Farmers protest: Government braces for another round of nationwide protests - latest News of India Today

Farmers protest: Government braces for another round of nationwide protests

The Union Government may have revoked the contentious farm laws but did the government keep the assurances made to the farmers' unions? Farmers' associations across the country say the government has reneged on its words, writes Jayanta Bhattacharya.
First Published: Jul 13,2022 09:29PM
by Jayanta Bhattacharya

On November 29, Lok Sabha passed the Farm Laws Repeal Bill, 2021. Within a month, protesters sitting at Delhi’s borders retreated, ending a year-long siege of the National Capital.

“We agreed to withdraw the sit-in demonstrations last year when the Union government rolled back the ‘black’ (farm) laws. They had also promised several things, including forming a committee to look into the MSP (Minimum Support Price) issue,” says Rakesh Tikait to The Probe. Tikait, the farmer leader and the former National Spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), became the poster boy of the farmers’ agitation in India.

“The struggle will continue. Expenses are increasing, and the unemployment situation is getting worse. But the government doesn’t want to address these issues,” adds Tikait.

The row over MSP

On the other hand, government sources claim they have tried to reach out to the farmers, but it seems the farmer leaders did not reciprocate. In December, the then Agriculture Secretary issued a letter to the joint platform of protesting unions, Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM). It referred to the main demands of the farmers, which were pending following the repeal of the farm laws. 

The letter said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar have announced to form a committee on MSP. It will comprise officials from central and state governments, representatives of farm unions, and agriculture scientists as its member. The letter added that the members of the SKM would also be included in the committee. 

The farmers’ associations were also informed that the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana have agreed to withdraw cases against farmers with immediate effect. “The Central government will appeal to other state governments too to start the process to withdraw cases against protestors of the movement,” the letter stated.

Farmers protest

Farm laws agitation in Punjab | Pic courtesy: Special arrangement

It also clarified that the Electricity Amendment Bill would not be tabled in Parliament until the government discusses provisions impacting farmers with SKM and other stakeholders. The letter added that stubble burning has already been decriminalised.

On November 30, SKM confirmed that “There was a telephone call from the Government of India to a Punjab, farmer union leader, wherein the government wanted five names to be suggested from SKM’s side for a committee. However, we have received no written communication, and no details are available so far about this committee, its mandate, or its Terms of Reference”.

Later, the Union Agriculture Minister announced in Parliament that the government would form a committee as promised by the Prime Minister in November 2021 as soon as they received the names of representatives from SKM.

The General Secretary of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a farmers’ organisation affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M), Hannan Mollah, calls the statement “misleading”.

“We will soon issue a letter urging the government not to mislead people. A committee such as this cannot be formed through a telephone call. In March and again in April, we wrote to the Centre seeking the Terms of Reference of the committee, and we requested them to implement this in a time-bound manner. But there is no response.”

What is MSP

The government fixes MSPs for 22 mandated agricultural crops on the basis of the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices (CACP). Views are also taken of State governments and Central ministries and departments. While recommending MSP, the CACP considers various factors. These include the cost of production, overall demand-supply situations of various crops in domestic and world markets, domestic and international prices, inter-crop price parity, terms of trade between agriculture and non-agriculture sector, likely effect of price policy on the rest of the economy and a minimum of 50 per cent as the margin over the cost of production.

The Union Budget for 2018-19 had announced the predetermined principle to keep MSP at one and half times the cost of production. This is alleged in certain quarters as to not include all input cost and labour. 

MSP is determined for the country as a whole and is not region or state-specific. The 22 mandated crops, for which MSP is announced by the government for the last three years, include 14 Kharif crops, viz. paddy (Common and Grade’ A’), jowar (Hybrid and Maldandi varieties), bajra, maise, ragi, arhar, moong, urad, groundnut, soyabean, sunflower, sesamum, niger seed, cotton (medium staple and long-staple variety) and 6 Rabi crops viz. wheat, barley, gram, masur (lentil), rapeseed & mustard, safflower and two commercial crops viz. jute and copra (milling and ball copra). In addition, MSPs for toria and de-husked coconut are also fixed on the basis of MSPs of rapeseed & mustard and copra, respectively.

Farmers on field

Farmers working in their field in India | Pic courtesy: Pixabay

The recommending body CACP is an attached office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. Currently, the Commission comprises a Chairman, Member Secretary, one Member (Official) and two Members (Non-Official). The non-official members are representatives of the farming community.

The reasons being cited for demanding a re-look at MSP are broadly over two aspects. One, the farm bodies demand that MSP be guaranteed through legislation. Now, it is the government only that procures at such rates at Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Yard or Regulated Market Committees (RMC) Yard. It is any place in the market area managed by a Market Committee to regulate the marketing of notified agricultural produce and livestock. It is also called Mandi. APMC was established under the provisions of the APLM (Agricultural Produce & Livestock Market) Act.

However, it is not uniform. For example, it is streamlined in Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and other states. But Bihar Agriculture Produce Market Act, 1960 and Bihar Agriculture Produce Market Rules, 1975, were repealed in 2006. It is not fully implemented in many other states, even if not revoked. 

A CACP report noted, “While procurement in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana is much higher than their share in total marketed surplus, wheat procurement in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar is much lower than their shares in total marketed surplus and production. The Commission, therefore, recommends that efforts should be made to strengthen and bring more farmers under procurement operations in these States to reap the benefits of support prices and help enhance their income levels.”

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated farmers’ organisation, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), has repeatedly pointed out that MSP benefits barely 10 per cent of total farmers. This body is not part of SKM and did not participate in its protests. The accurate number of farmers benefiting from the minimum support price (MSP) declaration is difficult to assess, according to a government statement in Parliament on Tuesday, August 3.

Farmers at Tikri

Farmers discuss their future as a colleague recuperates from an accident in the background during the year-long sit-in demonstration at Tikri border | Jayanta Bhattacharya

While answering in Lok Sabha, Tomar did mention that “The farmers benefited from Government procurement at MSP”. According to a written answer tabled in the House, in 2018-19, the number was 1,71,50,873, which increased to 2,04,63,590 farmers in 2019-20 and reached 2,10,07,563 in 2020-21.

As per Census 2011, the country’s total number of agricultural workers has increased from 234.1 million (127.3 million cultivators and 106.8 million agricultural labourers) in 2001 to 263.1 million (118.8 million cultivators and 144.3 million agricultural labourers) in 2011. The Agriculture Ministry itself provided these figures in February 2020.

Procurement centres, Tomar said, are opened by respective state government agencies and Central nodal agencies like NAFED and FCI, amongst others. “After taking into account the production, marketable surplus, convenience of farmers and availability of other logistics/infrastructure such as storage and transportation, large number of the purchase centres in addition to the existing Mandis and depots/godowns are also established at key points for the convenience of farmers to ensure procurement at MSP”.

Mandis in Punjab have been facing another issue. That of crops being sneaked into the state from other regions. The state government now steps up vigil at its borders each time the produce is brought to the mandis. This came after there were complaints of paddy from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh “flooding” its mandis. Small farmers in Bihar complain that they are forced to sell their produce to intermediaries who pay them less. Either such farmers themselves or middlemen then reportedly smuggle the crop to Punjab.

This year, however, official figures depict an interesting scenario. It may be contrary to the usual belief that farmers are underpaid outside mandis. Till July 3, some 187.89 LMT (Lakh Metric Tonnes) of wheat was officially procured, according to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution. Till June 6, 2021, over 416.44 LMT of wheat was procured. 

The ministry, in a statement, noted that it was an all-time high, “as it has exceeded previous high 389.92 LMT (of RMS 2020-21) against last year’s corresponding purchase of 371.33 LMT. About 45.56 Lakh farmers have already benefited from the ongoing RMS procurement operations with an MSP value of Rs. 82,247.51 Crore”.

According to Sudhanshu Pandey, Secretary, Department of Food and Public Distribution (DFPD), due to higher market prices, large quantities of wheat were being bought by traders outside mandis at a higher rate than MSP. “This year, due to an increase in market prices and higher demand by the private players both for the domestic as well as export purposes, the purchase by the government agency is less. But that goes in favour of the farmers. Farmers are getting a good price for the wheat,” he explained when asked about lower wheat procurement.

However, some experts term it an aberration. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many countries looked at India for wheat supply. Private procurement at higher prices could well be with an eye on the export market. Another demand is to revise the formula used to calculate crop prices. Farmer unions have demanded that it be made mandatory by law and that the price be revised “as per the recommendation of the Swaminathan Committee”. 

Swaminathan Committee

The National Commission on Farmers (NCF) was constituted on November 18, 2004, and was chaired by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan. The NCF submitted five reports between December 2004 and October 2006. At the Centre of the final report, submitted on October 4, 2006, were issues around farmer distresses and rising farmer suicides, and it sought to address them through a holistic national policy.

Farm union leaders quote its recommendation that peasants should be given MSP under the C2+50 per cent formula. The BKS, however, seeks legislation of MSP even at the present rate, and it contends that farmers should be ensured some mandatory returns.

A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2 are formulas used to compute the amount a farmer can earn depending on the method used to calculate the cost of production. Here, A1 stands for all actual expenses, whether in cash or kind. A2 includes A1 plus rent paid for leased-in-land, while B1 comprises A1 and the interest on the value of owned capital assets (excluding land). B2 includes B1 and the rental value of owned land and rent paid for leased-in-land, while C1 includes cost B1 and the imputed value of family labour (FL). C2 stands for B2 and the imputed value of FL.

In June, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved an increase in MSP for all mandated Kharif crops for Marketing Season 2022-23. It claimed that the “increase was in line with the Union Budget 2018-19 announcement of fixing the MSP at a level of at least 50 per cent over the All-India weighted average Cost of Production”.  

As per protestors, the government-proposed price is 50 per cent over the input cost plus rent paid for leased-in-land plus FL. They said that the MSP of common grade paddy at Rs. 2,040 per quintal barely meets input cost. Hannan Mollah claims that it is some Rs. 250 less than what a grower spends per quintal.

According to A. S. Mittal, Vice Chairman, Sonalika Group and former Vice Chairman, Punjab Planning Board, “50 years back in 1971, when the MSP of wheat was Rs 76 per quintal, 10 grams of 24 karat gold price was Rs 193, Cement (50 kg bag) price was about Rs 11/bag whereas Steel prices were about Rs 180/quintal. Today, the wheat MSP is at Rs 1,975/quintal (2021-2022), and gold prices are Rs 49,400/10 grams. Thus, if 2.5 quintals of wheat could fetch 10 grams of gold in 1971, the farmer has to sell now 25 quintals for the same. Farmers buying capacity deteriorates in the absence of price parity of crops.”

More protests planned

Despite accusing the centre of dragging its feet, SKM leadership are wary of an aggressive campaign. They fear a law-and-order problem akin to that of January 26, 2021, during the tractor rally held in Delhi. Any violence would not augur too well for their cause. The fracas on the streets of the National Capital on Republic Day last year during the protest march cost the sympathy it enjoyed in some quarters.

In the current situation, where differences continue, and protestors fail to put up a sustained effort, many are worried that the movement may have lost some steam. But, in the words of Tikait, “the movement will continue”, and farmers are gearing up for another round of protests.

A “Protest Against Betrayal” is now being organised in 500 districts for legal guarantee of MSP through legislation and on other pending demands, and on July 31, a “chakka jam” will be held across the country. Between August 7 and 14, it will organise “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” conventions across the country against the government’s newly introduced Agnipath scheme. Under this scheme, soldiers will be recruited in short service without post-retirement benefits except for a corpus fund of Rs. 11.71 lakh.

Beginning August 18, a 75-hour mass dharna will be held at Lakhimpur Kheri, demanding the sacking of Ajay Mishra Teni. Eight people, including four farmers, were killed in Lakhimpur Kheri in October last year. A car mowed down farmers protesting Uttar Pradesh deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya’s visit to the area. There were reports of gunfire as well. The car allegedly belonged to Union minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish, who is an accused in the case.

What are their other demands?

According to a statement issued by the joint platform of farmer unions – the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) – just before calling off the sit-in protests, there were six pending demands of the farmers. On number one was a demand for “legal entitlement for all farmers to realise remunerative MSP for any agricultural produce that they sell”.

They had also sought “withdrawal of Electricity Amendments Bill 2020/2021 and the deletion of Section 15 in the law related to setting up a Commission for Delhi Air Quality regulation”. Listed in their statement were issues that “have arisen as part of the ongoing struggle”. Among these were demands for “withdrawal of cases foisted on protesting farmers and their supporters in various states including Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan; rehabilitation for the kin of the martyrs and land allotment for a memorial to be built for them; and, the arrest and sacking of Ajay Mishra Teni for justice in Lakhimpur Kheri farmers’ massacre”.

As the allegations flew, a wizened farmer remarked at the sidelines of an SKM meeting, “The government changed the name of Agriculture Ministry to Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. It has announced a doubling of our income by 2022-23. But we continue to face rising input costs – from seed to fertiliser to fuel… Our children prefer to migrate than to farm. What are we to do now?”

Jayanta Bhattacharya is a journalist with over three decades of experience with many national and international media organisations. He writes on politics, conflict and agriculture. He has extensively covered Afghanistan and many Southeast Asian countries.

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