictate the prices and have established an oligopoly. Small traders outside their network exist but they are marginal.
Up against a techno-militaristic juggernaut, one feels that the farmers and their leaders know their vulnerabilities — talks are futile and their fate is sealed. They know that this movement will be their final sacrifice, a mass suicide to awaken the conscience of our nation. They have come to Delhi not with a begging bowl but to present the pitfalls of an unplanned farm liberalisation agenda. And one doesn’t doubt that they will be misjudged and hunted. But for them it’s their moral imperative to rebel, for the sake of their children, their ancestral lands and our civilisation. If the Indian civilisation has to survive we need our farmers to be treated fairly. For without them, we are sowing a new corporate disease that shall further destroy India. In the words of Gandhi, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will”. Our farmers are possessed by this will and we better listen to them.
(The author is Director, Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India)