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Seed of discontent

THE national Capital witnessed a two-day historic gathering of farmers from November 20.

Seed of discontent

JAI KISAN? Indebtedness is the primary cause of farmer suicides.

Yogendra Yadav 

THE national Capital witnessed a two-day historic gathering of farmers from November 20. Thousands of farmers from across the country gathered at Parliament Street under the aegis of a Kisan Mukti Sansad, a farmers’ parliament which deliberated on ways to liberate the Indian farmers from bondage. 

This gathering was historic in many ways. First, it represented perhaps the largest-ever coalition of farmer organisations in the country. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) comprises no less than 184 organisations, cutting across political and ideological divides. Second, this was a rare moment in the history of the farmers’ movement that brought together farmers from different parts of the country. Historically, different agro-climatic zones, variety of crops and varied patterns of state policies and state politics have divided the Indian farmers. Third, this was the first time in post-Independence India that the interests of different sections of farmers were articulated at the same stage. The AIKSCC is a very conscious coming together of organisations of the owner-cultivator farmers with share-croppers and landless farm workers. Fourth, the first session of this sansad comprising only women farmers, was the first time a national coalition of farmers’ organisation recognised the centrality of women farmers to Indian agriculture. Nearly 70 per cent of agricultural work is done by women, yet they are excluded from the symbolism and leadership of the movements. And finally, this was the first time such a large coalition has agreed upon a short, precise and workable charter of demands.

 In demanding a “new deal” from the government, the farmers have focused on just two points: fair and remunerative prices for their crops and complete freedom from debt. There is nothing new here. Debt waiver and higher MSP have been the long-standing demands of farmers’ organisations. But, for the first time, they are focusing on just these two. Besides, they are articulating these demands in a new language, with clear justification and careful policy formulation. This new-age farmers’ movement has learnt to speak a new language.

 The first demand, encapsulated in the “Farmers Right to Assured Prices for Agricultural Produce Bill” is for fair and remunerative produce prices. It is a crying need of the Indian farmer today. All primary producers are subjected to an unjust system. Produce prices have been deliberately suppressed over the years, through numerous policy measures, while input costs and cost of living have grown exponentially. Farmers are forced to subsidise other sectors of economy while they are pushed into a recurring debt cycle. While the government ritually announces MSP for 24 crops, less than 10 per cent of the farmers get the benefit of this assurance. An analysis of the prices in the top hundred mandis across the country for the current marketing season reveals that the average market price for eight major Kharif crops is much lower than the official MSP. This distress selling, below MSP, has cost the farmers about Rs 36,000 crore in this season alone.

 Moreover, the announced MSP is too low in all the crops; in fact, in seven out of 14 crops in this Kharif season, the announced MSP was less than the cost of production officially calculated by the government. Even if these announced support prices are obtained by the farmers, their net income would be too meagre to support basic living expenses.

 Hence the demand that the government should declare assured remunerative prices which provide 50 per cent above the total cost of production for all produce, and should also ensure the realisation of these prices, as recommended by the National Farmers Commission and promised by the BJP before the elections. The farmers now want this assurance to be made a legal right. 

How can this be ensured? First, the government procurement should be expanded to increase quantities and commodities, to include pulses, oilseeds and millet crops, under the Food Security Act and any other legislations/food schemes. Second, agencies such as Markfed, Nafed and civil supplies departments should be authorised to make timely and effective market intervention with sufficient funds provided on an ongoing basis. Third, whenever the market prices go below the declared MSP, the difference should be paid to the farmer — through deficiency price payment mechanism. Fourth, legislative changes in APMC Acts to make it a punishable offence to purchase below MSPs in any notified commodity; auction at APMC markets should begin only from MSP upwards. Finally, export-import policies must ensure that farmers do not get priced out by cheaper subsidised imports from other countries.

 The second demand is farmers’ need for a clean slate, in recognition of the fact that such debt is often the immediate trigger for suicides, and in acknowledgment of the accumulated debt that the nation owes to the farmers. The farmers demand that the government should write-off all their outstanding loans from all sources,  including institutional and non-institutional loans, and take measures to ensure that they do not fall back into the debt trap. This indebtedness is due to reasons beyond the control of the farmers such as crop failure, price crash, high-input costs, drying up of water bodies and impact of natural disasters.

This would entail a one-time waiver of the outstanding agricultural loans of all farmers as they stand now, to be implemented in a single instalment.  This waiver must cover all categories of banks — nationalised, cooperative and private — and should be backed by the Central as well as state governments. Debt freedom must be extended to settlement, swapping and waiving of private (non-institutional) loans of farmers, including share-croppers, tenants, agricultural labour, adivasi and women farmers. Such a waiver must include credit to the bank account equal to the amount of crop loan repaid in the previous season, for those farmers who somehow managed to repay. Finally, there should be a national debt relief commission on the line of the commission in Kerala. 

These are not two separate demands: freedom from debt is not possible without regular and assured returns, and remunerative prices will not help if we have accumulated debt. Both these are required immediately and simultaneously if Indian farming and farmer has to have a future. 

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