Seven decades after India won independence from British colonial rule, the largest section of our population — farmers — remains bound by chains of laws and regulations.
As voting for the 17th Lok Sabha election approaches, this is a plea to every citizen to hear and heed. At stake is not just the future of farmers, but the future India.
Between 1950 and now, India’s population increased four times, while its foodgrain production increased nearly six-fold. The country is also projected to become the world’s third largest economy by 2030, with its GDP more than doubling from $ 2.8 trillion now. However, the contribution of agriculture to GDP has fallen to around 15 per cent and will continue to shrink, even as the sector continues to support almost 50 per cent of the population.
Despite the success of Indian agriculture in feeding our population, most farmers have remained impoverished. Agrarian distress has become a permanent feature, with over 40 farmers committing suicide daily on an average over the past decade.
All aspects of farming — land, seeds and other inputs to outputs — are today controlled by a maze of laws and regulations. Likewise, farmers’ access to markets and new technologies are all limited, restricted or even prohibited. Farmers can neither quit agriculture nor can they find alternative means of livelihood, given the poor quality of education and health services in rural areas, and lack of economic opportunities in non-farm sectors.
Assault on assets
The most recent assault on assets of farmers has come from vigilantes claiming to be protectors of the cow. As a result of their intimidation and violence, a significant part of the rural economy has been wrecked, leading to sharp decline in trade in livestock. Forced to abandon their cattle, many farmers are spending sleepless nights protecting their crop from these very animals.
Land is the farmer’s principal asset. While every other player in the economy seeks to grow his/her assets by investing and making them more productive and therefore valuable, farmers are penalised when they seek to do the same. There is the ubiquitous threat of land acquisition permanently hanging over farmers. Nor can they freely sell land except to other farmers. Those farmers who want to buy land cannot do so without falling foul of land ceiling laws. Most states do not allow them to even legally rent or lease land.
The abysmal state of land records has, moreover, prevented any real market for the farmer’s principal asset from developing. Such a functioning market is critical to ensure capitalisation, access to credit and optimisation of land use. The manifold restrictions and absence of a meaningful market have created enormous artificial scarcity of land. Consequently, land and real estate have become the single biggest source of corruption and patronage, as well as a receptacle for unaccounted wealth.
Market and trade
Open and competitive markets based on recognition and respect for property rights and the freedom to trade are prerequisites for any growing economy. Yet, our farmers are restricted in terms of where, how and at what price they can sell their produce. All these restrictions are forms of violation of their property rights.
The Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis, which were supposed to ensure a fair price to farmers and protect them from exploitation by middlemen, have, instead, conferred legal monopoly power for a select set of licensed traders.
Similarly, stockholding and price controls under the Essential Commodities Act have contributed to frequent and wild fluctuations in prices of farm produce. Such draconian restrictions of trade have also deterred investment in storage, logistics and processing of produce.
Access to technology
With the widespread adoption of genetically modified (GM) cotton over the past decade, India has emerged as the world’s biggest producer and second largest exporter of the fibre. Rather than celebrating this achievement, the government’s indecision on biotechnology has resulted in Indian farmers getting stuck with second-generation technology that is losing efficacy by the day. This, even as farmers in other countries are harvesting the benefits of fourth and fifth-generation GM cotton.
Thirty years ago, the information technology revolution almost bypassed India due to short-sighted government policies. Now, the same mistakes are being repeated to stifle agricultural biotechnology and deny our farmers access to the same.
A manifesto for freedom
This call for freedom is premised on the logic of three fundamental policy objectives, which integrate the much-needed reforms in the above areas into a coherent plan of action:
* Nyaybandi — Enslaved by laws, farmers are wallowing in poverty despite the amazing success of Indian agriculture in taking the country forward from famines to feasts in fifty years. Nyaybandi calls for dismantling the maze of laws and regulations that have chained farmers to poverty and, therefore, securing justice for them.
* Dhan Mukti — Indians are poor while India is rich because Indians are prevented from capitalising on their assets. It’s time to free the farmers to leverage their land and other assets including talents, skills and creativity. Unlocking the assets — Dhan Mukti, in other words — paves the way for farmers to capitalise on assets, facilitating further investments and providing an environment for peace and prosperity.
* Dhan Vapasi — This climate of peace and freedom can only be sustained when the government is restrained and its scope strictly limited to discharge of core functions: maintaining law and order and delivering justice. This calls for liquidating and returning to the people the assets (Dhan Vapasi) that the government has extracted from them over the years by abusing its power of eminent domain and curtailing their property rights.
There is not a single society that has prospered by keeping its farmers in chains. India lives in its villages, said Gandhi, as he reached out to the millions of farmers who joined the struggle for independence.
On the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, this manifesto calls to secure freedom and justice for farmers in Bharat today, thereby ensuring peace and prosperity for India tomorrow.
The author is the founder and director of the Liberty Institute, a New Delhi-based public policy research and advocacy organisation