Among the four members of the committee appointed by the Supreme Court for the “purpose of listening to the grievances of farmers relating to the farm laws and views of the government to make recommendations”, is Anil Ghanwat, president of the Shetkari Sanghatana, the Maharashtra-based farmers’ union founded by the legendary Sharad Joshi.
With the farmers’ protest raging on the borders of Delhi, members of the Sanghatana, along with representatives of some other farmers’ unions, met Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar last month to express support for the three farm laws.
Who was Sharad Joshi and what was his vision for the Shetkari Sanghatana?
Before he took up farmers’ issues, Joshi, an economist by training, worked for the United Nations in Switzerland. After returning to the country, he purchased land near the now-industrial belt of Chakan in Khed taluka of Pune district and became a full-time farmer. In 1979, he led a group of farmers to block the Pune-Nashik highway to press for higher prices for onion. The genesis of the Shetkari Sanghatana lies in this movement, which saw onion growers dumping their produce on the highway to underline their demand.
Joshi believed that unless the problems of Bharat (meaning rural India) were raised forcefully in India (a reference to cities and urban areas), farmers would never receive justice. His agitations were, therefore, invariably staged in the urban areas, and were calculated to impact urban life. Protesters often gathered on highways or railway tracks to press for better prices of sugarcane, or the removal of state monopoly in the procurement of cotton.
Since its inception, the Shetkari Sanghatana has been vocal about getting access to the market. Joshi was convinced that the root cause of farmers’ problems lay in their limited access to the market. Markets, Joshi would say, should be open and competitive to allow price realisation for farm produce. He accused governments of intentionally deflating the prices of farm produce to ensure that consumers get them cheap.
Joshi and his hugely popular Sanghatana hit the street to demand removal of zone limits on sugarcane farmers, or the ban on inter-state movement of cotton. Back in 1984, Joshi had declared war on the Maharashtra State Cooperative Cotton Marketing Federation’s monopoly on the procurement of cotton. The federation was then the only buyer of cotton, and farmers had to line up for days together to sell their crop. There were allegations of nepotism and corruption. Joshi and his supporters went to the borders of Maharashtra with their cotton in open violation of government rules. The agitation was successful, and the government was forced to retract the law against the inter-state movement of cotton.
Joshi was the only one among India’s three big farm leaders at the time — the other two were Mahendra Singh Tikait of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and M D Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha — who supported globalisation and the entry of MNCs in agriculture. When the followers of Tikait and Nanjundaswamy were torching outlets of American fast food giants, Joshi and his supporters took out marches in support of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Joshi welcomed India’s joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995.
It was his conviction about open markets that led Joshi to oppose the chain of Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). He felt these cooperative markets were an impediment towards honest price realisation for farmers. While other farm leaders demanded government subsidies, Joshi talked about open markets.
And who is Anil Ghanwat, and what position has the Sanghatana under him taken on the ongoing crisis?
The 61-year-old Anil Ghanwat is known to take stances which at times go against the popular flow of farmers’ movements in Maharashtra.
Thus, when the majority of the farmers’ movement came out in support of the Punjab and Haryana farmers’ demand for repeal of the three farm laws, Ghanwat, who is the president of Shetkari Sanghatana, welcomed the move and threatened to hit the streets if they were repealed. Ghanwat said his decision was based on the ideological position for which Joshi had stood.
An agriculture graduate, Ghanwat has been associated with the Sanghatana since the 1990s. A trusted lieutenant of Joshi’s, Ghanwat accompanied the late leader in the various movements and protests organised by him. Like Joshi, Ghanwat has been a strong supporter of liberalisation and open-market policies in agriculture.
Asked about his decision to support the three farm laws, Ghanwant had told The Indian Express earlier that they were the first steps towards financial freedom for farmers.
Along with the open market, Ghanwat and his organisation has been a strong supporter of GM technology in agriculture. Thus, in 2018, Ghanwat had led a crowd of over 1,000 farmers to defy the law and sow the unauthorized HT Bt cotton in Akola for which an FIR was lodged against them.
Support for the open market being part of its DNA, the Sanghatana was one of the first bodies to come out in support of the farm reforms announced by the central government.
Of the three new laws, The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 received the most support from the union. According to Ghanwat, the law restricts the power of the APMCs to regulate agricultural trade within its four walls, and allows for actual free markets to operate for the farmers.
The present system prevents farmers from getting better prices, Ghanwat has said. “Just a handful of traders control the auctions. Now with the markets opening up, we hope newer traders will enter the trade. This will help fair competition.” According to Ghanwat, as a result of the changes, investments will be made in cold stores and warehouses in the rural areas.
Ghanwat has claimed that the opposition to the new laws has come only from farmers in Punjab and Haryana, and that just these two states could not hold the farmers of other states to ransom. Citing the example of Maharashtra, Ghanwat has said this would allow non-mandi trade to grow, and thus help farmers to have a choice of markets.
“We have long held that the monopoly of mandis in agricultural trade is unhealthy, and has to go. Just because the Food Corporation of India (FCI) has a well-oiled system of procurement in Punjab and Haryana, it does not mean that other states have the same. For a farmer in Maharashtra, such procurement does not exist — and the mandis are the only market open for them. If private players are allowed to procure freely from outside the mandis, it will only help in better realization for farmers,” he had told The Indian Express earlier.
On the Sanghatana’s meeting with the Union Agriculture Minister to express opposition to any steps to dilute or repeal the laws, Ghanwat had said this was the “first time in the last 40 years” that farmers have a chance at benefitting from the open market.
“If under pressure from farmers in just two states the central government takes the decision to repeal the Act, it would mean the end of the road for this (initiative).” No popular government would ever try again to provide a free market to farmers, he had said.