Biting The Hand That Feeds You

Image by Tuhin Khamaru from Pixabay
Written by Naomi Kurian

This article found meaning in my anxiety and disbelief over the kind of misinformation that was being peddled on Instagram about the farmers’ protest. No, farmers are not terrorists or Khalistani separatists or members of whatever gang dissidents are assigned to. No, farmers are not being misled and neither are they taking up arms and starting a riot. No, not all of them are politically motivated and this protest is not an offshoot of CAA-NRC protests from last year. Yes, you need to stop getting your information off unverified Instagram accounts. 

The farmers’ protest is the sustained agitation by the farming community (primarily Punjab and some from Haryana, Rajasthan and UP) in response to the three contentious laws passed by the Modi government. These laws are perceived to be market-friendly and bring farmers in direct contact with private corporations. While the government argues that this move will reduce corruption and the need for middlemen, the laws lack dimension and directly place the small and marginal farmers in harm’s way. 

Here’s how. 

APMC Act (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) allows for the establishment of government-controlled ‘Mandis’ where farmers can sell their produce to licensed dealers in exchange for some level of security and stability in their income. There are, however, only 7000 odd mandis in India which are not enough and so a lot of farmers have to sell to middlemen. The corruption and lack of accessibility, according to the government, can be dealt with by increasing private investment. This is problematic because private mandis are not taxed. Also, in a government mandi only licensed dealers can trade with farmers but in private mandis anyone with a PAN card can do so making it easier to con farmers. More importantly, government mandis will be run out of business because of the extreme competition practiced by private players. With it, farmers expect Minimum Support Price and other security measures to leave since corporations are under no obligation to pay farmers a minimum price. 

Additionally, the new laws allow traders to hoard supplies and then manipulate the price. This is more commonly called stockpiling and was until recently, illegal in India. 

Next, the MSP argument. In India, farmers have no legal right to receive a Minimum Support Price and only 23 crops receive it, most of which are essential commodities like wheat and rice. The new farm laws do not mention MSPs at all and this has farmers worried. In their list of demands they want MSP to be a legal right that applies to all farmers growing all kinds of crops. The reason for this is so that they have a legal provision to fall back on in case they have to take this to court in the future where private mandis will dominate the market and take advantage of vague and inconclusive ‘written assurances’ from the government. 

Contractual farming is also being contested because it will display the inequality of bargaining power between small farmers and large corporations. The ‘undue influence’ argument made by the farmers cannot be refuted and so this makes us wonder why would the government do something that would place farmers in such a predicament. To make matters worse, the laws carry a provision that doesn’t allow farmers to approach courts if there is a grievance or violation with regard to these reforms. The matter will have to be taken up with government officials and their say will be the final one. This violates the fundamental right of citizens and is extremely troubling. Although the government has now agreed to allow civil suits to be filed, farmers argue that the general intention of these laws seems to be the disempowerment of farmers and the strengthening of the private sector. 

While it’s easier to believe that this is a big conspiracy against the government and the opposition is simply pushing their self-serving agenda, let’s face some facts. 86.2% of all Indian farmers are small and marginal farmers (own less than two hectares of land). Farmers constitute over 60% of the Indian workforce. From the 2016 Economic Survey, we can ascertain that the average annual income of a farming family is a negligible sum of Rs. 20,000. The average age of the Indian farmer is 50. Given that this is the profile of the average farmer in India, introducing privatization reforms with no mention of social security nets is nothing short of foolish.

If nothing else should convince us that these laws are questionable, the example of Bihar should help. In 2006, Nitish Kumar shut down the mandi system in Bihar. Paddy, which is sold at a guaranteed MSP of Rs 1868 in the rest of the country, is sold in Bihar at Rs 900-1000. Over the years, the condition of farmers in Bihar deteriorated to such an extent that they migrated to Punjab and Haryana to work as laborers in fields. Down To Earth quoted DM Diwakar, an economist, saying: “The Modi government says the new farm bills won’t adversely impact the farming community. Given the logic, the financial condition of 94 percent of farmers in Bihar — who didn’t go to mandis or were not covered under minimum support price (MSP) — should have improved in the past 14 years. But their condition has deteriorated.”

And so the numerous edited videos and hate messages that do their rounds among Whatsapp uncles and ill-informed urban elites on Instagram stories need to end. The farmers have laid down their expectations for the government and should not be met with tear gas, water cannons and trenches. A seventy-year-old man being lathi-charged should not be the first image that pops up when you google the self-proclaimed ‘largest democracy in the world.’ Don’t take away the legitimacy of the protest with one careless forward. 

About the author

Naomi Kurian

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