Why farmers are agitating during the pandemic. Indian farmers had demonstrated that agriculture, the only sector that showed growth when industry and services came to a virtual standstill. Farmers are now on the street and agitating. The government seems to be determined to put it down with heavy hands. If the new farmers’ bill is helping farmers why they have to be on the warpath with the government, explores Rajat K Baisya

Farmers are again on the street and agitating. The government seems to be determined to put it down with heavy hands. In cold winter police force is using water cannon. This itself has created negative sentiment amongst the public. If the new farmers’ bill is helping farmers why they have to be on the warpath with the government? The most productive states in terms of agricultural output are Punjab and Haryana, and we had our industry-friendly Food Processing Minister also from Punjab, the most prosperous state in the country.

According to the Economic Survey 2019-20 released on January 31, 2020, the average real-term growth rate in agriculture and allied sectors has remained stagnant in the last six years at 2.88% from 2014-15 to 2018-19, and estimated growth rate in 2019-20 is also pegged at 2.9% or in other words constant.

The Economic Survey Report 2020 emphasised the importance of sustainable agricultural practices to support small and marginal farmers who constitute 87% of the total farmers’ population. Agricultural productivity is the impact of both soil fertility and efficient irrigation system as well as effective crop management practices. Water-efficient irrigation practices should be incentivised to avert looming water crisis with a clear focus on irrigation water productivity, the survey emphasised. In some of the states in the south and west, the irrigation water efficiency is very low.

Farmers’ dissatisfaction and anger against the central farmers’ bill is simmering since last September. Even some of the BJP ruled states like UP and Haryana could not convince farmers about the benefit of these new bills for them. After failing to garner support from their respective state government, they decided to come to Delhi for agitation. They want either withdraw the new legislation or guarantee them with the minimum support price. Although Govt still maintains that MSP is still not done away with. But the open market policy is intended to withdraw MSP. This demand of the farmers appears to be legitimate as small farmers are having landholding of only 1 to 2 acres, and even they have to buy food grains from the open market.

All successive governments are keen to work for the farmers and commit to increasing their income. And in fact, the BJP government stated to double the farmers’ income, but nothing happened so far. In reality, however, it has not improved in the real term. If farm productivity is not increasing with better crop management practices and more efficient water irrigation system, they have to be protected.

Of late we are seeing a lot of videos uploaded in social media and are doing rounds where we can see farmers talking about the price at which they sold maise in mandis and the price at which they are selling in the open market as well as at organised retail stores. One farmer is holding maise flour packet retailed at Reliance stores at Rs 150 a kg when he has sold his maise at Rs 7 a kg in the grain market. Poor farmers cannot hold on the produce for long and have to sell, and they are therefore likely to be exploited by the large traders and wholesalers in the process.

Govt’s intention that in an open market economy, farmers can check the price ruling in all markets in the country and decide to sell at the highest possible price. This thought is good to hear. But in reality, small farmers cannot manage that process, and they will again invariably become the victim of the wholesalers and large retailers as well as processors. What is required is to create a workable model and then gradually replicate. Till such time the market matures, and both buyers and sellers are balanced, the open market policy will not work. The state government has to come to the farmers’ rescue under the present situation. 

I have been seeing that many are just airing their views that new bills are going to change and improve farmers’ life and income but in reality, it will not happen which farmers themselves have realised, and now they are on the warpath. The farmers collectively have a lot of strength, and eventually, they will emerge successful. Many are also seen to be talking about cooperative farming, but they are not realising that farmers’ cooperatives are not easy to create success. Except for Amul, all milk cooperatives are a failure. Even a successful Amul model could not be replicated so far.

Agricultural marketing cooperatives are also a miserable failure. One of the reasons for their failure, of course, is their deep-rooted corruption. But they did not survive structurally either. If farmers are allowed to get exploited and squeezed, then their plight will be further become more miserable, and no government should allow that to happen. The farmers’ bill thus can be considered as ill-timed even if it was well-intentioned. Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime has to continue till alternative is better than this. Just exposing poor farmers to open market economy is like throwing a herd of goats and lambs in front of tigers to fight it out to survive. It will be an unequal fight as sellers’ power is far lower than buyers’ power and inevitable will happen.

Over 50% of our workforce are still in agriculture. Also, over 50% of our population are dependent on agriculture, and 18% of our GDP is still derived from Agriculture, and therefore it cannot be just pushed aside. It has to be dealt with all seriousness, and Govt should carefully listen to what is the ground reality from the farmers themselves.

Modi Government is facing its first big challenge and that too from farmers. It is the irony that farmers from Punjab are leading that fight. Since farmers’ bill and legislation, train operations came to a grinding halt in many places. Punjab happened to be one of the main beneficiaries of the green revolution of the 1970s that transformed both agriculture and lives of the farmers in the state is now providing leadership of this farmers’ agitation which is taking root of becoming a mass movement. It is an irony that during pandemic Indian farmers had demonstrated that the agriculture, the only sector that showed growth when industry and services came to a virtual standstill and decline, and now they are on the road fighting for their right.

It is now official that the Indian economy is facing a recession after the decline of GDP in two successive quarters. Farmers’ agitation will make things worse for the economy. The government should see this as a danger signal and handle with empathy and justice.

Photo courtesy: Counterview.