Political, social, and environmental activist and YouTube educator Dhruv Rathee spoke to agriculture expert Devinder Sharma about the problems with the government’s farm bill and the potential solutions
Problems with the Proposal
Firstly, the farmers are not happy with just a written assurance on MSP. They want MSP to be made a universally applied legal right. They say that even if the government is giving written assurance of MSP, only 6% of farmers actually get the MSP. What about the rest of the farmers? To know more about this in detail, I spoke to Devinder Sharma.
Devinder Sharma: They have said that MSP will exist as it is. This, then is just the status quo, right? The Shanta Kumar Committee report says that MSP is only given to 6% farmers and if only those 6% will receive MSP then what really has changed? Just like the farmers, even I believe that the following is what should happen –
MSP is announced on 23 crops every year but the sale is only on wheat and paddy. We also know that because of only this sale the income the income of farmers in Punjab is higher than that of the rest of the farmers of the country comparatively. If the income of the farmers in Punjab is higher, the farmers in the rest of the country want a higher income as well. There is nothing wrong with that. So why not make it uniform such that MSP becomes a legal instrument or legal right for farmers? There will be no sale below it. There are 23 crops where the government allows MSP but that remains just on paper because of non-delivery and non-procurement. What will happen if we make it uniform and legal on 23 crops is that there will be no sale below MSP which will then cover 80% of gross cropped area in the country.
This is why farmers want MSP to be made a legal right which benefits every farmer in the country. Secondly, if you had noticed, the government in many points of its proposal has very cleverly written “… state governments can …” This is to say that if state governments want this, they can do it. If the state government wants to tax the private mandis then they can tax them. So the state governments that do not so will face the same scenario of farmers protesting against them and will be back to square one. The level playing field will not be in effect in states where they do not tax the private mandis.
Devinder Sharma: They have now said that the states will now have the power that they can tax the private mandis as well. This is all they have said. They can restrict the trade as well. What I fail to understand is that when you brought in the laws, the central laws, you took away the rights of the states. Then why not bring in the central laws and have a similar and have a similar situation about what will happen outside of APMC mandis? They can still bring in the correction. Then why shift the responsibilities to the state governments?
Similarly, it is up to the state governments that if they want they can put in place a system of registration for private markets. Now, which state would like to do this and which one wouldn’t totally depends on the state governments. Originally, the law brought in by the governments was such that everything was controlled by the central government. So what should be the wordings of the amendments? Rather than getting in this mess, the farmers have made a simple demand of rolling back all three laws, and until the government doesn’t do it, they will keep making the protest bigger. Simultaneously, they are not only criticizing the government but they are also criticizing big companies. They have specifically raised their fingers on Adani and Ambani and have said that they will boycott all JIO, Reliance and Adani products because they believe that the government acts on the whims and fancies of Adani and Ambani.
Dhruv: I would like to ask you a solution-oriented question. Quite often people criticize and say that the MSP is so high that the market rates around the entire world are lesser than that. There is not so much demand for wheat and rice in India in comparison to how much of it is cultivated, so farmers have to switch to diverse crops. They should do it so that everyone benefits from it.
Devinder Sharma: Why do you think that farmers do not know this? Farmers know about this very well. They understand more than what our experts claim. But the experts do not want to know and understand the issues faced by the farmers, and I’ll tell you how. There is a great harvest of wheat and paddy in Punjab, we all know this. All the pressure is on the fact that there should be diversification and that we are overloaded with food stocks. These are the things that are talked about. I am perplexed when the government gives an assured price of two crops only and then they say that the farmers should diversify. Why should they diversify?
I’ll give you an example. In Punjab, there were two reports on diversification by Dr. S S Johar. Despite that, the government advises to diversify and to switch from paddy to maize, sunflower etc. Now farmers cultivate maize in Punjab. The MSP for maize is INR 180 per quintal. You get the same in the mandi INR 600-800 per quintal. Do you think farmers are fools that they will leave paddy and wheat? Maize is merely a replacement for paddy. So why will he leave wheat for which he almost gets INR 1900 per quintal and cultivate maize for which he will get only INR 600-800 per quintal? Whose mistake is this? It is the fault of the policymakers. What I say is that of the 23 crops on which MSP is announced, you should ban the sale of these crops “below the MSP. Only then will the farmers diversify and have choices. As of now, there are no choices. There are only two choices of wheat and rice, and so he cultivates wheat and rice. What is wrong in that? Diversification will only happen when farmers get a steady source of income. They have been denied that and are still being asked to diversify. We take it as a given that farmers are complete fools and they will do whatever we tell them to do – this is the problem of this country.
Dhruv: So this means that the government needs to make policies that effectively promote diversification.
Devinder Sharma: Definitely! Farmers want to, but they are compelled not to. When I talk to the farmers about moving away from paddy, they also say that they do want to. They just need to be given economically viable options. This is something we do not look into. We want our salaries to rise every month, have all perks, emoluments, installments as well as bonus, but we are willing to leave the farmers in the hands of the market. This is a sinking economic thought.
Dhruv: When we first talked about APMC, you told us that it needs to be made stronger. You agree that there are shortfalls in it. How can that system be made better?
Devinder Sharma: We all know that APMC has many shortfalls. At many places, it is nothing less than a mafia. Cartelization has taken place. We consider small traders as exploiters. I agree that there are faults in trader trade – so reform them! Why don’t we evolve under the existing system such that it brings in transparency, professionalism and disconnects its role from politics? It is not that we do not know how to do it – we can do all this. But we are currently thinking about when APMC is removed and a bigger middleman comes into the picture (right now there is a small middleman). A small middleman exploits in a small way, a bigger middleman exploits in a bigger way.
Dhruv: What are your suggestions for this reform?
Devinder Sharma: They have decreased the area under every APMC and have put them under the APMC Mandi – which is completely fine. But, mandis need to be rationalized. Apart from this, their political affiliations need to be disconnected and broken. That is important because if you look at it, the APMC chairman is quite often linked to the ruling party. We need to break this trend too. We need to strengthen the professionalism and the government system that operates under the APMC. What happens today is that the officers do not have the courage to take a decision on their own for their goodwill.
In order to acknowledge the protest, many people from across the country are joining in. Agricultural scientist Dr Varinder Pal Singh refused to receive a prestigious award from a Union Minister as a form of protest. Anna Hazare too has stood up in support of the farmers.