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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Farmer-mother with 3 kids to Arhtiya Boss: a growing coalition of fears and anxieties

Concerns about the three farm laws, grounded in what they see and hear, and drawing from their own struggles and experience, are expressed most insistently by the smaller farmers.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Amritsar, Ludhiana | Updated: December 24, 2020 5:54:17 pm
Amid stir, subsidy to Punjab farmers, MSP bill in focusWomen family members of farmers protesting in Delhi, work in fields in their absence, at Daun Kalan village, in Patiala. (PTI file photo)

Jasbir Kaur, 37, is a farmer with seven acres in Chohan village off the Jalandhar-Amritsar GT Road. She grows wheat and rice, potatoes and peas. The first two are picked up by the government procurement agencies at the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and she sells the latter two crops to private traders.

While the wheat and rice rates are at least “pucca” (predictable), she says, there is high fluctuation in the prices of non-MSP crops. “Tukka chalda hai… jaise jua(it is a gamble, a roll of the dice)”. One month ago, peas were Rs 102 a kg in the market, today she sells them to the trader at Rs 13-Rs 14 a kg.

You get good prices if you stay ahead, but there are more lows than highs, no guarantee of recovering even input costs, and price fluctuation is mostly a plunge, rarely a spike. On the other side, the rates of khaad, beej, spray (fertilisers, seeds, other inputs) only rise.

She would have gone to sit at Delhi’s borders, says Jasbir, but she will let the protesters gathered there speak for her, “they are sitting there in the cold for all of us, not just for themselves”.

She is held back by her circumstances. Her husband is unable to speak or hear, and after the death of her father-in-law and brother-in-law, she is the provider for her family of six which includes her mother-in-law and three school-going children.

“The farm laws are Modi’s mann ki baat, not ours”, says Jasbir. “Bigger private players will give us good prices for the first one or two years, and then … If Modi is worried about me, he should give more jobs here first.”

Jasbir fears for her older daughter Anureet, who has just completed Class 12, and son Jashanpreet, 16 — both study in the more expensive private school because it is English-medium.

They will take the IELTS, she says with an air of resignation — the IELTS, prominently advertised on hoardings in the Doaba-Majha region, which also teems with IELTS centres, is a popular English language proficiency test for international study and migration. Australia is, more and more, a favoured destination from Punjab.

“Many young people from this village have settled abroad in Canada and the US. I don’t want my children to do kisani (farming), aithe kujh nahi rakheya, there’s nothing in it for them. I don’t want them to go so far away from home either. But do I have a choice? There is no sarkari naukri or any other jobs here… The young in my village and surrounding areas have become drug addicts… Dar lagda hai, malik bacha ke rakhe(may god keep my children safe)”, she says.

Jasbir’s fear of being left alone to strike unequal bargains with large and powerful corporates, bigger than the traders she already deals with and is often exploited by, her anxieties about jobs and her children’s future, her lack of alternatives, are real. And they have gathered around the new laws that the government is seen to be pushing through and which the protesters at Delhi’s borders are resisting.

Similar anxieties and fears, which need to be engaged with, if not countered or addressed, echo as a refrain in conversations with several farmers across the state.

You hear them most in Malwa, the largest farming belt with 14 of Punjab’s 22 districts, home to a majority of the small and marginal farmers (land holdings of 1 to 5 acres), rampant farm debt and above 90 per cent of its farmer suicides.

Here, concerns about the three farm laws, grounded in what they see and hear, and drawing from their own struggles and experience, are expressed most insistently by the smaller farmers.

Many cite what they call the example of “Jio-BSNL” to illustrate their suspicion that “Ambani-Adani”, large corporates with deep pockets, will take advantage of the opening up. They will pay well for the initial couple of years, their story goes, only to withhold later, leaving farmers nowhere else to go — the sarkari mandi would have withered away due to neglect.

The reference is to the disruption of the telecom market by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm by launching low-cost 4G services, driving tariffs low, its subsequent hiking of rates and growing dominance — even as the government-owned BSNL, already in a downward spiral, went further into decline.

Many cite their own experience with the non-MSP, non-wheat-rice crops that they already sell to private players and traders, on which they are unable to recover input costs. Or which are bought dirt cheap from them and sold by the trader for a huge profit.

Basmati, purchased from the farmer last year at Rs 3,000 per quintal but this year at Rs 1,700. Cauliflower bought from the farmer at Rs 5/kg sold in the market at Rs 50/kg. Potato bought last year at Re 1/kg sold at Rs 50-60/kg.

They point to UP and Bihar. Bihar revoked the APMC Act in 2006, but fell visibly short of the stated goal of attracting private sector investment in marketing infrastructure, and creating more efficient markets for better price discovery — rice in Bihar sells at less than half the Punjab MSP.

In village Kotra Lehal, in Sangrur district, from where a fresh trolley-load of men and provisions is leaving for the protest site at Delhi’s border, Gurtej Singh says, “We see rice shellers from here go to buy rice at lower rates in UP-Bihar and make a killing by selling it here in Punjab — upto Rs 2 lakh per truck, even after accounting for transport costs.”

And Sandeep, whose husband has just come back from the Delhi border protests after a week, says: “Farmers who have land of their own in UP-Bihar come to work as labourers on the wheat and rice fields of smaller farmers like us in Punjab. Now they are saying to us, we came here, but where will you go?”

Her husband Bahadur Singh articulates another anxiety: “If the factories come, like some are promising, the machines will work, or the highly educated, not people like us”. Till recently, not many in this village studied beyond Class 12.

The government is seen not just to be unresponsive to these anxieties and fears about what is, and what might change for the worse, but also in a tearing hurry to brush these aside and bring in the new laws.

Reform the flaws of the existing procurement system first, says Amarinder Singh, who has an agro-processing centre on his farm in village Lakhowal. “First address its corruptions, explore more export options. Then bring alternatives to us. Show us a successful pilot experiment, where farmers have benefited from similar changes in the marketing system”, he says.

Baljit Singh in Kotra Lehal points to the growing sense of dissonance and disconnect: “It is like we have fever and you insist on giving us medicine for stomach pain”.

For now, on the new laws, the farmers, farm labourers and commission agents or arhtiyas are largely speaking in the same voice. The perceived threat posed to the existing marketing regime is not just papering over their discontents with the old system, but also relegating the differences and conflicting interests within and between these three groups.

The arhtiya gives timely loans in an emergency, without asking them, like the bank, to mortgage their land, say farmers — they gloss over the extortionate rates of interest that he also charges.

In this agitation, the arhtiya has been accused of instigating the farmer, using him as a front. His substantial commission, protected in the government mandi, may not be assured in the new regime that promises to do away with “bicholia” or middlemen.

At Khanna mandi, the largest grain market in Punjab, Harbans Singh Rosha, president of the Khanna association and vice president of the state association of arhtiyas, says that commission agents are supporting the farmers’ agitation, not driving it. “Our association has set up a separate tent at the Singhu border, but we have not contributed any money — in fact, when we offered money, farmers refused it.”

For the arhtiyas, too, it is a larger fear. For them, it is not simply about the end of a lucrative commission, but about a larger waning — they are part of a mandi regime that sustains small allied armies of pre-computer age munims (accountants) and unskilled labourers. It is about losing a way of life.

“Already, you will not find anyone below the age of 50 in our profession. Our children do not want to do this work. Like the small farmer, the small arhtiya will also be finished when the big players come in”, says Rosha.

From the vulnerable young mother and farmer in Chohan, Jasbir Kaur, to Rosha, stodgy upholder of an older way in the mandi — the new farm laws are bringing together unlikely partners, forging new bonds of insecurity.

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