Why this farm stir demands a different approach on MSP

Every farmer wants to get a better price for his produce and for this the MSP is necessary—this belief has made the appeal of the MSP issue universal.
Tractor trolleys parked at Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border as farmers continue their 'Delhi Chalo' march, near Patiala, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
Tractor trolleys parked at Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border as farmers continue their 'Delhi Chalo' march, near Patiala, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024. PTI

Farmers are once again demanding a minimum support price (MSP) guarantee for crops. We need to see how this agitation is different from the previous agitation of November 2020 to December 2021 on the borders of Delhi. The main demand of the previous agitation was the withdrawal of three farm laws proposed by the central government; a legal guarantee of MSP was an additional demand.

On the farm laws, the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh were apprehensive that provisions such as government procurement, the mandi system under the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act, and contract farming could affect them. Therefore, at that time, the farmers of these states were more involved with the main issue because they were getting the benefits of the mandi and procurement systems.

The farmers in Bihar, where there are no APMC mandis, and of eastern and central Uttar Pradesh, who do not get much benefit from APMC mandis, did not feel connected to the issue of farm laws. But every farmer wants to get a better price for his produce and for this the MSP is necessary—this belief has made the appeal of the MSP issue universal. Due to this, this farmer movement of 2024 has the possibility of gaining traction across the country.

I got a hint of this when I met about 600 farmers across five states last year. Low crop prices and increasing difficulties for rural families were their common pain. We interacted with farmers and rural citizens in Jodhpur in Rajasthan, Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, Bhubaneswar in Odisha, Shillong in Meghalaya and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. These meetings took place over a period of six months, about one and a half years after the farmers’ movement on the Delhi borders.

Tractor trolleys parked at Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border as farmers continue their 'Delhi Chalo' march, near Patiala, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
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It became clear that the difficulties people living on agriculture are facing is increasing. They see the solution in the form of better prices for their crops. Farmers in every corner of the country not only want MSP for their crops, but also its guarantee. The march to Delhi started again about three months later. Two not-so-prominent unions from Punjab are now succeeding in creating a movement whose echo is being heard across the country.

In December 2021, when farmer organisations returned from the borders of Delhi, in a letter written by Union Agriculture Secretary Sanjay Aggarwal to the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), it was said that the government will form a committee to find a solution to the MSP issue. In July 2022, a committee of about 40 members was formed under Aggarwal’s chairmanship. But its terms of reference, along with MSP, included topics like the functioning of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, and natural and organic farming. Three SKM representatives were given a place in the committee but the SKM did not accept it and did not join the committee. The committee’s report has not come yet, which seems to have proven true the apprehensions of the farmers, who have been calling the committee a formality. The government probably did not realise that the MSP issue was not going to go away.

Farmers’ incomes across the country is either very low or is decreasing. In the states with the best crop yields, productivity has become stagnant while the cost of production is increasing. We can say that the incremental return on farmers’ investment has decreased. Due to division of land holdings over the last four decades, their income has declined and this is adversely affecting their standard of living. The economic gap between the urban middle class and the rural population has widened. Meanwhile, the flow of information has increased the aspirations of rural families. Whatever governments may claim, individual expenditure on education and health has increased, while the condition of public facilities in these sectors has deteriorated. Due to the lack of quality education, employment opportunities for farming families in sectors other than agriculture have decreased.

Tractor trolleys parked at Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border as farmers continue their 'Delhi Chalo' march, near Patiala, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
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In such a situation, MSP has a universal appeal because it is directly linked to the livelihood of farmers. The farmer wants to get rid of the increased uncertainty on production and prices. Whether he is a farmer of wheat, paddy, sugarcane or potato, onion and coconut, every farmer wants a better and stable price for his crop. Here, we should change our perspective and think that India is a country with 140 crore people. It is not a country like New Zealand or Chile, where agriculture is considered a business and a means of earning foreign exchange.

We need food for the large population, which we cannot meet through imports. We should look at agricultural production as a strategic sector, considering it as a means of food security. There are 14 crore land holdings in the country and the betterment of the people associated with them should be our priority. We should understand this from a country like the US, which takes every possible step for the betterment of 20 lakh farmers because it does not want to depend on food imports.

Our consumers should also change their mindset. They will have to think that farmers fill their stomachs, and for that, they should get better prices. Instead of consumer-versus-farmer, they should think of the problem when they get potatoes at Rs 12 a kg and onions at Rs 15.

Tractor trolleys parked at Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border as farmers continue their 'Delhi Chalo' march, near Patiala, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
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There is an example for those who consider the MSP guarantee system impractical. The central government decides the fair and remunerative price for sugarcane and there is a statutory provision to pay the farmers within 14 days of supplying the sugarcane to mills. About 75 percent of the country’s sugarcane production goes to mills, a system that has been going on for almost seven decades. Not only this, the government has fixed the MSP for sugar and no mill can sell sugar at a lower price. If this system can work, why can’t the MSP guarantee be implemented?

The government can decide the method of MSP guarantee. The central government is in favour of the Bhavantar yojana. NITI Aayog is in favour of this. If a farmer has to sell at a price lower than the MSP, then the government can directly pay the difference to the farmer. This was implemented in Madhya Pradesh during the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. If there is any problem in implementation, the government can rectify it. Instead of why MSP, the government will have to think about how to guarantee MSP.

MSP guarantee is the demand of all farmer unions. If they do not participate in the movement, their credibility will be affected. So, if no solution is found to the current demands, more farmer organisations may gradually join this agitation. There is also the matter of the Lok Sabha elections. It would be better to find a solution now; otherwise the MSP issue will keep coming up again and again.

Harvir Singh

Editor in Chief, Rural Voice

Tractor trolleys parked at Punjab-Haryana Shambhu border as farmers continue their 'Delhi Chalo' march, near Patiala, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.
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