In the early 1960s, near-famine conditions prevailed in India and some 10 million tonnes of wheat had to be imported from the US under the PL480 programme. The country’s situation was pejoratively dubbed “ship-to-mouth” existence, as foodgrains arriving via ships were immediately consumed.
In 1963, Norman Borlaug, who headed a wheat-improvement programme at CIMMYT (then the Rockefeller Foundation), in Mexico, was approached by visionaries such as M S Swaminathan to provide seeds of some of his high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties/populations to India. Those seeds were distributed to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI, also called the “Pusa Institute”) in New Delhi and some of the newly created agricultural universities such as the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, and the UP Agricultural University at Pant Nagar. From these, the institutes then selected the wheat populations. The consequent miraculous gains in wheat yield and production ushered in the “Green Revolution.”
Although the Green Revolution occurred due to a confluence of favourable government policies, efforts of agricultural scientists and the adoption of new wheat varieties/selections by farmers, the contributions of farmers of Punjab (Haryana included) stood out. Swaminathan described these farmers’ efforts as: “Brimming with enthusiasm, hard-working, skilled and determined, the Punjab farmer has been the backbone of the revolution. Farmers, young and old, educated and uneducated, have easily taken to the new agronomy.”
By 1974, the industrious farmers of the “food-bowl” states of Punjab, Haryana, and western UP had brought about self-sufficiency in foodgrain production (mainly in wheat and rice — the staple foods of India), ridding the country of the “begging bowl”.
No matter which organisation, policies/rules enacted without taking the affected people on board will surely face resistance. A proactive approach is always better than a reactive one. From the farmers’ standpoint, the ordinances were unfairly promulgated in June 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown, without consulting them. Then the Bills were hurriedly passed during the monsoon session of Parliament. The farmers were already reeling under the ravages of the COVID-19 lockdown. I know first-hand that farmers could not sell their vegetables and fruits because of the lockdown. With the loss of income during the lockdown and the imposition of the new laws, purported to help them, the farmers were hit by a double whammy. The proposition of doubling farmers’ income by 2022 now sounds hollow.
Farmers of the “food-bowl” states have been selling foodgrains (mainly wheat and rice) at Minimum Support Price (MSP) since the mid-1960s. This has helped the central government create a central pool of foodgrains and the Public Distribution System (PDS) to help the poor. However, MSP has not been guaranteed in the newly enacted farm laws, which is the major bone of contention. Some people affiliated with the central government claim such “support” cannot be guaranteed in the laws.
The APMCs (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees) are under threat from the new farm laws. Many experts feel that MSP and APMC go hand-in-hand. This has created uncertainty in the minds of farmers about the continuation of MSP. Even though the central government has indicated that the new farm laws are meant to eliminate the “middlemen” (arhtiyas), farmers feel that a new class of middlemen, that is, lawyers belonging to big companies, with whom they would have to deal in selling their produce, would emerge. Thus, small farmers would be at a distinct disadvantage — more than 80 per cent of farmers own less than five acres of land.
According to the central government, the new laws will ensure contract farming. The farmers fear that big companies might usurp their land and might not pay them an agreed price on the pretext of “poor quality” of produce. They feel that the big companies might become monopolies, and exploit both farmers and consumers. Farmers fear being made into labourers.
MSP has been working just fine since the mid-1960s. There is a saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. So, there is no need to tinker with the MSP. A clause should be added in the law to the effect that no matter who buys the produce (government or a private entity), the farmer must be given a MSP. The National Farmers’ Commission’s recommendation of providing an MSP of 50 per cent over and above a farmer’s input expenses must be implemented.
APMCs should be continued. The fees that “Mandi Boards” collect (for example the Rural Development Fund) have helped build link roads. No private organisation will do this. MSP should be determined on the basis of grain quality. For example, wheat varieties grown in the “food bowl” states contain 11 per cent protein compared to 7 per cent protein grown elsewhere. Thus, the food bowl states deserve a special MSP. The government must promote crop diversification by purchasing crops produced other than wheat and rice at MSP. This could help conserve the dwindling supply of underground water, which is a serious issue in these states.
To encourage farmers to grow high-value crops, such as vegetables and fruits, the government should set up adequate cold-chain infrastructure so that perishable produce can be kept longer and sold at an appropriate time. The farmers’ staying power must be improved so that they don’t have to sell all of their produce immediately after the harvest. Some progressive farmers should be included in the Niti Aayog so that they can share their inputs before new policies/laws affecting them are enacted.
India has produced a number of World Food Laureates, including M S Swaminathan, Gurdev S Khush, Surinder K Vasal, and Rattan Lal. Such intellectuals should be in the “Agricultural Think Tank.” They should be consulted by Niti Aayog. Farmers’ genuine concerns must be addressed as soon as possible so that they can continue producing food and fibre needed for the ever-increasing population. India’s population increases at the rate of 15 million per year. People can survive without many things (including education) but not without food. The slogan — “If you ate today, thank a farmer” — should be promoted.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 19 under the title “MSP ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The writer is former vice-chancellor, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.