Bengal farmers need reform but not contentious farm laws

In the third story in a special farm series, The Federal explores why unions say the Centre’s farm laws would empower corporates with monopoly over farm sector, and compel farmers to cultivate only high-profit yielding cash crops, leading to food insecurity and affecting small and marginal farmers

Samir farm copy
Naskar, 44, cultivated potatoes on his eight bighas (1 bigha is 0.33 acre) of land last year and got a bumper yield. Favourable weather conditions pushed up potato production in West Bengal to around 120 lakh tonne, which was 20 per cent higher than previous year's yield. The excess production resulted in a 50 per cent drop in prices, pushing farmers like Naskar in severe distress. Photo: Raka Mahapatra

The latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows not a single farmer in West Bengal committed suicide in 2019.

The statistics would have been different had Govinda Naskar, a potato farmer from Garbeta in East Midnapore district, not changed his mind against taking the extreme step.

Naskar (44) cultivated potatoes on his eight bighas (1 bigha is 0.33 acre) of land last year and to his delight even had a bumper yield. Naskar, however, was not the only one to have a good harvest. Favourable weather conditions pushed up the potato production in the state to around 120 lakh tonne, which was 20 per cent higher than previous year’s yield of 100 lakh tonne.

The excess production resulted in a 50 per cent drop in prices, pushing farmers like Naskar in severe distress.

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“I had even contemplated suicide. It was the third consecutive year that I had suffered loss,” he said.

Typically a farmer needs to spend around ₹20,000 to cultivate ‘Jyoti’ variety of potato on one bigha of land. One bigha yields 80 bags of potatoes with each containing 50 kg if the harvest is good. This means the production cost of each bag is ₹250 or ₹5 per kg.

The prices of potato had slipped below ₹3 a kg at the farm-level, when the state government intervened to procure 10 lakh tonne of potato from 20 lakh farmers at ₹5.5 per kg.

This year, however, Naskar had a good profit earning ₹520 per bag.

It is this uncertainty and risk associated with the farming that prompt farmers like Naskar to demand a protective shield of minimum support price (MSP) to protect them from the vagaries of weather and market forces.

The corporate players would never give that protection to farmers, said Shovan Patua, state office secretary of the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity (PBKMS), one of the farmers’ associations spearheading protests in the state against the farm reform laws introduced by the Centre.

He pointed out that the West Bengal government allowed the entry of private players in the farm sector in 2017 by enacting Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation)(Amendment) Act, but it failed to make much difference.

The reason for most farmers not getting the benefit of opening the market for private players is that the big companies only procure some select variants of crops. For instance companies such as Pepsico, ITC and Parle Agro that source potatoes from Bengal only procure Chipsona variety.

Bengal, the second largest potato producer in the country after Uttar Pradesh, mainly produces the Jyoti variety, a table purpose variety and not used by food processing units.

Similarly, the state despite being the largest producer of paddy in the country fails to attract private players as they prefer special aroma rice and not the usual varieties that farmers here grow for regular consumption.

“If private players get monopoly over the farm sector, then they will eventually create imbalance in the food basket by compelling farmers to cultivate only high-profit yielding cash crops, which will lead to food insecurity,” said Hannan Mollah, former CPI (M) MP and general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha.

Mollah said the three farm legislations would create “corporate syndicates”, which would be a death knell, particularly for small and marginal farmers.

“When farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, where Agriculture Produce and Marketing Committees (APMCs) are relatively better organised, are facing existential crisis, one can well imagine what will happen to small farmers,” he told The Federal.

In the context of West Bengal, the threat to marginal farmers was particularly worrying, said Patua of PBKMS.

His concern stems from the fact that out of around 71.23 lakh farm families in the state, 96 per cent are small and marginal farmers with average land holding of only 0.05 hectare (1 hectare is equal to 7.47 bigha).

Patua said the farm laws would make impossible the government’s target of doubling the farm income by 2022.

The average monthly income of agricultural households in the state is ₹7,756, according to the all India rural financial inclusion survey report of the NABARD published in August 2018. For the context, the figure is ₹23,133 for Punjab, ₹18496 for Haryana and ₹16,927 for Kerala.

The state government, however, points out that the farm income is steadily increasing in the state. The monthly average income per agricultural household in West Bengal was estimated to be ₹3,980 during a survey done by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) in 2013.

The low agriculture income is compelling farmers to migrate to other states to take up other jobs to supplement their income. West Bengal ranks fourth among states in outbound migration for employment, according to the 2011 census. Only Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan have a greater number of out-migrants.

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A recent study of Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECMA) in 51 blocks of South and North 24 Parganas districts of the state showed that 64 per cent people migrate for work because of economic reasons, including unsustainable agriculture.

Considering the deprivation of farmers, experts say, farm reform is long overdue in Bengal and that the 2017 legislation which aimed at reforming the farm sector did not yield desired results. However, in the same breath they maintain that three contentious legislations introduced by the Narendra Modi-led NDA government at the Centre are not the panacea the farmers of the state needed.

“There is no denying that farmers of West Bengal are exploited and the existing system needs to be changed. But the solution is not the gradual elbowing out of the APMCs and denying of the MSP (minimum support price),” said Professor Kalyan kanti Das, a leading agricultural economist of the state.

On the argument that APMCs wherever existed in the country are controlled by brokers, Das said, “The government should weed out broker raj and not the mandis. For the government’s failure, the APMCs cannot be made scapegoats.”

He said the West Bengal government should strengthen its APMCs and expand the MSP to more items. “At present MSP is implemented in the state only on a handful of items and the APMCs are hardly functioning,” Das pointed out.

Till date 186 Krishak Bazars (mandis) had been constructed at different blocks of the state and some of these bazaars were connected with National Agricultural Market (e-NAM), said West Bengal agriculture minister Asish Banerjee.

Agriculture officials claim the state has already introduced major reforms in agriculture marketing by initiating deregulation of fruits and vegetables trade, facility for anyone to set up private markets outside the purview of APMC mandis, single trading licence to enable inter-mandi trade and single-point levy of market fee.

Mollah, however, said these reforms existed only on papers. “Most buildings of the Krishak Bazars built by the state government are lying unused,” he said. “But just because the state government has failed does not mean the Centre should start interfering in agriculture marketing, which is a state subject,” he added, demanding scrapping of the three contentious laws introduced by the Centre.

To read the first story in the series, click here: Punjab farmers’ smile belies deeper angst of debt, poor prices

To read the second story in the series, click here: Farmers irked as govt moves to recover ‘wrong’ payouts in PM Kisan scheme

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