“We are trapped.”
In three words, Sarabjit Singh captures the crisis that has come to grip farmers in Punjab, an otherwise frontrunner state in terms of farm productivity and income. And with the promulgation of the three farm ordinances, anguish has morphed into fear, drawing thousands of farmers, largely the Jat Sikh peasantry, to the capital’s borders.
“We don’t grow rice and paddy out of any special love for these crops. We grow these as they bring a semblance of security that we will not be shortchanged,” Sarabjit, who co-owns seven acres of land with his brother in the Fatehgarh Sahib district, said.
The socio-economic composition of the farmers railing against the legislations is in line with Punjab’s land holding patterns. According to agriculture census 2015-16 data, 33.1 per cent land holdings in Punjab are small and marginal (less than 1 hectare to 2 hectares), while 33.6 per cent are classified as semi-medium (2-4 hectares). One hectare equals about 2.5 acres.
And so, the capital finds at its doorstep farmers who are not in complete penury or demanding loan waivers. These are instead farmers largely managing break even, but fearful of changes in the prevailing arrangements owing to past experiences.
“A multinational chips company signed a contract promising to procure potato at Rs 10 per kilo. The promise was broken within a year, with the company paying Rs 4 per kilo. And a year later, as potato prices crashed, they chose to buy potato from the market at much lower prices. Today I am in debt. Farmers don’t break their agreements, the corporates do,” said Gurmail Singh, also a resident of Fatehgarh Sahib district, indicating the apprehension that contract farming, which the new laws aims to encourage, bring.
The 65-year-old, whose two sons are also into farming, said rice produce per acre stands at around 20-25 quintals, while the MSP was fixed at Rs 1,888 per quintal. He owns four acres of land. “After taking into account the finishing cost at the mandi, the payment per quintal comes to around Rs 1,850,” he said, pointing out that the rise in MSP can help farmers break-even, not make any profit.
The stagnant income of Punjab farmers has also been attributed to the absence of a diversified crop pattern and overdependence on paddy and wheat production.
Farmers point out that they hesitate to shift to other forms of cultivation due to a number of factors: Assured income that paddy and rice bring; the uncertainty attached to other crops and the lack of MSP cover on them; the past record of corporates often going back on their word.
“The mandi system in Punjab is very robust. That helps the farmers stay afloat. There is MSP on makki as well but no one gets that. Promise MSP on other crops and farmers will grow that as well. The entire system is such that we find ourselves trapped,” said Sarabjit Singh, his words seconded by Jasbir Kaur from Patiala, part of a contingent of women farmers who have started trickling in steadily.
The sentiment against corporates and multinationals runs across farmers both affiliated and unaffiliated to unions, largely owing to their lived experiences.
Said Karnail Singh from Patiala, “Take full cream milk for example. We sell it to companies much below the market rate of Rs 55 per kilo. This implies that the companies are spending a large sum in processing that milk. Check their records and see if that is true. We are being cheated at every step.”
Gurvinder Singh, who’s pursuing a PhD in Punjabi literature from Patiala University, underlined how the state has families without any source of income other than farming. “From whatever they earn, families also need to cover the cost of employing labourers, educating children, marrying off daughters, healthcare. In some cases, they need to pay for diesel as well. What about our own labour value? Farming is also sheer physical labour that people, who complain that we do not pay income tax, cannot even imagine,” he said.
Jeet Singh, who travelled from Hasanpur Khurd to Singhu border, said outsiders are often dismissive of the arthiyas, unaware of the traditional ties that this community has been sharing with farmers. “This holds more significance in case of small and marginal farmers and landless labourers. In the zeal to push this narrative on exploitation, it is often overlooked how closely the lives of arthiyas and farmers are tied. To give just one example, generations of farmers have been able to marry off their daughters due to timely financial assistance rendered by arthiyas. They readily pay in advance whenever required,” he said.
Jeevan Singh (72), also a resident of Gurdaspur district, said he finds the suggestion that an open market will allow farmers to sell their produce at a better price incredulous. “Do you expect small and marginal farmers to sell their produce in Gujarat? They will not be able to bear even the transportation cost. The new law will weaken the mandis, their biggest safety net. And lifting of the curbs on hoarding will jack up food prices and the poor and the vulnerable will be the worst hit,” he said.
Under one of three new laws — Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020 — the sale and purchase of farm produce outside mandis shall attract no market fee, cess or levy.
“A similar arrangement was implemented in Bihar back in 2006. Today, farmers in Bihar are selling their produce at half the rate as compared to Punjab. Make no mistake, Punjabis are not protesting just because only they will be affected by the new laws. Ye Punjab sirf apna fayda nahi sochta,” Jeevan Singh added.
The young men also take pains to underline how farming, for a vast majority of Punjab, is more than just a livelihood, a sentiment buttressed by the decision of influential Punjabi voices, from the world of entertainment to sports, to stand firmly behind the protesters.
“Punjab ka har parivar kisan parivar hai (every family in Punjab is a family of farmers). And we will unhesitatingly join farming. We take pride in farming. And our fears and apprehensions are rooted in this very pride,” said Harman Singh, a 22-year-old from Gurdaspur district.
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