Farmers are protesting as they fear the farm Bills will pave the way for the abolition of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) | Photo: PTI

Withdraw farm bills or kill us directly: Farmers

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured that the MSP system would stay along with government procurement. The farmers, however, refuse to believe the PM.

Satyawan Malik, a 42-year-old farmer from Budha Khera village Hayana’s Jind district, who owns a five-acre piece of land (richest in terms of land in his village) has a debt of ₹4 lakh to the Kisan Co-operative Bank and also owes ₹1 lakh to an arthiya (middleman). He plans to pay off his debt by selling Kharif crops this season.

India is an agri-focus economy, however, farmers are trying to get their children out of the occupation despite having huge lands to practice agriculture.

“We don’t earn enough money to meet our end needs and have to take loans for everything, right from buying the seeds to children’s education and I strive for it as I don’t want my children to become farmers and suffer like me,” says Satyawan.

After harvesting his crops, Satyawan usually takes his produce to the mandi (Agricultural Produce Market Committee or APMC) which is nearly 4 kms from his house. Haryana and Punjab have set up nearly 7,000 APMC yards so that the farmers need not travel very long distances to sell their crops.

Related news: Farm bills cleared by voice vote amid RS ruckus, farmer protests

In APMC, Satyawan takes his harvested crop to an arthiya who verifies the crop and checks the moisture level, which can not be more than 18% to sell to the government. Most of the farmers in Haryana and Punjab sow paddy crops that they sell to the government at the Minimum Support Price (MSP).

“I can still sell outside the APMC yard but no private mills or companies pay more than the MSP or even closer to that. MSP is the highest we get and in that as well, we cannot meet our end demands; that is why we always protest to increase the MSP,” says Satyawan.

The farmers have to pay some commission to the arthiyas as well. Satyawan says he pays anywhere between ₹2 to 5 per quintal commission to the arthiya who sells his crops to the government procurement agency, gets it inspected by the procurement agency’s inspector.

The arthiyas are also responsible for getting receiving payment from the government and giving it to the farmers. At times when we need money, the arthiyas also help us by giving us loans, says the 42-year-old farmer.

“Four years ago, I was in need of money as I had loans and children’s (school) admission fees to pay, so I thought of sending the crop to a private mill. But the private mill quoted half the rates we used to get as MSP. We, farmers, give our day and night but still we live miserably. Everybody says Jai Jawan Jai Kisan, but in reality, jawans and kisans only die in this country.”

Members of various farmer associations stage a protest in Haryana’s Sonipat district | Photo: PTI

Jaidev Bansal, a Haryana-based middleman, confirmed that the procedure narrated by Satyawan is followed in the mandis.

“Private mills never take crops at a good price. In Haryana and Punjab, paddy crops are harvested, for which only the government gives more prices as MSP but even on selling at the MSP, a farmer can never be profitable,” Bansal told The Federal.

There are 30 lakh farmers in Haryana and Punjab, 90 per cent of whom are those who own less than 2 hectares of land and find it very difficult to make their ends meet. They are left with no other choice but to take loans. More than 50 per cent in the two states have failed to repay their loans due to reasons like crop failure, according to the All India Kisan Sabha. In many cases, where farmers are unable to repay the loan, they have no other option left apart from ending their lives.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCB)’s suicide data, in 2019, nearly 800 farmers committed suicide in Punjab and Haryana. The Bhartiya Kisan Union’s Haryana state president Gurnam Singh Chaduni said that the farmers are the most marginalised community in India and now that the farm bills have come, the situation will worsen.

Farm Bills

The Centre had brought three farm ordinances that have been termed as anti-farmers and pro-corporate by the Opposition and a section of farmers’ organisations. The government has passed these as Bills in both the Houses of the Parliament during the ongoing Monsoon Session amid protests.

The first among them is The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020 which allows farmers to sell their produce outside the markets notified under the various state agricultural produce market laws.

The second ordinance, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020, overrides all state APMC laws with reference to sale and purchase of farm products and brings uniformity in contractual farming rules across India. It also amends the role of APMCs in case of contract farming.

MPs hold placards during a protest over farmers’ issues at the Parliament | Photo: PTI

The third ordinance, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance 2020, has brought changes in the list of essential items whose prices are regulated by the government.

The Rajya Sabha on Sunday passed first two of the three contentious farm bills while the third one was passed by the Upper House on Tuesday.

The farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh are protesting against the bills as the government procurement infrastructure in these areas is very good. This is primarily because the Green Revolution of the 1960s started here. In order to encourage farmers to adopt a new variety of wheat, the government offered procurement through the Food Corporation of India and an MSP, which is declared ahead of every agriculture season, to the farmers.

Related news: Why farmers from Punjab, Haryana are at forefront of protests?

As the document titled ‘Price Policy for Kharif Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21’ pointed out, “More than 95 percent paddy farmers in Punjab and about 70 percent farmers in Haryana are covered under procurement operations.” The farmers now fear that the next step in this agri reform process will be the doing away of the government procurement process as well as the MSP system. This will primarily hurt the farmers hailing from Punjab and Haryana, who are the beneficiaries of this program.

However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured that the MSP system would stay along with government procurement. He termed these bills historic and said that the two bills are the need of the 21st century and would provide opportunities to farmers that will empower them in a true sense.

Why the farmers are not believing the PM

The farmers, however, refuse to believe the PM. Noted economist Vivek Kaul said that the farmers are not believing the PM due to the fact that it is but natural that the next step in this reform process would be reforming government procurement and the MSP policy.

As the NITI Aayog’s occasional paper titled ‘Raising Agricultural Productivity and Making Farming Remunerative for Farmers‘ published in December 2015, points out, “There is a need for reorientation of price policy if it is to serve the basic goal of remunerative prices for farmers. This goal cannot be achieved through procurement backed MSP since it is neither feasible nor desirable for the government to buy each commodity in each market in all regions.”

Related news: Watershed moment in history of agriculture: PM on passage of farm bills

Also, if government purchases and MSP are done away with, there will be further danger of free power, fertiliser subsidy, etc., being done away with as well, Kaul added.

Asked about the PM’s promise, Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Gurnam Singh said, “The PM has a wonderful art of speaking but the only problem is that he lies. If MSP is not ending, accept our small demand and make a bill guaranteeing MSP. Just write in the bills that it will be a crime to buy less than the MSP and we will withdraw our movement tomorrow itself.”

Bills to deregulate MSP and mandis

Gurnam Singh claims that these bills are nowhere close to helping the farmers and contrary to what the government says, “I believe these reforms would bring unprecedented poverty and ruin the lives of farmers.”

He says, “The most important change that’ll happen with these bills is to allow the traders to buy from outside the market. Right now, all trade is done through the mandis and a tax is paid by the traders, which ultimately benefits the farmers. The roads that pass through the fields of Punjab and Haryana have been made with this tax.”

Farmers protest against the passage of new farm bills in the Parliament, in Bengaluru | Photo: PTI

He believes that if the government allows farm produce trade outside mandis set up by the government, only the bigger traders would benefit and not the farmers. The rich will get richer and the farmers would be dragged on roads as this regulation would stop the MSP that the farmers are getting. Even though the government said that the mandis and MSP system would be in place, we all know that it would eventually die because traders would be able to procure farm produce at much lower prices without paying any taxes, he added.

Further citing an example, Singh wondered why would the government go ahead with this bill when the same model has failed in Bihar. This system has been in place since 2006 in Bihar, but the situation of the farmers there is miserable as a four-acre farmer there also comes to work in farms in Haryana. The main reason for this is that the farmers do not get any MSP there.

‘Misleading Bills – a bid to corporatise the sector’

Harendra Singh Lakhwal, president, Punjab Kisan Union, said they never demanded these bills, then why is the government pushing such legislations? He said, “We were demanding better MSPs and better auctions in mandis, but we never wanted to privatise farming. Now by introducing these bills, the government wants to remove MSP and we cannot even protest to increase the MSP.”

Describing these bills as misleading, Lakhwal said, “The biggest lie in this is that these bills will allow farmers to sell their goods anywhere. This is a lie because farmers have had this exemption since 1977. A similar lie is being told about crop storage that now farmers will be able to stock their produce. This stock will benefit people like Adani who will now be able to set prices by hoarding.”

Citing an example of his neighborhood, Lakhwal said, “On the Kurukshetra-Kaithal highway in Haryana, there’s a place called Dhand where Adani has a warehouse. There is a facility where wheat can be stored for 10 years. Common farmers or small traders cannot have such warehouses. Then people like Adani will be able to store for years by purchasing the ration and they will control the entire market when they have unlimited stock. Just like in the telecom world today, where the entire market belongs to Ambani, in the coming years all the farming will also be done by the capitalists.”

“It is not just the issue of the farmers but of all the people in the country. It’s a matter of public versus corporate. A few traders will buy the goods of the whole country and then the whole country will eat from them. That means the whole country will be their customer,” he added.

Meanwhile, amid the row over the farm bills, the government on Monday hiked the MSP for Rabi crops. The highest increase in MSP was for lentils (₹300 per quintal) followed by gram and rapeseed and mustard (₹225 per quintal each) and safflower (₹112 per quintal). For barley and wheat, the hike was ₹75 and ₹50 per quintal respectively.

Haryana Kisan Smiti president Fool Singh Sheokand said, “The government is cunning. The MSP of many crops has been increased but this is just like cumin in the camel’s mouth, and they’ve done it at a time when the farmers’ movement is steadily accelerating. The MSP comes in October every year.”

“If the intention of the government is clear, why is it not written in the bills that the MSP system will remain? The farmers are worried. They’ve made bills to kill the farmers, so the farmers have also decided that now either the government should withdraw these bills or else shoot us directly,” he added.

Already a failed system

Devinder Sharma, an agriculture policymaker based out of Chandigarh, said that these bills were brought only to privatise the farm sector and will benefit the corporates, not farmers. “According to the Shanta Kumar Committee, only 6% of the farmers get MSP in India. The remaining 94%, in any case, depend on open markets. If the markets were so good, why is agriculture in the throes of terrible agrarian distress,” he asked.

He added that “MSP was mentioned there in the APMC bill but it has been scrapped now, so the MSP has also been scrapped. How can farmers believe a PM whose every economic strategy has failed and who has every time lied to the country?”

“The government cannot afford to write the MSP word in the bill as they don’t want to give MSP to farmers anymore. They want to slowly get rid of this system. The government has run out of funds and slowly they want to cut every fund the government used to distribute and privatise everything,” said Sharma.

Related news: Govt hikes MSP of six Rabi crops amid row over farm bills

He further added that a similar model that has failed in the US and Europe. Farmers in the US and Europe make their ends meet by the subsidies given by the government and still farmers’ suicides have been increased in the last 10 years in both these countries. “Europe gives a subsidy of $60,000 every year to a farmer and India gives only $200, how can you expect such privatisation of the farm sector will give benefits,” Sharma asked.

The central government clearly hasn’t gone into the details of what it will take to really make the life of an average farmer better as it is only interested in selling the narrative that the passage of these farm bills will ensure that farmers get a better price for what they produce, Kaul said.

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