Farmers Protest

The Return of Agrarian Question

Atanu Chakravarty

These are farmers and not criminals.... If you have to honour MS Swaminathan then we have to take our farmers along with us".

These words of Dr MadhuraSwaminathan, Economist and daughter of Bharat Ratna M S Swaminathan drew thunderous applause among the scientists during an event organised by Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi's Pusa.

Once again the government’s police administration has laid bare its fangs, raised its ugly head to stop the 'Delhi Challo' [Delhi march] of agitating farmers. And for the first time in this country, Haryana police fired rubber bullets while bursting tear gas shells upon the protesting farmers from drones, made by DRISHYYA, a public listed company set up in 2021, for the purpose of surveying infra projects and monitoring of crops, but now being used as a weapon against those who cultivate fields. The security establishment fortified the borders at Singhu–Tikri and Ghazipur with multilayered barricades using concertina wires, nails, concrete blocks and shipping containers. Jails were kept ready to put the agitators behind the bars.

But what are the demands of the farmers? Swaminathan Commission recommended minimum support price (MSP) on crops should be raised to at least 50 percent above the weighted average cost of production incurred by farmers, farm debt waivers, cancellation of international agreement impacting the agricultural sector, pension scheme of Rs 5,000 for farmers and farm labourers, compensation for families of farmers who died during the previous farmers protest movement in 2020-21. The farmers in western UP were affected by the Jewar airport project and Yamuna Expressway. In Haryana’s Sonipat farmers protesting against land acquisition for power cables have joined this movement adding strength.

A terrible distress has engulfed Indian agriculture. The fight for MSP is not a mere economic demand; it has challenged the free market doctrine and big corporates vying to capture the entire farm economy in India.

As per the report of National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), during 2014- 2022, 100,471 farmers committed suicide, which amounts to 30 suicides per day in these years! In the second term of Modi Government, the total farmer suicides increased in absolute numbers, from 10,281 to 11, 281, and most worryingly, suicide among the agricultural workers seems to be much higher from 4,324 to 6,083! Vidharba and Marathawada of Maharashtra were the worst affected regions.

Notwithstanding the self- congratulatory praise of moving 25 crore people out of poverty, 30 trillion dollar economy by 2047 and an economy setting to rebound from the crisis of slowdown, the harsh reality is that the Indian economy is facing its worst crisis of rural distress. The most important indicator of deepening rural distress as pointed out by economist Himangshu is the data on real wages from the labour bureau. In truth in the last five years, agricultural wages in real terms have grown at only 0.2 % per annum (until Nov 2023) and non- farm wages declined at 0.9% per year (A reality check for Budget, Indian Express, 3 February, 2024).

Failure to get remunerative prices is a persistent problem in Indian agriculture. There is official data in this regard. In 2021 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) released the Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India (SAS) conducted in 2018-19. This is the most authoritative source of statistical information on economic conditions of Indian farms and farmers. SAS data shows that every third Indian farmer was dissatisfied with the prices they received for their output in the market. In terms of quantity, farmers were dissatisfied with a quarter of the disposal of their crops. The dissatisfaction level was much bigger among those who grew crops such as fruits, vegetables (in terms of quantity sold at a dissatisfactory price) or pulses and oilseeds ( in terms of dissatisfactory price).

The National Statistical Office's 77th round of survey shows that over 50% of the agricultural households are in debt, with the farmer’s debt increasing by 58% over the last five years. Income from farming has decreased in real terms, with most of the agricultural income coming in the form of wages, or non- farm business. This increasing trend is transforming farmers into agricultural labourers, or in other words, proletariatisation of peasantry is on the rise.

Devinder Sharma, an eminent agricultural scientist said, as far as crop cultivation was concerned; the average agricultural households earned Rs 3,798 a month in 2018-19. In real terms when adjusted for inflation, the earnings from cultivation had declined by 8.9% between 2012-13 and 2018-19. Further, broken on a per day basis, a newspaper has worked out the income from crop cultivation at Rs 27 a day! Even a MGNREGA worker earns more. Income from cultivation is certainly less than earnings from an average lactating cow on a per day basis, given the farm gate price of approxRs 30 a litre.

In 2011, Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat and Chairman of a working group had submitted a report to the then PM Manmohan Singh, which said that ' in order to protect the interest of the farmers, we must ensure through legal provisions that no transaction between farmer and trader should be done below MSP'. In 2014, Modi promised MSP at least one and a half times the comprehensive cost of production but after coming to power he simply forgot his poll promise. Rather, the Modi government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court pleading that it would not be possible to determine the MSP according to the poll promise as such exercise would distort the market. On 22 February, 2016, on the eve of Union Budget, Modi made another promise on ‘doubling farmer’s income by 2022' as India completes 75 years of Independence.

A reversal of structural transformation in the workforce after 2017-18 is another glaring pointer of the terrible distress of rural economy. Decelerating private investment and absence of decent jobs have made the crisis- ridden agriculture the last refuge for those unable to find employment elsewhere. 42 million workers have moved back to the agriculture between 2017-18 and 2022-23 which is much higher than the level in 2011-12. A close look at the data would have shown a high increase in female self employment, working as unpaid labour, and 95 million people working without wages!

In the latest interim budget estimates, major heads such as agriculture, rural development, nutrition, education and health have either remained stagnant or declined in real terms. This would further push the rural economy back into distress.

The farmers have again torn asunder the sheen of Vikshit Bharat which Modi is propagating on the eve of general election, and the grit and resolve of the farmers will ultimately come out victorious.

For the last few weeks farmers are agitating all across the Europe. Farmers virtually blocked all seven motorways leading to Paris with thousands of tractors and are camped outside the city. Beginning in France, the protests soon spread over to Germany, where enraged farmers paralysed half of Berlin. The farm stir has also spread to Romania, the Netherlands, Poland, Lithvania, Bulgaria and Belgium. Farmers in Spain, Italy and Greece are preparing to organise protest rallies in the coming months if their demands remain unaddressed. These European protests remind the protesting Indian farmers camping in the outskirts and blocking the highways leading to Delhi two years ago.

The European protests are primarily against denial of an assured and rightful price to farmers. In European Union a small farmer receives mere 27 percent of what a consumer pays for farm products in a super market. The issue is identical in India too. Here a small farmer gets just 27 to 31 paisa on every rupee of purchase by a consumer in a super market or a local Kirana (Grocery) store. The middlemen, big merchants and corporate houses engaged in agri-business corner the lions share at the expense of basic producers.

At the time of writing [February 19] three Union Ministers reached Chandigarh to hold fourth round of talks with farmer leaders. The previous three rounds of talks largely remained inconclusive to address the farmers’ demands for a legal guarantee of the MSP of their crops.

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Vol 56, No. 36, Mar 3 - 9, 2024