The farmers’ historic struggle and victory has upset not merely political arrogance but conventional wisdom in more than one way. It has shown the limitations of class analysis, and has thrown up new ideas for organizing peaceful protests in a democracy.
The fact that relatively better-off farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh often led the movement should teach us the lesson that class position is not always the determining factor. When pushed to the wall, dissent spread across all classes in the entire agricultural sector and inequality within agriculture became less important. Conditions were created for a movement based on an unprecedented solidarity. We witnessed this as small and marginal farmers, landless agricultural labourers — mostly Dalits — as well as men and women cutting across caste, gender, religion and region joined the movement. That the better-off farmers had greater economic staying power was an advantage. To this was added the nature of agricultural activity. It is different from factory work in so far as men and women could share the daily agricultural work routine. It prepared them for an indefinitely long resistance. In this game of patience, the government blinked first; its high-handed arrogance collapsed with several state elections looming large in the background.
It would be wrong to say that the farmers were unaware of the class character of the State and its policies. They took little time to point out that the now-repealed three farm laws were primarily meant to promote the interests of the two biggest business houses in the country. The role of the government was that of a facilitator for their profit from agriculture. This contrasts starkly against the Gandhian vagueness of ‘Trusteeship’ of national wealth in the hand of big business.
Superficially, the farmers’ movement might look similar to that of the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement of ‘total revolution’ or to the Anna Hazare-led ‘anti-corruption’ agitation. However, they miss the mark. ‘Total revolution’ reminds one of the French saying, ‘the more you try to embrace, the less you do.’ The anti-corruption movement was even hollower. It never made clear the difference between personal and systemic corruption. Consider that the three farm laws were made legal (however dubiously) but it does not negate the fact that they were meant to hollow out our democracy further by making the livelihood of half of India’s population dependent on the profit motive of two large private business houses. It is less relevant whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi is personally corrupt or not. His action was meant to further corrupt our democracy, and that matters more.
The farmers could rise above the blame game of party politics and the vicious narratives of false nationalism. Having forged a solidarity of caste and class and rejected the Manuvaad of gender domination, they now face the problem of negotiating their demand for minimum support price with the broader objectives of a society in which coexist many different interest groups.
Much of the discussion about providing a legal guarantee for MSP for agricultural produce of 23 crops in total (seven grains, five pulses, seven oilseeds and four cash crops) focused mostly on its role as an income support policy for farmers. This is, indeed, a priority in the backdrop of the distressed conditions of farmers which has been made all too apparent by the large number of farmers’ suicide each year, their mounting debts pointing to the unviability of a situation where the cost of cultivation often tends to exceed the selling price. The false promises made by the prime minister of doubling farmers’ income is a cruel joke.
If income support to farmers, especially to small farmers, materializes, it would have a tremendous positive impact on the external economy, raising demand for industry, especially small and medium scale industries, in the unorganized sector. The non-agricultural population stands to gain from it. Through a legal guarantee for MSP, steps need to be taken to make small farms viable and take the wider non-agricultural public along with it. A higher support price to raise farmers’ income might appear incompatible with the national food security policy implemented through an extended public distribution system. It had originated in measures for stabilizing prices of essential commodities against speculation in 1955 and for creating adequate storing facilities. The government now spends, on an average, about 3 lakh crore annually mostly for price stabilization through public distribution without an income support policy for farmers. An MSP can link price stabilization with income support.
The price of each of the 23 crops has to be set within a band. In general, lower price in good and higher price in bad harvest years may be set to limit speculation. Several coarse grains and pulses, which are climatically suited for low-rain-fed areas, may be set at the higher end of the band to induce change in the cropping pattern in the long run through relative price incentives.
The Swaminathan Committee’s recommendation as a benchmark for MSP will cost some 17 lakh crore, according to the government. This is certainly an overestimate. Taking into account non-traded self-consumption by farmers which is higher for coarse grains, some 45-50 per cent of the production is marketed surplus. The money recovered by sales through the PDS is a deduction from the total cost of MSP; another deduction is the stabilization of price through public distribution. Reckoning with all this, most estimates converge in the range of 5 to 7 lakh crore. Compare this with the dearness allowance and other benefits given to government employees (an estimated 5 per cent of the population) which is about 5 lakh crore; the tax breaks and revenue forgone to help a handful of big business, of about 4 lakh crore; the unofficial, reliable estimate of deliberate default of bank loans which is some 10 lakh crore for 28 borrowers whose names are known and, interestingly, all of them, except one, are from Gujarat. Does a sum of 5-7 lakh crore for an estimated 50 per cent of India’s population sound astronomical in view of these facts? Or is it simply because the farmers do not have a strong enough political voice?
Taking 7-8 lakh crore of budgetary support needed from the Central government with MSP prices fixed as bands, the focus should be on making economically viable some 85 per cent of farmers with small holdings. This requires increasing land productivity, not labour productivity. Heavily mechanized agriculture, which increases labour productivity, enhances the profitability of the employer at the cost of reducing employment, as has happened in the organized industry under stagnant demand conditions. What we need, instead, is higher productivity of land through minor irrigation, innovation in organic fertilizers, water-management and climatically-suited cropping pattern supported by MSP to be stored and sold in local markets as far as possible. Warehousing facilities have to be decentralized to minimize cost and loss of harvested grains. The climate disaster has been accentuated by profit-seeking, water-intensive cropping patterns that are not suitable for some areas, while it has also undermined the food security of mainly the poor in those areas by discouraging the production of several nutritious, drought-resistant, coarse grains and pulses due to their low profitability. This has to be reversed.
Mounting agricultural debt affects most farmers; but the poorer farmer is more badly hit on this count. The inability to repay debt chokes off institutional sources of credit, forcing reliance on private credit that results in a vicious spiral of exorbitant, unrepayable interest burden and informal land grab. Bank credit per acre of operational land holding should be the norm. It is possible to devise schemes that link the selling certificate of grains under MSP with the provision of bank credit.
These measures can only work through panchayats and gram sabhas that must have the required fiscal right and autonomy (which is already in the 73rd amendment of the Constitution), to be reviewed and revised every five years in the light of performance regarding parameters like yield, loan repayment, cropping pattern and, perhaps, also criteria like gender, caste and participation of religious minorities.
The farmers’ struggle organized through panchayats and mahapanchayats has been nearly miraculous. A constitutional provision for greater power to them for organizing their own economy already exists. They alone can do it.
(Amit Bhaduri taught Economics in various universities around the world)