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Mainstream, VOL LX No 6, New Delhi, January 29, 2022

Revisiting the Debate on the Repealed Farm Laws - Report of a webinar (April 10, 2021)

Friday 28 January 2022

This is a report of a webinar ’Discussing the Ongoing Framers Movement’ which was organised by Foundation for Creative Social Research, Delhi in collaboration with Society for Scientists and Technologists for a Non-Violent World Order and the Institute of Social Sciences. The Webinar was held in two sessions on 10 April 2021

Session 1: Chair: Uma Shankari, Farmer and Activist | Speakers: T.S Ahuja, Lawyer; Harish Damodaran, Senior Fellow at CPR and distinguished JoThe Indian Express; Arun Kumar, Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor at Institute of Social Sciences

Session 2: Chair: Manjit Singh, Professor, Department of Sociology, Punjab University | Speakers: Devendra Sharma, Food and Trade Policy Analyst and a Distinguished Journalist; Navkiran Natt, Activist; Sudhir K Suthar, Assistant Professor, Centre for political Studies, JNU

After a year-long agitation, the Government of India gave in to the demands of the farmer’s protests that had not only engaged the Indian Subcontinent but the World. It happened on the pious occasion of Guru Parv, the birth anniversary of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak. This article attempts to revisit the debates and discussions on farm laws and how this ’change’ would have fundamentally affected the farming communities. The farmer’s agitation has a strong historical legacy of protest movements in India and has essentially opened up questions of price, capital and market in the backdrop of democratic negotiations.

Satish Jha argued that these new movements foregrounded a new contradiction by raising the issue of sectoral imbalance in the Indian economy due to unfavourable Terms of Trade between agriculture and non-agriculture, leading to exploitation of the entire countryside and the farming community, irrespective of the class location. These farmers’ movements continued unabated till the advent of the New Economic Policies (NEP) of 1991, which transformed the entire discourse. He further remarks that the pandemic provided the opportunity for the government to push through the three farm laws. The farmers’ leaders recognized these as pro-business and anti-farmers and mobilized farmers for the protest movement. A webinar was organised by Foundation for Creative Social Research to understand the debate and nuance of the proposed bill that led to a mass agitation. The participants of the webinar were experts from their respective fields such as, Tajinder Ahuja (Lawyer), Harish Damodaran (National Rural Affairs and Agriculture Editor, Indian Express), Arun Kumar (Economist), Uma Shankari (Farmer and Activist), Manjeet Singh (Professor of Sociology, Punjab University), Devendra Sharma (Food and Trade Policy Analyst), Sudhir Suthar (Assistant Professor, JNU)

Tajinder Ahuja argued that the demand of the government to discuss the farmer’s problem with the bill clause by clause is cumbersome as a poor farmer working on the field might lack the intellectual capacity or expertise to understand and list out the shortcomings of the bill. Moreover, changing one or two clauses is not a plausible solution to the problem. Secondly, as per the trade and commerce bill, farmers are not restricted to sell their produce through the APMC’s (Agricultural Produce Market Committee). Instead, they are free to trade across the country. This provision might look lucrative however, practically for a farmer with small landholdings, poor farmers it is not possible to bear the transportation cost or storage cost of getting their produce to a metropolitan city. Ahuja ascertained that it will only burden an average indebted farmer. Ahuja talks about the third aspect that will affect the farmers, in the long run, which is doing away with MSP, i.e., minimum support price. The new farm laws propose to bring contract farming into practice which in effect means that any buyer can purchase produce at whatever price they want and any seller will have to sell their produce at whatever demand is made or whichever profitable deal they get thereby doing away with the system of MSP’s. Under this new proposal, there are apparent chances of the competitive market coming to the surface. A fourth way the farm laws can affect the farmers, as he points out that the new farm laws will take away the power of adjudication from the civil authorities and transfer it to civil servants. In which case there are obvious chances of increased political involvement in decision making, as we are aware that administrators function under the high and diverse form of political pressure, which can be a matter of concern for the farmers in future. The new law demands removing commodities like onion, pulses, cereals, oilseeds, potatoes etc., from the list of essential items. History has been a witness to the outrage which was caused by the increasing cost of these essential commodities. So, removing them from the list is another invitation to a manufactured havoc situation that will discomfort the farmers and the general public.

There is another perspective with which Ahuja analyses the new farm laws which is from the federal approach. As one is aware, India is a federal country with a strong centre (in a way, a unique system in itself) however states enjoy their share of freedom, but the introduction of farm laws, especially the Trade and commerce bill, shifts power from states to the Centre. Agriculture is a state subject under the seventh schedule of the Indian constitution, which gives states the power to make laws and collect revenue concerning the agricultural sector. However, the trade and commerce bills do not discuss agricultural trade (in practice, however it implies the same), which means it is technically not directly dealing with sowing, harvesting, or agricultural-related aspects. What the law rather pertains to is trade between states. This subject of trade falls in the concurrent list, which gives more power to the Centre to make laws and collect revenue related to the topic. This loose definition of trade under the new rules complicates the states to administer in agricultural matters, thereby indirectly giving control to the Centre.

Harish Damodaran looked at the farm laws from a class perspective as he tends to define the movement from the angle of its composition. One striking argument he made was that the movement is formed and held by the rural middle class. He defines the rural middle class as those peasants or that class of farmers who have gained a little bit of prosperity in the past. They are real farmers who are ready to invest in their farms to produce a surplus that can be sold. This agitation is of those farmers; nevertheless, Damodaran disagrees that it is the rural middle class alone, but the rural middle class is the one who is fighting from the front and representing the entire farming community. He also provides quantitative data of the community as according to him the population of such farmers will be somewhere between 4-5 crores.

It is essential to understand what is causing discomfort to the rural middle class. Damodaran outlines their difficulty with a striking example. He observed that in 1971, the MSP of wheat was Rs. 76 per quintal, 1 gram of 24 carat gold was around Rs.185. If one looks at it this way, with around 2.5 quintals of wheat, one could buy 1 gram of gold, and with 1.6 quintals of wheat, a month’s salary of a government school teacher could be paid. Today, the MSP of wheat is Rs.1975 per quintal, and the gold price is around 42k for 24 carats 1 gram gold. The salary of a government school teacher is about 30,000 a month. Today, one needs 25 quintals of wheat to buy 1 gram of gold and 15 quintals of wheat are required to pay a teacher’s salary, which was 1.6 quintals earlier. There is no parity between a farmer who sells his produce and teacher, journalist, advocates or service sector employees (whom Damodaran considers equivalent to a farmer). This lack of price parity didn’t matter initially during the green revolution. The average wheat yield was 1.1 to 1.2 tons per hectare during the pre-green revolution period, which tripled in 1990 to about 3.7 tons in Punjab. The yields have continued to increase but not at the same rate. You have some excellent yield varieties, but the produce has not shown a drastic increase during the 1990s.

Since the 2000s, the yield has risen minimally and what has happened is yields have not increased either their prices. Still, the cost of production has doubled exponentially; for example, the prices of DAP (Diammonium phosphate), which is a widely used fertilizer after urea, prices have increased between Rs1000-1200 per bag. Not only fertilizer but other resources like electricity, water, pesticide all input costs have gone up, but yields have not risen either price, and this is a witnessed phenomenon across crops, not only wheat or paddy. Therefore, the agitation that we notice today, according to Damodaran, is not new. It is instead a culmination of prolonged struggles faced by the farming community at large. Government has policies in place for poverty alleviation for the welfare of marginal farmers, but it is the rural middle class that has suffered. Hence, they are out demanding what is their right and, they believe, argues Damodaran, that removing one or two clauses from the bill will not benefit. Instead, it is the fundamental law that needs to be made redundant. Continuing from the point, Harish Damodaran spoke about the movement not being new instead emerging as an amalgamation of many small movements existing across the country.

Economist Arun Kumar agreed with the same as he observed that the agitation initiated even before the movement started in Delhi. However, the government did not pay heed to it, but only when the movement started growing at the Centre (Delhi), officials decided to negotiate with the farmers. Government initiated the conversation with the farmers asking to discuss the problems with the bill clause by clause. Still, farmers were not ready to sit for the discussion as they continued demanding a complete rollback. Here, the Indian media was unfair with their presentation, argued Kumar as they tried to project the farmers as the culprit who is not ready for any negotiation, thereby framing the government as the one prepared to take initiatives.

Arun Kumar argued that understanding the farmers’ perspective is vital to know the difference between a market and an agricultural market. He pointed out four significant differences: one, the farm market is affected by rainfall, good rainfall-good produce, imperfect rainfall-bad produce. Second, surplus farming is a problem because with lack of storage and inadequate procurement facilities; many surpluses are wasted, third disguised employment created by the availability of cheap labour, automation, and jobless growth. Lastly, the pricing mechanism in the agricultural industry is different from the organized sector as in the former case, prices are determined by various exogenous and uncontrolled factors like rain, good/bad harvest etc. However, in the latter case, the factors controlling the costs remain more or less constant. All these factors together regulate the agricultural industry to decide profit and loss. Therefore, Arun Kumar argued that the new law, especially provisions about MSP and trade, could have been detrimental for the agrarian sector. The government stated that the procurement policy applies only to six per cent of farmers where only 23 crops are covered under MSP. Government makes yet another defensive argument by saying that these new laws are nothing but an extension of the already existing framework. They cited the example of Bihar, where APMC’s were abolished in 2006. Moreover, they quoted that 19 states were already are under the modus operandi of contract farming. Kumar nonetheless poses a curious question whether Bihar has benefitted from the elimination of APMCs? He agrees that only 23 crops are covered under MSP and cites the example of Punjab, Haryana and western UP, where the prosperity of farmers was possible because of the existence of APMCs and MSPs. According to him, it is not the "free areas" of trade that have been beneficial. Instead, the presence of APMCs has catered to their growth as mandis ensure that MSPs become the benchmark for price determination of crop. Arun Kumar indeed mentioned that the new regulations did not propose reforms. Instead, it would have "deformed" the economy and agricultural sector at large.

Uma Shankari gave her account of the problems of the new farm laws, this perspective of a farmer is critical. She argued that the farming community never asked for new laws as they were burdened and indebted under the existing framework imposed on the agricultural sector post liberalization of the Indian economy. Under the new economic policy, argues Shankari, there have been devastating price crashes at different times due to cheap imports in edible oils, pulses, cotton, sugar, silk, etc. At other times the country was forced to import agricultural products at higher prices than domestic prices. It denied price support to farmers; at different times, it was forced to export at prices cheaper than domestic prices. The agriculture sector has witnessed high volatility in prices and declining incomes in the past. Shankari argued that it was the after-effects of liberalization that forced the farmers and activists to demand government-regulated MSPs ever since 2015. However, the new laws stood totally against their struggle as they appealed to remove APMCs and MSPs. The government believed that by doing so, there will be reform for further growth. Instead, it would have only led to devastation. These laws argue Shankari did not aid farmers but prominent businessmen and corporate houses. She pointed out that the new law enabled contract farming which has not taken off widely in India or the agricultural industry as farmers very well understand from their experience that they will be shortchanged, companies will play the game to their favour.

Shankari mentioned that the new law threatened even the farmers’ ownership. They begin to understand that they will be reduced to slaves in their land; they will have no decision-making power. Shankari argues that it is a fashion to talk about industrialization in India or say whether India should remain an agricultural country? She affirms that India ranks second globally in the availability of arable lands, next only to the USA. It has more than 9 percent of the World’s arable lands, whereas the USA has 10%; considering the land to mass ratio, India is again ahead of the USA. All these factors are the strength of the agricultural sector in India which should be considered an advantage. As for Shankari states, not many countries have lands suitable for cultivation. The country owns vast arable lands and an excellent climate regime, allowing for two cropping seasons almost throughout the country. Even the rainfed grounds can have two cropping seasons, provided critical irrigation is used. This is not the case in many countries of the World. Therefore, Shankari believed it is foolish to turn over agricultural lands to industries and service sectors. Yet another trend Shankari tries to capture is the pressure over Punjab farmers to stop growing paddy and wheat and shift to other crops, but this process is more straightforward said than done. As she criticizes, without an assured market and price for the suggested crops, how can a farmer shift to a different or a new crop? Will the government compensate? No! Therefore, MSPs are required for safety and monetary security. Apart from the economy or market perspective, the government needs to look into this matter from an ecological perspective, an agro-ecological approach is required. She questions why the big industrialists should produce coconut oil or cooking oil? When a simple electric ghani (oil press) can do the job. Why not encourage startups in rural areas? Why only in urban areas? With all these questions, Shankari challenges the entry of markets in agriculture that can be otherwise sustained by the local farmers, of course with government aid and resources.

Manjeet Singh conceptualises the farmers’ movement as a Jan Andolan [a peoples movement], involving all sections of society physically and emotionally. Theoretically, farmers had discussed the law threadbare before ministers, who had nothing to say. He argues that agriculture should be treated as education, health, and state welfarism.

Devender Sharma provided a twofold critique of agricultural economics: blind adherence and reliance on the market and borrowing ideas and economic concepts from America and Europe. However, his analysis does not fall short of solutions. He offers three principles that can serve as a sustainable and profitable agriculture model for the rest of the World, thereby reviving Indian agriculture.

Indian Economists had ad nauseam about principles, concepts and hypotheses discarded in economics. Sharma terms the Indian Economist as ’Lazy economist’. According to the Economist, farmers grow paddy and wheat, sell it in mandis and then rest. Sharma questions this and argues that Punjab farmers produce 5.2 tonnes of wheat per hectare and 6-6 tonnes of paddy per hectare. If they were lazy, their productivity wouldn’t have been the top in the World. A prominent albeit borrowed hypothesis is the free market concept, though in practice for several decades, failed in America and the European Union. Citing the example of America, he argues only 1.5 per cent of the population remains in agriculture; however, the farm income has not gone up and has been on a steep decline since the 1960s. The bankruptcy in current times or since July 2020, when Donald Trump was the President is 425 billion dollars.

Similarly, in Canada, the farm population has shrunk to less than 2 per cent, there was no increase in farm income. Thus, Sharma cited this as an acute failure of economic thinking, which led Niti Ayog and RBI governor Raghuram Rajan to argue that relocating people from farming to cities is needed to increase the farm income. The rationale behind the economic thinking is the aggregators’ phenomenon, i.e., the economy of scale will work when the number of farmers goes down, increasing the landholding size and strengthening their bargaining power. He argues that in America, the landholding size is 444 acres; in Canada, the average landholding size is 3000 acres; in Australia, the landholding size is 10,800 acres. Australia reported suicide every week, and 25 per cent of farms have disappeared in the last 30 years.

Sharma debunked another economic rationale for using modern practices and technology. He asserts a concerted effort by the lazy Economist; thereby, a nexus is evident between politicians, corporates, and economists.

He gives an example of the dairy sector in America; in the 1970s, there were six and a half lakh dairy farms, and currently, there are 34000 dairy farms. The milk production increased due to the entry of the big players, thus driving the prices down. As a result, dairy farms are closing, and dairy farmers commit suicide. It is happening in Canada and Europe. FTAs are being used in India and Kenya to open their industry for exports which will have the same adversarial effect as in America or Canada.

The agricultural sector is dependent on subsidies, and once they are withdrawn, the industry collapses, demonstrating the failure of market efficiency to provide high income for their high productivity. The EU offers a subsidy of 100 billion dollars to their farmers, and 57 percent of farmers’ income comes from the EU. Similarly, in America, 40 percent of farm income comes from the subsidy, and on average, an American farmer gets 62000 billion dollars compared to 280 dollars in India. The top 20 countries in the World have subsidy support of 620 billion dollars, out of which 475 billion dollars go as direct income support to farmers.

In India, the farmers have little or no support as the subsidies are mainly for the corporate sector rather than the farming sector. Instrumental in this is the blind support of media who rarely question the flow of subsidy to corporates or their failure to pay their loans leading to NPAs but dramatise the subsidy flow to farmers. Sharma concluded his presentation with three solutions based on the Indian ecosystem. First is the minimum support price for farmers in Punjab and Haryana; this belt has witnessed assured prices for wheat and paddy, incomes are relatively higher than the rest of the World. In Bihar, since 2006 and presently, it has transported 8000 quintals of wheat to Punjab for the MSP available there, as in Bihar, it is 1100 rupees.

Agreeing with Prof Arun Kumar, Sharma argues that MSP should be extended to 23 crops for which prices are announced every year. The MSP should be a legal right, and no trading below MSP should be allowed. In 2020, Spain took the lead and formulated a law not to allow trading below the cost of production; any deviance leads to a penalty of 3000 euros to 1 lakh euros. In the case of repeat offenders, the penalty will rise to 1 million euros. France implemented a similar law, but it failed. Sharma cites the Kerala model of a floor price for fruits and 16 vegetables, and the prices are higher than floor price, profiting the farmers and keeping the contingent fund of 35 crores intact.

The second principle is setting up 42000 Agricultural Produce & Livestock Market Committee mandis in a 5-kilometre radius leading to a marketing platform for the farmers. Currently, 7000 mandis are functional. Further, APMC mandis need reform to bring them closer to the farmhouses, and if private companies invest, they must be regulated under the same protocols for public sectors. The third is the much-cited example of Amul dairy, which has a high-end consumer share price. This model, Sharma argues, needs to be extended to fruits and vegetables. Finally, the cooperative model will explain the basis of processing and how to procure. Sharma concludes that instead of borrowing, an effort should be made to set Indian agriculture as a model for the rest of the World, following these three solutions.

Navkiran Natt presenting from the ground brought in the nuances about the tradition of farmers’ protest and the ever-evolving modes of protest. Natt punctures the widespread belief that the farmers’ movement and its leaders sprang up overnight instead argues that the farmers’ movement has a long history and tradition. In the era that we live, the participation of young generations has altered the definitional contours of activism. The need of the hour is to understand activism and who is an activist, thereby not being misled by social media.

Comparing different protest sites, Natt stated that there are subtle but significant differences in the overall environment, working style of Singhu and Tikri protest sites. The location of the tikri protest is in the malwa area, Punjab’s most vocal vibrant area with an intensely active organised union. It has been able to keep its protest structurally intact, thereby deflecting the rumours that Farmer’s protest is going weak. Unlike the past movements, Natt observes a delicate inter-generational balance where the older generation was involved. Young people are participating in different capacities at various protest sites of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Western Uttar Pradesh, for instance, helping in the langar or running the libraries, publishing the newsletter, running health camps, entering the second line of leadership. The multifaceted nature of the protest has opened the possibilities of exploring different modes of resistance; for example, mahapanchayat are organising various events, Jats are being mobilised at the ground level.

Natt then elaborated on the lopsided effects of the green revolution. Punjab, primarily an agrarian state, has no alternative modes of employment and has a longstanding history of transnational migration as ties are available for establishing oneself, which is comparatively easier than relocating elsewhere. Ludhiana has hosiery. The opportunities to lead a good life are limited even after an education that aspires to respectable earning and living.

As a politically active person, Natt does not view the Farmer’s protest as an isolated event, and even if the outcome of repealing the laws is achieved, the movement does not end there. There are calls by leaders to deliberate on issues for the future. For her, the longstanding movement is to tackle the agrarian crisis and devise ways to revive agriculture and make it profitable. However, the issue is profound; people cannot resonate with the movement since agriculture is a state law. Everyone has a different position, and farmers directly working in the field cannot understand the issue. Still, it is a matter of time until we go to their level and explain the subject and join the movement.

Sudhir Kumar argued that the agrarian issue is certainly about agricultural economics as agriculture is the source of livelihood. The majority population in rural areas is still dependent on agriculture. Still, the question posed to him by a farmer sitting at Saaja border, 100 metres from Delhi, situated itself in the middle of political science and sociology. The Farmer asked, is it still about the economy? For him, it is about identity. Kumar states this is a counter perspective from the US, where the economy is central. Kumar provides an anecdote of his way to his hometown, where the tikri border falls. a stretch of 17 or 18 kilometres, farmers have been sitting and protesting, resilient in their resolve with no ounce of doubt to leave or stop the protest. The anxiety is depicted by us of whether they will continue their protest or not. However, the Farmer’s response at the tikri border was that God and nature had created the entire movement. He elaborated further. He has three sons and is participating in the protest for the future of his sons.

The uniqueness of the recent farmers’ movement brings caste, class and identity questions together for democratic Indian politics. The Grassroot implementation by farmers’ movement of the identity question has transformed into a progressive force to bring people together to bring a harmonious relationship in the rural areas.

Kumar argued that the farmers have dealt with the identity question in two ways. First, is Kisan and second is the identity of an ordinary rural Indian who feels highly marginalised in the ongoing debate and discussion about politics. They sense that everyone in the city has looked down upon farmers, knowing nothing and growing resistance against this widespread mentality. The question is why this moment has occurred where farmers and villagers have felt the need to speak against it. Kumar agrees with Harish Damodar, argues for an aspirational middle class apart from the middle class. They do not aspire for material things; their aspiration lies in recognition of their worth. In the last three decades, the failure of the due recognition of farmers has led to the consolidation of political messaging mobilisation. Therefore, the farmers’ community feel the need to assert themselves of their political views and their knowledge of their craft. This Kumar submits is the tragedy of our times. For instance, farmers have been protesting in different parts of the country, from Mandsaur firing to Tamil Nadu farmers protesting in Delhi, and now in Punjab and Haryana. There is a linkage here. The Swaminathan committee paved the way by travelling across India and talking to farmers; however, issues existed in implementing the report.

Historically, agrarian change in India since the 1950s, till the time of Nehru, there was an effort to maintain a balance between modernisation and tradition. Eventually, the tilt shifted completely to modernisation and farmers were seen as needing to be told and required to be advised what to produce and where to sell. For example, farmers in Rajasthan grow barley and bajra, gradually replaced by wheat and narma (a new variety of cotton) require a lot of water. Barley requires two types of irrigation and produces a good yield, whereas wheat requires 6 to 7 times more irrigation facilities and has profound environmental implications. The rationale for the switch was wheat sold at approximately 2000 rupees, and barley was sold at 1350-1400 rupees; with a 600 rupees gap, everyone is interested in producing wheat. The right approach for forming any law related to agriculture should involve farmers as the primary stakeholders whose knowledge should be accorded primary importance. Instead, Panchyati Raj as a bureaucratic mechanism was inserted to handle the demand, boycotting the farmers and directly approaching the state authorities. The farmers’ traditional discussion methods, such as chaupals, have disappeared or been converted into different spaces.

In the end, Kumar stated few policy measures as solutions to lessen the agrarian distress. Incorporating traditional sustainable farming methods in institutional mechanisms instead of borrowing from different parts of the World. Another significant measure is a change in inhuman perspective towards farmers based on Kumar’s anecdote; in one of the consultant programs in Niti Ayog, a discussant said we should talk of farmer suicide here. The reply by Economist was there is more student suicide than farmer suicides. The constitution-makers gave the right to vote to every citizen in India to protect their identity as human beings. The movement did not end there, and it has continued. Kumar argues that political parties need to learn how to make politics more sensitive and people-oriented from Farmer’s movement.

Conclusion

Democratic negotiations are the fundamentals of democracy, and when those are unheard of or are seen as a threat to democracy, it is the demise of democracy. Yet, paradoxically, it is these democratic negotiations that also revive democracy and restore faith in it. The victorious Farmer’s movement has brought to fore contestations and issues in polity, economy, and society. In the domain of polity, the law could have a direct implication on the federal balance of power between centre and states. In the domain of society, the marginal and middle rural class’s unmet aspirations lead to the zeal to fight and their resounding faith in the state and democratic negotiations. Reform, then should not be by stealth but one which structural change. The core of these contests is the economy’s supremacy (market) in the policy framework of agrarian discourse and discounting the indigenous knowledge systems.

The success of Farmer’s agitation has brought forth some critical issues which have fundamentally plagued the Indian’s society, that is the imposition of western ideologies and policies unfamiliar to the Indian sensibilities. They have altered the definitional contours of activism, thereby providing meaning to struggles especially in the heightened atmosphere of authoritarian government. In practice, they have actualised constitutional values and provided the necessary ammunition for future issues and movements.

Prepared by:

Shailja Tandon, Independent Researcher, and Coordinator, Centre For Social Sciences And Humanities, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Coordinator, Knowledge and Practice Group, Foundation For Creative Social Research

And

Priyanka Yadav, Research Scholar, Centre For Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Coordinator, Creative Theory Group, Foundation For Creative Social Research

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