The surprise Gurpurab announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the 3 contentious farm laws would be repealed in the coming winter session of Parliament was designed to take the wind out of the sails of the Opposition ahead of the state elections. Some called it a ‘masterstroke’! Most expected the farmers will pack up from Delhi’s borders and head home.
On the ground, things are different. As the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) celebrates its one year of struggle against the farm laws, the movement of tractors and rustic folk is in the direction of Delhi, not away from it.
Farmers leader Rakesh Tikait, speaking at Hyderabad, made it clear that now that they had the nation’s attention, the protestors wouldn’t budge till their other important demands, like a MSP law, are met. What he’s saying is: we’ll keep the fires burning till the elections early next year. Makes sense: With the repeal of the laws, why should they let the advantage pass to the BJP?
The continuing farmers’ protests will now have two important goals: getting the government to agree to the residual but important outstanding demands; and to bring the spotlight on the plight of the rural economy.
Among the most important demands they are pushing is a law recognising MSP. Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a mechanism accepted by the government since the 1970s to ensure that paddy and wheat farmers are protected against a sharp fall in market prices. This is an accepted policy, and the government says it is committed to implement it. Then why is there hesitation in backing it by legal legislation?
The fear of the government, expressed in affidavits it has filed, is that if there is a law recognising MSP, it will distort free trade. The farmers, on the other hand, are suspicious that the provision can be withdrawn anytime, since there are no legal guarantees.
Another important demand is the withdrawal of the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2021. Farmers feel it is structured to end the subsidised power tariff. Any rise in power tariffs at this stage, when farm product prices do not even cover the cost of production, will be disastrous.
Besides hard demands, the farmers are also seeking honour. As many as 670 of their comrades have died at the barricades, and the tapasiya of empty words is not enough. The hurt of 5 protestors being mowed down at Lakhimpur Kheri by a cavalcade of goons belonging to minister Ajay kumar Mishra Teni is also festering. His son has been arrested after the apex court intervened. To allow the law to take its own course, it is imperative MoS Ajay kumar Mishra step down. But it is business as usual as the minister does his rounds of ribbon-cutting in Lakhimpur Kheri. This would not be acceptable in any other civilized society.
Bharat versus India
Beyond immediate demands, the most important spin-off from the one-year long protests is to bring rural India back in focus. For instance, there is again talk of the Swaminathan Committee. To better the rural economy, the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) was formed in 2004 under the chairmanship of agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan. The committee submitted five reports between the year 2004 and 2006, suggesting measures to enhance productivity, profitability, and sustainability of farming in India.
While both the UPA and the BJP governments have claimed they have implemented the over 200 recommendations, the ground reality is different. The distress in agriculture continues. Small farm plots are not sustainable, and there is poor technology transfer and access to rural credit. Result: migration of farmers to urban jobs continues unabated showing how little of the Swaminathan report has been actually implemented.
The protests have also brought to the fore the ‘India versus Bharat’ debate on the question of unremunerative farm produce first sparked in the 1970s by Sharad Joshi. The leader of the Shetkari Sanghatna, who led agitations of onion farmers in his home area of Chakan, near Pune, had demonstrated with real math that urban ‘India’ exploited rural ‘Bharat’ by deliberately suppressing the prices of farm produce. This benefited industry and the service sector who managed to keep wages low and living conditions for workers cheap.
Layers of middlemen profited, but the poor farmer cannot even claim the cost of his inputs and labour from his agricultural produce. This in turn has led to the ‘survival economics’ of subsidies where fertilizer, power, credit and water are being supplied at below-cost for years. When the whole rural economy works on dole, there is no profit, and no growth.
Unfortunately, from this point on, Sharad Joshi advocated the ‘free’ market of classic capitalism. Something which does not exist. He proposed dismantling of government procurement and the ‘freedom’ to sell to whomever and wherever to fetch better rates for farmers. Anil Ghanwat, a Shetkari Sanghatna leader and a member of the Supreme Court-appointed committee to review the farm laws, is currently advocating the same. They have not weighed that a ‘free’ market might just lead farmers into further penury and into the hands of corporate cabals who have the purchasing and warehousing power.
Hopefully the refreshed debates and continuing protests will trigger new thinking and new policies that will go beyond vote-bank politics and tackle the poverty and stagnation of our rural economy.