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Middle Ground in This Farmers’ Protest

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Arun Kumar

The stand-off between the farmers and the government has persisted for weeks, with the Supreme Court now mulling intervention in the form of a committee that could be set up to solve the issue.

The farmers, not trusting the government, want the three agricultural reform laws to be repealed as a pre-condition for any negotiations while the government is adamant that the laws cannot be repealed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated praise for the three laws however signals the government’s resolve to not repeal the laws.

So, with both sides having dug in their heels, an outside agency may indeed help – but the issue is, what can it suggest?

To increase pressure on the government, some of the farmers have resorted to a hunger strike and called for more of their fellow agriculture workers from neighbouring states to join them at the Delhi border. The government has stopped the farmers from moving towards Delhi and the farmers have decided to do dharna wherever they are stopped. The farmer leaders are being threatened, put under house arrest and even fines are being imposed on them so that they do not mobilise. This indicates the government’s worry. More so since the farmers’ movement has drawn wider support from political parties, teachers, workers, artists, civil society and so on.

Government’s moves

The government has also mobilised politically. They have claimed that ‘anti-nationals’ have captured the leadership of the movement or that Khalistanis from abroad are behind it. In a new twist, the protesters are labeled as being against the soldiers fighting at the frontier.

Other avenues of attack have been that only the rich farmers and arhtiyas are protesting or that only the Punjab farmers are agitating. Furthermore, pro-BJP farmers’ groups from various parts of the country have been mobilised to issue statements of support. The attempt is to divide the farmers and discredit the ongoing movement.

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Farmers arrive in a tractor to attend a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near New Delhi, India, December 14, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

That said, even though the movement is spearheaded by the farmers from Punjab – and supported in large numbers from Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh – it does not mean that the movement does not have support from farmers elsewhere. In movements, it is often the case that the better off sections lead since the poorer ones find it hard to take time off. The former is usually more organised and articulates the issues first and mobilise others.

In the media campaign mounted by the government, it is argued that farmers have been suffering for long and the laws are intended to improve their lot through reforms. It is argued that the laws incorporate the changes that have been suggested since when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. Past letters and speeches of opposition leaders have been dug out to show that they favoured these changes when they were in power.

But embarrassingly for the ruling party, there are enough speeches of its leaders like the late Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley opposing such changes during the United Progressive Alliance’s time. More disconcertingly Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat had also opposed the kind of provisions that are now law.

Be that as it may, the Central government has been forced to take note of the strength of feeling among farmers all over the country and not just in Punjab and Haryana. So, compared to its initial stance that it would not change anything in the laws, it has shown willingness to amend certain provisions. This accommodative stance was a direct result of the agitation reaching the doorsteps of Delhi. Earlier the protests were in the states and the Centre could ignore them. Even the rail roko in Punjab had no impact even though Punjab suffered much.

The government has said that it is willing to discuss the laws clause by clause to see what could be modified to meet the farmers’ demands. The farmers are arguing that the laws are bad in totality and need to be repealed and fresh legislation is required.

The farmers have also rejected the government’s idea of a committee to look into the matter or of detailed discussions. They see these as ploys to drag matters and to tire them out and weaken their support base. They also see these proposals as a way to divide them and weaken their movement.

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New Delhi: A youngster holds the tricolor at Ghazipur border during their protest against Centre’s agri-laws, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. (PTI Photo/Ravi Choudhary)(PTI15-12-2020_000110B)

The economic arguments

Government has projected the divisions among the farmers to weaken their movement. This is done by saying that Punjab and Haryana farmers are agitating because they benefit from MSP while most other farmers do not do so. Division is sought to be sown between the Punjab and Haryana farmers by raising the issue of the Sutlej Yamuna link (SYL) canal and water availability for Haryana farmers.

Further, it is said that procurement is relevant to only 6% of the farmers whose crop is procured at MSP. Also, that only 23 crops out of the hundreds of agricultural produce are covered by MSP. Thus, it is projected that MSP is irrelevant to most farmers and that is why most farmers are not agitating.

It is also said that 18 states allow private markets outside the APMC and 19 states permit the direct purchase of agricultural produce from the farmers. Bihar is cited as an example of a state where APMC was eliminated in 2005. So, it is implied that the new law only extends what was widely prevalent in large parts of the country to other areas as well. But, has Bihar benefitted from the elimination of the APMCs and by how much? The lot of the small farmers has hardly changed and the out-migration of labour continues.

These arguments weaken the government’s case for the new laws. If most crops are not covered by MSP or little is procured at MSP or private markets already exist in most parts of the country then why have these freed areas not transformed agriculture and made farmers prosperous?

Poverty remains entrenched in rural areas and farmers’ suicides continue. Farmers have prospered in Punjab, Haryana and West UP where the MSP has worked and the mandis have enabled it to be a benchmark to determine the price the farmers get outside the mandis also.

Further, why the tearing hurry to have the laws implemented in these terrible times when the country is battling the pandemic, massive unemployment and rising poverty. Should not these matters have priority over the long term policies? Even if the laws provide the benefits that the government says they will, investment, productivity increase and cropping pattern changes will occur only over the coming years and not immediately.

Farmers are not saying that what existed earlier was perfect. There were problems in fixing the MSP, it was not uniformly implemented across the country and did not extend to most crops. There were issues in the functioning of the APMC and they needed to be better managed.

Due to all these and other problems, farmers have been protesting over the last many years. Before the 2019 elections there were big demonstrations in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and at the borders of Delhi.

The farmers’ argument is that the new laws will worsen the situation for them in the name of reforms – they will deform rather than reform. The government is not able to convince either the farmers or many others that the laws will reform and not deform the situation.

Missing the forest for the trees

When the government offers to discuss the laws clause by clause to work out the changes in them, it is missing the fact that the problem is the framework itself; not just the details. The problem is that the forest is not only monoculture but the wrong kind for the climate so replanting a few trees would not help – the forest itself needs redoing.

As argued in these columns on October 19, the markets for agriculture cannot be made ‘free’ for the vast majority of the Indian farmers (86%) who are small and they cannot have a ‘choice’ given that they are poor and constantly indebted. The problem is how can they obtain a price which covers their cost and gives them a surplus above that? It was pointed out that given the structure of agriculture, government intervention becomes essential. Marketisation being propagated by the new laws is not the solution for the marginalised sections.

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Demonstrators gesture during a protest against the newly passed farm bills at Singhu border near New Delhi, India, December 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

Some analysts characterise government intervention as socialism. They forget that capitalist economies face massive market failures which require government intervention.

Alan Greenspan famously admitted in 2008 Congressional hearings, ‘markets are not self-correcting’ and require government intervention. Companies that are called ‘too big to fail’ have had to be bailed out in the USA. Public goods all over the world are provided by the state.

Agriculture markets are recognised to fail in the US, EU and Japan, the largest market economies in the world, and they provide hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies to farmers. India cannot even match them given that our fiscal resources are much less and the population engaged in agriculture is huge compared to that in these economies.

So, two things become clear. First, there cannot be free markets in India when they do not work in the advanced market economies. Second, the average Indian farmer is worse off than those in the advanced countries so government intervention is even more crucial.

Given that farmers have faced a continuing crisis what is needed is a holistic package of reform and not piecemeal changes. Non-farm employment, remunerative prices for crops, pricing of inputs and taxation have to be considered. The new laws will not only not resolve the farmers’ problems but by marketising agriculture, the existing problems will get aggravated.

Any committee that is set up will succeed only if it takes a long-term and holistic view – this is not possible if its mandate is to find a middle ground between the farmers and the government.

Agriculture markets cannot be treated like other markets and they require government intervention in the foreseeable future. The farmers have understood that the new laws are to help the corporates and not them. Even a committee set up to resolve the issues will succeed only if it takes a long-term and holistic view – this is not possible if its mandate is to find a middle ground between the farmers and the government.

This article first appeared in The Wire: Where Is the Middle Ground in This Farmers’ Protest? on December 19, 2020.

About the Author:

Arun Kumar

Dr. Arun Kumar is Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences.

Picture courtesy: Anindito Mukherjee—Getty Images

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