The country is going through an extremely sensitive and troubled period with 70 per cent of its population, the farmers, out on the streets, agitating against the Centre’s decision to amend the laws with regard to the marketing of farm produce. On the face of it, the issue relates to the continuance of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime for certain crops. But, in fact, the implications of the Centre’s new legislation go much deeper and wider. At stake is the entire system of “Assured Procurement” by government of India agencies such as the Food Corporation of India.
On its part, the government has sought to address apprehensions of the farmers by declaring that it has no intention of discontinuing or diluting either the practice of the MSP or of the assured procurement of farmers’ key crops by government agencies. So what then sets the government and the farmers on a collision course? What, after all, is so critically important because of which one of the longest-standing allies of the BJP and a key founding member of the NDA has first had to plead with the government to listen to the farmers and later to quit the government through the resignation of its sole representative in the Union Cabinet, Harsimrat Kaur Badal?
All along, the SAD tried all it could as a responsible constituent of the NDA and as a representative predominantly of the farmers to act as a bridge between the two. I had a long exchange of views with organisations of the farmers in Punjab and offered to accompany them anywhere they wanted me to go to argue their cause. I pleaded with the government to insert constitutional and legislative guarantees in the bills as commitment to the farmers about the continuance of official procurement at the MSP.
The government, first verbally and later in writing, gave assurances to this effect. But it refused to incorporate these guarantees into the Acts. The farmers were not willing to buy any assurances of the government short of legislative clauses. As a party predominantly of farmers, the SAD resisted the temptation of playing to the gallery and worked quietly towards a solution acceptable to both sides.
But finally, finding that there was no sympathetic ear in the government either to the millions of toiling farmers or to earnest and passionate pleas of one of its own key allies, the SAD, to save the farmers, our party decided to pull out of the government. The SAD could not be a party to anything which in its view had the potential of destroying the already beleaguered peasantry in the country, especially in Punjab.
Punjab forms close to 2 per cent of the area and population of the country. And yet its farmers have always contributed the bulk of foodgrain, often exceeding 50 per cent of the national granary. There was a time when the country faced not just famines but also international ignominy as our prime ministers had to go around the world capitals with a begging bowl in hand. Late PM, Lal Bahadur Shastri ji then gave a clarion call to Punjab farmers to come to the rescue of the country: Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan. The farmers of Punjab responded with the Green Revolution which transformed India from a nation of food shortages to a food surplus and food exporting country — all in a matter of just six to seven years.
The farmers, especially from Punjab, came to the rescue of the nation when the nation’s survival was in danger. Now, the farmer’s own existence is in danger. Now, it is the nation’s turn to come to his rescue. Farmers’ incomes have shrunk dramatically even as there has been an exponential increase in the price of farm inputs and no comparable rise in the price of produce. All this has led to the shocking spectre of farmers’ suicides across the country. This should stir the conscience of the nation.
But the three bills reveal an inexplicable insensitivity and ingratitude towards the farmers.
This legislation throws the market for farmers’ crops open to the private sector and the big corporate sharks are eyeing with greed the fruit of farmers’ sweat and toil. The bills create two sets of laws — one for the state procurement agencies where taxes like the Rural Development Fund, market fees etc cut into the actual price which the farmer gets. But the reward for that is that the farmer does not have to worry about the sale of his crops at the Minimum Support Price. Punjab has created one of the best networks of agricultural marketing infrastructure in the world. This ensures that the farmer does not have to go far to sell his crop, protecting him against uncertainties of the market as well as reducing his expenses.
But under the present laws, the private buyer will not have to pay any taxes to the government. Consequently, he can afford to lure the farmer with offers of a higher per quintal price. And as a part of their marketing strategy, big corporate sharks will initially offer prices considerably higher than the official MSP. The simple hearted farmer will fall for the bait and this would look good for the first few years. But the net result would be that this would decimate the existing marketing regime and the farmer would be finally thrown entirely at the mercy of the private sharks. There will be no one then to save the farmers from these sharks.
We saw this strategy employed by Jio mobile phones. It was virtually free at the start. But once corporates kill competition and monopolise the market, then they have the consumer eating out of their hand. Then, the prices are hiked at corporates’ own sweet will. This is called the tyranny of private monopoly. This is what the farmer, especially in Punjab, is up against. But he won’t be alone in this fight.
The SAD has a history of making sacrifices in defence of the toiling and beleaguered farmers. It has a legacy to live up to.
We have approached the honourable President of India, requesting him to return these bills to Parliament for reconsideration. We still hope that the government will not stand on prestige and will refer the bills to a Select Committee which would then take the stake-holders — the farmers — on board.
If that doesn’t happen, the SAD will uphold its legacy of standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers. But in the interest of our country, we still hope that the government would agree to withdraw these bills and reintroduce them in amended form.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 24, 2020 under the title ‘Bills of ingratitude’. The writer is President, Shiromani Akali Dal