The farmers’ struggle that started in Punjab, and has now spread across the country, is unique in many respects. There are few examples of such democratic and peaceful farmers’ struggles in the world. It has attracted the attention of various sections of society and gained their sympathy and participation. It has turned into a people’s struggle.
The struggle is being praised not only by different sections of Indian society but also by political leaders of different countries of the world. The head of the United Nations has termed it as the right of the farmers.
The struggle is not just limited to the repeal of the three farm laws enacted by the Central government. It has offered a few messages for the government and the society. These include the need to strengthen the federal system of government and change in the economic model of development.
As the struggle has brought back the memories of the Pagri Sambal Jatta, Ghadar Party, Gurdwara Reform Movement and the Muzhara Movement, it has raised high hopes.
Through this struggle, the farmers and workers have awakened themselves and freed themselves from fear, and taught their future generations the lesson to fight for justice. Even if the three farm laws are repealed, the farmers will return with the message that poverty and debt trap can’t be overcome without launching more struggles.
At present, around 500 farmers’ organizations of the country and various other sections of society are contributing to the struggle by supporting it. Initially there were only 31 farmers’ organizations, all from Punjab. Though belonging to both left and right wing, they seldom spoke against each other. With so many other organisations joining in, it has turned into a true people’s struggle.
Out of 31 farmers’ organizations of Punjab which initiated the struggle, leaders of only one organization resorted to sacrificing the interests of their cadres for their personal gain. They were embarrassed by their own cadres.
The Central government, through the three farm laws, wants to set up private markets for agricultural commodities, weaken Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), does not want to continue with the minimum support price (MSP) mechanism for agricultural commodities and their procurement, and promote contract farming.
Common farmers now know, the government tried to mislead them again and again by propagating that these laws would double their income by 2022. It tried to manipulated things by using deceptive words in these laws.
One of the three laws seeks to amend the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. The government claims this would protect the interests of farmers and consumers by removing the limits of storage on grains, pulses, oilseeds, potatoes, onions and other crops. How this would happen is is not mentioned in the law.
In addition to the repeal of the three farm laws, one of the demands of the farmers’ organizations is to give legal status to MSP for all agricultural commodities. The government is not keen on this.
Ironically, in 2011, some chief ministers, under the leadership of the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, had prepared a report recommending to Union government to legalize the MSP for all agricultural commodities. On the other hand, the Shanta Kumar Committee, set up by the NDA government in August 2014, recommended abandoning the MSP regime and disbanding the Food Corporation of India (FCI), arguing that the policy has benefited only six per cent of the country’s farmers.
Pro-government economists have started chanting that only 10 per cent of the country’s farmers are aware of the MSP regime, and that these prices only benefit big farmers. They appear to be unaware of the fact that, when Sharad Pawar was the country’s agriculture minister, he had said that 71 per cent farmers were aware of MSP.
Currently, although the Central government procures agricultural commodities at MSP only in few areas, when MSPs are announced, these have sobering effect on the private market. In areas where farmers sell their produce to traders, the intensity of the loot in private markets decreases. In areas where purchases are made at these prices, marginal, small and medium farmers are spared of falling prices.
The MSP regime was set up in 1964-65. Due to severe shortage of foodgrains in the country during 1965-69, the recommendations of the Agricultural Prices Commission regarding the MSPs for agricultural commodities were in favour of the farmers.
But since 1970 the commission’s recommendations have been anti-farmer. The Agricultural Price Commission was renamed in 1985 as Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices in an attempt to give the impression that MSPs are based on the cost of production. But this is misleading.
A major issue the farmers’ struggle is raising is to change the methodology of fixing of MSPs. Both UPA and NDA governments have been found to run away from fixing the MSPs of agricultural commodities as per the recommendation of the Swaminathan Commission.
Prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP had promised in its election manifesto to implement the main recommendation of the Swaminathan Commission – which is comprehensive cost (called C2) plus 50 per cent profit. But later it filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating its inability to do so. It said, C2+50 per cent profit would mean the markets would falter.
Even if the Central government fixes MSP for all agricultural commodities as per the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendation, the current loss-making agriculture may become profitable only for a few. The income of more than 86 per cent marginal and small farmers in the country will still not be sufficient enough to meet their basic needs.
The two rungs at the bottom of the rural economy ladder, the agricultural labourers and small artisans, will not benefit, because they have no other means of production other than selling their labour. Hence, the government needs to make necessary changes in agricultural policies to ensure a minimum level of income for all the sections dependent on the rural sector to ensure that their basic needs for food, clothing, housing, education, health care, clean environment and social security are taken care of.
The Central government’s enactment of the three laws is a blow to the already weak federal structure of the country. According to the Constitution of India, agriculture and marketing of agricultural commodities falls under the jurisdiction of states.
Farmers, agricultural labourers, rural small artisans and other agricultural dependent sections and organisations and state governments were not consulted while enacting these laws. Not without reason, the country’s farmers’ organizations are raising their voices to strengthen the federal structure.
An important issue raised by the farmers’ organisations is about the economic development model. After Independence, the Planning Commission was formed in 1950 and Five Year Plans were introduced in 1951. Through these plans a mixed economy model came into being.
The period 1951- 80 is considered as the planning period. During this period the public sector flourished, and the functioning of the private sector was monitored and regulated by the government. Despite some shortcomings, employment in the country increased and economic inequalities decreased. Since 1980, planning has been put in the reverse gear.
The NDA government has gone further by establishing Niti Aayog in the place of Yojna or Planning Commission.
Since 1991, the working people, including farmers, have been facing untold problems due to the adoption of the new economic policies of liberalization, privatization and globalization, which are pro-capitalist/corporate. Economic inequalities have been widening.
In 1951, 82 per cent of the country’s population was depended on agriculture for livelihood. They shared 55 per cent of the national income. At present, only 16 per cent of the national income is shared by 50 per cent of the country’s agriculturally-dependent population.
According to a research study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), for 2000-01 to 2016-17, implicit taxes of Rs 45 lakh crore were levied on Indian farmers, amounting to Rs 2 lakh 65 thousand crore per annum. Out of the 52 countries for which the study was conducted, India was found to have the highest taxes on farmers.
An important aspect which the farmers’ struggle should address is land reforms in favour of the poor and resource-poor agricultural labourers. Surplus land should be identified on the basis of the ceiling fixed on land holdings. Surplus land should be distributed among these categories.
Panchayati lands and land in possession of religious places should also be given to these sections. Sikhism teaches us, “The mouth of the poor, the gollak of the Guru”. Doing so will increase productivity, production, employment and income, and will also reduce social bitterness.
Meanwhile, the example of Dalit workers in Punjab and landless women in Kerala needs to be emulated. They have paved the way for a new agricultural model through cooperative farming in order to alleviate many of the socio-economic problems of farmers, especially marginal and small ones.
Setting up such cooperatives across the country will not only help meet the machinery and financial needs, but also to set up cooperatively-owned small-scale industrial units of farmers, agricultural labourers and rural small artisans for processing agricultural commodities. This would help value-addition, increase employment and protect the interests of the consumers by offering agricultural commodities at a reasonable price.
The article first appeared in Counterview: Twin messages of farmers’ struggle: Uphold federalism, revamp economic ‘model’ on December 21, 2020
About the author
Dr Giani Singh is Former professor, department of economics, Punjabi University, Patiala