Farmers are protesting because farm laws will leave the weakest out in the cold

100,000 family farms in the US shut down in the last decade and Trump administration had to declare a 16 billion Dollar rescue package. But the Modi Government is determined to try the failed model

NH Photo by Vipin
NH Photo by Vipin

Shalini Sahay

City-bred people often have little idea of how food is produced and which then magically turn up on their table. Hence when someone asked a friend that they should support farmers because they produced food and fed the country, he is said to have replied, “But I get my food from Zomato”.

In the US model over the last five decades, big has become bigger and the small have got out. To an extent it worked because of the huge land mass ( US is three times bigger with one-third India’s population) but can it work in India ?

Even as farmers from Punjab determinedly marched to Delhi for a hearing, much of the TV media and people in cities frowned on the agitation. It was politically motivated, said some. Others seemed convinced that farmers had been victims of anti-government propaganda. Most suggested that farmers did not understand what is good for them. And the overwhelming message in the media was that farm bills rushed by the Modi Government are good for farmers and the country.

Politically, the Government was clearly not willing to answer questions. Why were the bills introduced by way of ordinances in June this year ? Why were farmers not consulted and taken on board? Why were the bills passed in a hurry without acceding to the reasonable demand by the opposition to refer the Bills to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for screening and scrutiny ? Andwhy indeed did the government refuse to talk to the farmers, who have been agitating for the past two months and protesting even longer. What prevented the Government from convincing the farmers that the farm bills were in their interest?

The Government including the Prime Minister and the Agriculture Minister have maintained that dismantling the APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees) was the “need of the hour”; that removing intermediaries would fetch them better prices. That corporate farming would give them a better deal and higher prices. They have also taken to the social media and assured farmers that the Minimum Support Prices would remain and would be protected.

Farmers, not surprisingly, are not convinced. Not only do these commitments made on social media have no validity in a court of law, past experience shows that dismantling APMCs has not led to higher prices. On the contrary, prices have fallen in states like Bihar, where APMCs were done away with in 2006 and where small farmers are dependent on distress sale.

Indeed, intermediaries from Punjab have been facilitating transport of grains from Bihar, where a quintal of rice sold this year for prices ranging from Rs 600 to Rs 1,200, to Punjab, where the MSP was Rs 1865 per quintal.

So, there demand is that the Government should modify the farm laws and insert a clause that will legally ensure that prices do not fall below the MSP. Without the legal protection, they would be helpless against big corporates which would prefer to buy at as low rates as possible from them.

Their fears are borne out by the farm crisis in the United States. Family farms in the US have disappeared fast and it is estimated that 100,000 such farms disappeared between 2011 and 2018. Farm bankruptcies have gone up and so have farm suicides.

Farm debts in the United States are at an all time high. And while the Trump administration has released 16 billion Dollars (One billion Dollar is approximately equivalent to Seven thousand Crore in Indian Rupees) as aid to the farm sector, much of it has gone to big farms with big losses.

Corporate farming looks good on paper. In the US too, they were able to make use of cheap capital and harness technology to make farming more efficient. They could also ramp up the scale of production, storage, distribution and marketing and thus push down prices for standardized, poor quality industrial products.

In his book “Perilous Bounty”, Tom Philport explains the impact of corporate farming on water, soil and cropping pattern. Corporates not only guzzle water, they also want to make higher profits per drop of water. And when water gets scarce, they switch to high value products like nuts and pistachio and even when there is a drought, they would ensure supply of water—with disastrous consequences to the soil and water availability. There is subsidence, there is seepages affecting roads and bridges, there is accumulation of arsenic in water and communities are forced to buy drinking water.

In a recent blog highlighted the perils of industrial scale corporate farming in the US in these words, “ …On top of environmental and public health impacts, our increasingly consolidated food system has shuttered not only independent small and mid-sized farms, but also local processing plants, seed suppliers, grocery chains, equipment dealers and more. In short, the country’s once diverse local and regional foodsheds were systematically erased over time as corporate power in the food system accelerated, leaving us all more vulnerable to something like a pandemic.”

Devinder Sharma, the well known agriculture policy expert, wonders why the Indian Government is bent upon following the failed model of the United States. Unlike in the US, over 80% farmers in India, he points out, are small farmers. They were in a crisis even before the farm bills and long before the pandemic. But the farm bills are hastening the demise of the small farmer. As in the US, they must get big or they must get out.

The bottomline remains how to ensure higher prices to farmers at their farms. In a country, where people apparently do not mind paying Rs 84 for a litre of petrol or a bottle of beer, onions, which farmers sell at four Rupees a Kilo and retailers at a price ten times higher, are a big deal.

Surely the Government can lay down the Minimum Sale Price for farm products and ensure farmers a new deal?

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