As the farmers’ protest in Delhi is rocking the national capital as well as the global press, there are questions raised over the lack of a pan-India character of this movement. Why only the farmers of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh (western) are opposing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two farm laws, an amendment to the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, and the Electricity Bill, 2020? Why farmers’ protest of similar magnitude is absent in other states?
What triggered the farmers’ protest in Delhi?
The two contentious farm laws––The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020––have opened the agriculture sector to the big corporate capital, foreign and domestic. These laws, on the one hand, overrides the power of the state vis-à-vis agriculture, which is in the constitution’s concurrent list, while on the other, they have legitimised the role of the “middleman” as the aggregator and service provider. These laws have provided legal provisions for the corporates to tighten their grip on agriculture.
The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, has de-regularised “foodstuffs, including cereals, pulses, potato, onions, edible oilseeds and oils,” which is allowing the big corporate houses to enter the market and hoard these items to artificially shoot up prices and pocket a bigger profit margin from foodstuff trading.
The government can’t interfere in the stocking and hoarding by unscrupulous corporate houses until there is a 100% price hike of horticulture products and 50% increase in the retail price of non-perishable agricultural foodstuffs “over the price prevailing immediately preceding twelve months, or average retail price of last five years, whichever is lower” (sic), as per the Gazette notification. This is a shot in the arm for the corporates keen to expand their profit margins by exploiting India’s food sector and jeopardising the right to food achieved through intense struggles.
Though the Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been obstinately defending these laws and negating the allegations raised against it as baseless, it can’t show any legal document to prove that the farmers’ protest is based on false apprehensions. In this article, this author has discussed why these two laws are traps for the farmers and why the “middlemen” will now become legally empowered. Still, the BJP and its stooges are claiming that the farmers aren’t understanding the laws and their implications, and the movements are by “middlemen”.
While the BJP’s toady journalists are eulogising the corporate-controlled farm system module, as well as claiming that the farmers’ protest movement is hijacked by “Khalistani” forces, and “Maoists”, there are some who are asserting that the agitating farmers aren’t representing the interests of all farmers of the country.
If we observe the lack of farmers’ protest movements in other states, except some farmer delegates from these states visiting Delhi, then we will again face the question, whether the farmers’ protest a pan-India issue or is it only concerning the rich farmers from northern India? Let us analyse the causes of this difference of intensity in farmers’ protest in different parts of India.
The “farmers” and the “green revolution”
The farmers don’t form a homogeneous entity in India. The farmers are divided along class and caste lines in India and their problems vary from state to state and region to region. In 1944, years before India became “independent”, the big comprador capitalists of undivided India, based in Bombay (now Mumbai), adopted a resolution called the Bombay Plan. This plan emphasised on expanding the domestic market by building basic industries and infrastructure by public investments and routing the people’s savings to the private sector through public financial institutions.
To expand the domestic market, it was imperative to ensure the purchasing power of the farmers can be increased so that they can use the extra money to buy industrial goods, which will increase demand and also it was important to increase agricultural production so that enough foodgrains could be provided to the industrial workers at a controlled price. Therefore, for the sake of industrial development it was imperative to carry out land reforms, but the Jawaharlal Nehru government, controlled by big feudal landlords and comprador capitalists, couldn’t disturb the feudal structure of Indian agriculture and allowed the States to develop their land reform programmes, on a top-down basis.
All land reform programmes taken by the States were cosmetic and didn’t attack the core of the feudal production relations but did some cosmetic reforms, which aided the rich farmers. Each state saw a different level of land reform and it didn’t help at all in increasing food production to remove the wage-commodity obstruction caused by low production, high food prices, which reigned in India until the mid-1960s. Also, as a result, limited demand obstruction reigned in rural areas due to lack of income to be spent on industrial goods. The Nehruvian “socialist” model failed drastically and, therefore, Indira Gandhi had to undertake the “green revolution” in the northern Indian states like Haryana, Punjab and parts of western Uttar Pradesh.
Without hurting the feudal structure, without changing the land and production relations, Mrs Gandhi’s “green revolution” helped in uplifting farming with the help of imported high-yield seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural machinery, including tractors at places with high irrigation facility, and she also managed to pour in liquidity for the rich peasants and feudal landlords so that they can expand their production. With the help of the state-sponsored mechanism, the states like Haryana and Punjab saw a rapid increase in their crop production.
Since 1967-68, the production of foodgrains, wheat in particular, experienced a surge. While wheat production 10,997 metric tons (MT) in the financial year (FY) 1960-61, it increased to 16,549 MT in 1967-68, when the “green revolution” started. Then, by the FY 1969-70, it jumped to 20,093 MT. Similarly, while rice production was 34,578 MT in the FY 1960-61, it rose to 40,430 MT in the FY 1969-70. This initial success of the “green revolution” was limited to the states like Haryana and Punjab, which became pilot states and the income of their rich farmers and feudal landlords increased manifold.
As the “green revolution” wasn’t supplemented with a radical land reform programme to oust the hegemony of feudal landlords on the Indian agriculture, though the rapid increase of food production helped in addressing the wage-commodity obstruction and limited demand obstruction, it didn’t lead to any structural or recognisable change in the agriculture sector.
In more than five decades, the income disparity between the Indian farmers has grown manifold as the feudal landlords and rich farmers have consolidated the gains from increased productivity, while the small, marginal and middle-income farmers had to suffer a lot. Forget the pain and exploitation the large section of landless peasantry undergoes. If the average monthly farm income of different States are seen, then one can see how the farmers from Haryana and Punjab have fared well vis-à-vis those from states like Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal–which had undertaken a remarkable land reform programme from 1978 onwards.
Farmers’ income difference and the problem of land
According to a 2017 NABARD survey, published by The Hindu, while the farmers’ average monthly income is Rs 16,020, in Punjab, it’s Rs 9,716 in Tamil Nadu, Rs 7,811 in Telangana, Rs 6,860 in West Bengal and only Rs 5,842 in Andhra Pradesh. It also showed while an agricultural household had an average surplus of Rs 95 in Andhra Pradesh in 2017, it was Rs 4,314 in Punjab. This disparity doesn’t mean that the average farmers of Punjab have an excessive income, but due to the machinery and inclusion of technology in farming only the feudal landlords, the rich farmers and a section of the middle farmers gained a higher income.
DownToEarth quoted the Committee on Doubling of Farmers’ Income on the basis the FY 2015-16 data to show that 85% of Indian farmers have less than two hectares of landholding. While the average annual household earning for small and marginal farmers, with less than two hectares of landholding was Rs 79,779, ie, 6,648.25 per month, the rich farmers and feudal landlords, with more than ten hectares of landholding have earned Rs 605,393, ie, Rs 50,449.42 per month. Those with landholding above two hectares but below ten hectares, earned Rs 201,083 on an average annually, ie, 16,756.92 monthly. This shows that only 15% of farmers earn 91% of the total farm income, while the rest 85% could settle for only 9% of the income. This exhibits the huge income disparity between different classes of farmers even within states like Haryana and Punjab, due to the prevalence of semi-feudal production relations.
While there were 27.3m landless rural households in 1951, when the population was around 361m, it became 144.3m when the population became 1.2 billion in 2011. Showing that the number of landless rural households has grown 12 percentage points between 1991 and 2004-05, the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms said: “While all the enhanced landlessness cannot be attributed to the liberalisation process alone the non-agricultural demands placed on land on account of industrialisation, infrastructural development, urbanisation and migration of the urban rich in the rural areas have certainly contributed to the process.”
The Socio-economic Caste Census, 2011 (SECC 2011), data, however, shows that even states like Haryana and Punjab have a large base of landless households in rural areas, which is however less than states like West Bengal where a land reform programme was undertaken from the top. Table A shows the number of landless rural households in millions and their total percentage in some of the big states of India.
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|STATE||TOTAL HOUSEHOLDS (Million)||LANDLESS HOUSEHOLDS (Million)||%|
It can be seen from the above table that though Punjab has a higher percentage of landless rural households, 45.34%, than the national average of 38.27%, states like Andhra Pradesh (48.46%), Bihar (54.33%), Tamil Nadu (55.80%) and West Bengal (48.02%) fare worse than it.
In Table B, the SECC 2011 data shows that while on a national average, in 74.49% households the monthly income of the highest-earning member is less than Rs 5,000, in Haryana and Punjab the ratio is far less at 57.56% and 58.96%. The ratio of such households is high in Andhra Pradesh (79.53%), Jharkhand (76.60%), Odisha (87.88%), Tamil Nadu (78.08%), Telangana (75.41%) and West Bengal (82.47%).
|STATE||MONTHLY HIGHEST INCOME <Rs 5000 (Million)||%|
In their study titled “Income Generation and Inequality in India’s Agricultural Sector: The Consequences of Land Fragmentation”, Sanjoy Chakravorty, S Chandrasekhar, Karthikeya Naraparaju have shown that while per capita agricultural income was Rs 2,311 in Punjab it was merely Rs 250 in West Bengal. The authors noted, “monthly expenditures exceeded income in three of the largest states in the country—West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar—and, correspondingly, the average income of households with less than one hectare of land was less than consumption”.
“We find that at the all-India level, in 2003, inequality in per capita incomes between landownership groups accounted for about 3% of total inequality in per capita incomes. This proportion increased to 7% by 2013. If we consider only the per capita incomes accrued from cultivation, then in 2003, inequality in per capita cultivation incomes between landownership groups accounted for about 10% of the total inequality in per capita cultivation incomes. This proportion increased to 15% in 2013.”
According to the NSSO data on Consumption Expenditure Survey for the FY 2011-12, 22.5% of rural households with self-employment in agriculture as their principal occupation, were having income less than the poverty line. In this data, cited by the NITI Aayog in a 2017 report, one can see that while Punjab had only 0.5% of such households and Haryana 4.3%, states like Jharkhand had the highest 45.3% followed by Odisha 32.1% and Bihar 28.4%. This excludes the landless peasantry and the poor peasants who aren’t employed only in agriculture and look out for other works to feed their families during non-cultivation and non-harvesting seasons.
Discrepancies in government procurement of crops
One of the major reasons behind the unprecedented farmers’ protest is the weakening of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) yards where the farmers of Haryana and Punjab sell their crops at the minimum support price (MSP) offered by the government. Though the MSP and the APMC yards will exist, liberalising the control on agricultural sell and purchase, especially liberalising inter-state crop trading, will end the dominance of these markets in these states, where the farmers––mostly the rich and middle farmers––can sell their produce at the MSP.
Data in Table C shows that the purchase by the state and its agencies in other states is considerably low vis-à-vis Haryana, Punjab, etc. In Table C, it’s shown using the Kharif season 2019-20 data, how wide is the gap between the state’s purchase of crops from farmers of Haryana and Punjab, vis-à-vis states like West Bengal.
|STATE||PADDY PURCHASED BY APMC (Million MT)|
Therefore, it’s clear that there is no uniformity in the nationwide purchase of crops by the government. So far only the rich and middle farmers of Haryana and Punjab, apart from the feudal landlords, have had an upper hand in selling their crops at the MSP at the APMC yards. When it comes to using the APMC in other parts of the country, the States simply ignore the plight of the farmers, especially in states like Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, etc, where most farmers are small and marginal.
According to a report from NewsClick, in the year 2019, the West Bengal government could only buy 22% of the targeted paddy crop, forcing most farmers to sell in the open markets or fall prey to the usurers. This triggers massive rural distress year-upon-year. In states like West Bengal, whenever there is a bumper crop, the farmers fall in a pit of abysmal crisis as a major price pressure is created. They end up losing after producing enough crops. Thus, the farmers’ protest against the dilution of the MSP doesn’t resonate with the rural masses of those parts where the government’s procurement is always low.
Wither the APMC?
A strong APMC system and proactive purchasing by the government, sans the middlemen, would’ve created a better opportunity for the farmers, but the lack of such a comprehensive system not only made the farmers sceptical about bumper crops but also turned away many from farming over the years.
However, showing allegiance to the big corporate donors of his BJP, Modi has enacted the contentious farm laws citing the discrepancies in the farm produce purchase process. The BJP, rather than focusing on strengthening the APMCs and expanding their scope, as well as their purchase capacity, to ensure that the last mile benefit is provided to all farmers, especially the small and marginal farmers, is keen to destroy them to provide a free reign to the corporate houses.
Interfering in the States’ role in agriculture, the Modi regime is trying to end the last resorts for the farmers through which they could bargain a better price for their produce. It’s indeed important to provide better prices to farmers but the private sector, which looks for avenues to maximise its profit at any cost, won’t ever help the farmers with anything close to a fair price. It’s only the strong APMC-based purchase on MSP that can help to address rural distress and also ensure food security for the vulnerable masses, especially the working class.
Now, when there are purchases through the States and their APMC yards, a large amount of taxes is collected by the Central Government and States, which go to the pool from where food subsidy is provided to the poor. According to a report in the Financial Express, due to the absolute monopoly of APMC yards in the purchase of crops, Punjab and Haryana together collected Rs 26 billion––Punjab Rs 17.50 billion and Haryana Rs 8.50 billion––out of the total Rs 86 billion collected in the FY 2019-20 from the APMC yards all over the country, ie, 30% of the national taxes came from these two. Destruction of the APMC will reduce the revenue and harm India’s food security.
As the farmers of West Bengal and other states aren’t directly affected by the decision of corporate-controlled farming, despite a massive upheaval over Pepsico’s contract farming of agriculture in Hooghly district in the mid-2000s, and aren’t aware of the APMC yards due to their non-existence in the state, they aren’t identifying with the demands of the farmers’ protest in Delhi. However, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance to participate in it and can’t play a pivotal role in the east by fighting against the BJP. The sooner the farmers of the states like West Bengal will realise the threat through their practical experiences, they will participate in the farmers’ protest against the Modi regime and enrich the movement with their experience, zeal and determination.