Beyond the election & voting, the fate of the farmers' movement
The country is watching how the farmers’ movement will influence the vote in the five states going to the polls. The signs are that it may not do so in Manipur and Goa, but it will certainly have an impact in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. And, it will be an adverse one for the BJP, though to what extent it is hard to tell.
The BJP has made its own calculations for the elections. It repealed the three farm laws three months before the elections ostensibly to gain three advantages. First, it would end the ‘ban’ the farmers’ unions had imposed on the meetings and movements of BJP leaders in the three states. With that ‘ban’ in force, they would not have been able to campaign in the constituencies during elections and the field would have been left open for the other parties.
Secondly, there would be some mellowing of the farmers’ temper, and the party could hope to get some of the vote share, if not all of what it had got in 2017. Thirdly, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha could come out of the elections in a divided and weakened state, giving an upper hand to the government in the negotiations over their main demand for legally guaranteed minimum support price (MSP) for 23 crops.
No wonder, the Modi government has not yet announced the committee it promised to set up for deciding on the MSP demand. The farmers’ leaders have been asking the government every few days to announce the committee, but it has been playing deaf. The government is obviously waiting for the election results. That will decide its approach towards the farmers.
When the farmers’ movement started demanding to repeal the three farm laws, the Modi government had refused to budge, turning it into a protracted struggle, assuring itself that the farmers would not be left with much strength and stamina to carry on their revolt beyond a few months. It ultimately retreated to reduce political losses. But it might again resume testing the strength and stamina of the farmers if their opposition towards the BJP makes little impact on the election results.
The BJP may not be very wrong in their calculation. Farmers’ agitations have had little impact on elections in the past. They have never voted out a government. Farmers do not vote as farmers but as members of a caste or sub-caste or faith or sect. Some of the farmers’ unions of Punjab that broke away from the Samyukta Kisan Morcha to fight elections as a political party are facing the same reality. Farmers’ show of strength in the streets has never meant a large presence of representatives dedicated to their cause in Parliament or state assemblies. Farmers have had strong organisations in Punjab, Haryana, UP, Maharashtra and Karnataka: how many farmers became MLAs or MPs in these states?
However, whether the farmers influence the election results in the five states or not, the BJP must not delude itself into thinking that the curtains will come down on their movement. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha was a victor on the streets and it would not matter to them if the BJP emerges triumphant in the elections.
The farmers have learnt a new way of fighting and they would carry it on if the Modi government does not fulfill its main demand for guaranteed MSP for 23 crops. For the farmers, especially the Punjab, Haryana and western UP farmers, the fulfilment of this demand is critical to their continuance as farmers. That is why the farmers’ movement is mostly made up of farmers of these states, although the demand concerns farmers all over the country.
It would be a tragedy not only for the farmers but also for Indian agriculture if the Modi government adopts a stubborn stance once again and refuses to see the simple truth the farmers are trying to convey. What the farmers of the Green Revolution are saying is that their land has degenerated and the groundwater has depleted on account of over-exploitation growing rice and wheat and they want to now grow other crops—such as oilseeds and pulses—that will bring back the natural nutrients to the soil and help the groundwater level rise by consuming less water.
What they are saying is when the nation did not know where to get its food from, they had dedicated their land, water and farming skills to growing rice and wheat, the staple foods. In the 1960s, only about 30 per cent of farmland in Punjab grew rice and wheat; today 85 per cent of the farmland grows them. In the process of feeding the nation their main resource has depleted.
If they go on growing rice and wheat, a time may come when they would not be able to grow anything at all. Their land may turn into desert. What the farmers are saying is this: “When the nation was in crisis, we came to its help; now when we are in crisis, the nation must come to our help.”
Basically, they cannot get out of growing rice and wheat and get into any other crops without any MSP and technology support from the government. It was owing to MSP and technology support that the farmers came to make India not only self-sufficient but also surplus in rice and wheat. The central government has used the MSP like a steering wheel to turn the wheels of agriculture whichever way it wants. Why is the Modi government reluctant to do this? Why is the government not accepting the farmers’ demand for guaranteed MSP for 23 crops?
The examples of association of higher production with higher and higher MSP are not limited to rice and wheat. It happened with pulses too. Until ten years ago, India used to produce only 14 million tonnes of pulses against a demand of 24 million tonnes. The country had to meet the deficit with imports at a high cost. With MSP and technology support, the production rose to 24 million tonnes against a demand of 26 million tonnes in 2020-21, reducing the import bill substantially.
Today, Punjab consumes 6 lakh tonnes of pulses but produces only 36,000 tonnes or just 6 per cent of it. The reason is that wheat swallowed most of the acreage of pulses over the years. In the 1960s, pulses were grown in 9 lakh hectares in the state; by the 2000s, their acreage had dropped to 17,000 hectares.
A similar thing happened with oilseeds. Punjab was growing oilseeds in four lakh hectares in 1967-68. By 2019-20, they were grown only in 49,000 hectares. The state’s oilseeds production fell from over three lakh tonnes in 1967-68 to 56,000 tonnes in 2018-19. Punjab’s agro-climatic conditions are highly suitable for oilseeds both during the kharif (groundnut, sesamum, cotton) season, as well as the rabi (mustard, sunflower, rapeseed). But they were abandoned in the craze for growing rice and wheat.
Just like pulses, India can become self-sufficient in edible oils if the government uses the MSP as its steering wheel here too. Today, India requires 26 million tonnes of edible oils but produces only 8 million tonnes.
A big fallacy that has been spread about the farmers’ demand for legally guaranteed MSP for 23 crops is that the government will go bankrupt if it were to procure the produce of all these crops from the farmers. That is not the case. A legally guaranteed MSP means that not only the government but even the private players will have to buy at that floor price. The farmers can sell their produce to the government or the private players, whoever comes to them. The government can procure only as much as it needs and leave the rest for the market to buy from the farmers.
During the movement, the farmer was projected as being anti-private sector. That is a wrong impression. Agriculture is the largest segment of the private sector. The farmer is as much an entrepreneur as the trader or manufacturer. The farmer opposed the three laws because it was tilted in favour of the commercial entrepreneurs and placed the agricultural entrepreneurs at their mercy.
With the legally guaranteed MSP, the farmers want to negotiate with the market from a position of advantage. And, the government must support them in this because the average farmer is small and their number is too large. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for half the country’s population, which means 600 million people. Allowing agribusiness to displace them as it did in the US would be a national catastrophe.
Looking from the national point of view, a legally guaranteed MSP for 23 crops is not the farmers’ demand but the nation’s demand. By using the MSP as a steering wheel, the nation can increase the production of all types of farm produce, making the country self-sufficient and also export the surpluses, while moving towards sustainable agriculture.
(Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and the author of Against the Few: Struggles of India’s Rural Poor)
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