By Deepak Kumar Nanda
On 31st December when the whole world was awake to celebrate the New Year despite a yearlong continued pandemic, the India farmers were sleeping on the open sky near Delhi border amidst bone-chilling cold winter. It has been more than one month since they are demonstrating their protest against the recently brought farm laws by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government. Around 50 farmers have already died so far during the agitation(1). Some of them have died by committing suicides while others died due cold winter.
The Indian government has recently passed three controversial agriculture and farmers related bills despite stiff opposition from both the oppositions and the ruling associate party. The bills namely are Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020, all of which were implemented from September 2020. However, the most contentious bill is the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 due to radical changes in the earlier provisions and facilities in the agricultural market.
The farmers’ protest first started in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana and later the protesters marched towards the national capital of Delhi but they were stopped at its border. Nonetheless, they continued the protest on the road itself under the open sky. However, the government claims that the farmers are being misled by the opposition parties, which otherwise is the biggest farm reform and going to profit the farmer with the better price due to the open market. On the other hand, the farmers argue that with the introduction of the new bills, the government is going to completely scrap the earlier system of the market for farmers and the minimum support price to the farmers. Hence the government has brought the bill with the interest of their capitalist friends which will gradually destroy the earlier state controlled and managed market system and exploit the farmers due to no guarantee of minimum support prices. Therefore the bills should be completely repealed.
Better price or below the minimum support price?
The government’s claim behind the introduction of the bill is that with the opening of the market for the farm produces there will be competition among the traders, and farmers will benefit from the high price for their produces(2). While earlier, there was a more organised state-managed market system and a guaranteed minimum support price for the farmers which are not there in the current amendment(3).
The price of farm-produces was determined by the market committee selected democratically in every market area. But now that has been scrapped with the introduction of e-commerce and trade, thereby the traders will decide the price of farm produce. In one way it can be said that the government is keen on removing the earlier system of marketing, and replacing it by introducing a free market: opening all for buying the farm produce.
However, the objective behind the earlier system of Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) system was to protect the farmers from the exploitation of free-market traders. That is seen in many cases as the 86.08 per cent of the farmers are small and marginal landholders with 0.00 to 0.2 hectares of land.(4) They are in a hand to mouth existence and cannot take advantage of the minimum support price guaranteed by the government by selling their produce in the APMC market. In another way, it is the only rest of the 13.35 per cent of semi-medium and medium landholders (2.00 to 10.00 hectares), and the 0.57 percent of landholders with 10 hectares or more can take the advantage of the earlier market system.
Thus, the free market in the agriculture sector is not a new concept as around 90 per cent of the farmers including the small and marginal and some semi-medium farmers are dependent on the free and open market outside the APMC market. Again the logic of the government is that the open market is more profitable than the APMC market for the farmers due to competition among traders. Now the question is does the 90 percent of the farmers at present who are unable to avail the APMC market get better product value than the minimum support price assured in the APMC market? The answer is absolutely no because the marginal and small farmers have no bargaining power in the open market where the traders decide the price value. Thus they fall prey to the exploitation of middle men and traders and the distress sale of their products. And therefore the concept of the APMC market comes into the picture as a safety net with assured value price which is actually beneficial for the farmers. Thus, doing away with the APMC market with the minimum support price system means removing the safety net and leaving the farmers on the benevolence of big traders who will take over the APMC market and monopolise the price value as like the small and medium traders are doing with the small and marginal farmers in the open market. Hence, with the amendments of farmer bills, the government is paving the way for the vulnerability of the rest of the 10 per cent medium and large farmers who currently avail the minimum support price in the APMC market.
The need of the hour is to strengthen the capacity and the bargaining power of the marginal and small farmers who are victims of distress sale of their produce in the open market outside of the APMC market.
What was the need for ordinance during a pandemic?
It is certainly a question why the bills are brought during a pandemic where lockdown is still imposed. Even though the government cancelled the winter session of the parliament, what was the necessity of the bill to bring at this time? And it was done so through an ordinance which bypasses any discussion in the parliament due to the power of the President of India with the recommendation of the union cabinet. Certainly, if the bill is with the interests of farmers then why avoid any debate and discussion in the parliament? It could have been introduced during any normal session of the parliament with the consensus of every stakeholder.
Thus it raises eyebrows with the intention of the government. One of the allegations of the protesting farmers is that the Modi-led government’s favour to the capitalist traders and therefore, to please them these bills are brought during the pandemic. Also is not the government setting the score by taking advantage of a pandemic and lockdown situation so that the people affected by the bill will not protest? Besides, it cannot be outrightly denied the capitalist influence and interest in government decisions. Because nowadays capitalist agri-business farming is on an increasing trend. Political finance or the donations are high from the capitalist house although it is not possible to say precisely because the largest source of donation/contribution to the political parties to the national parties’ income is from unknown sources. For instance before the 2019 general election 82.5 percent of the income from the Indian National Congress, and 73 percent of Bharatiya Janata Party are from the unknown sources(5). However, nobody can deny the increasing funding of capitalists and corporate houses to the various political parties and their quid pro quo is clearly understood.
The myth of farm reforms with agricultural market reform
To defend the government’s decisions, one argument put forth by some of the lobby media is the “biggest farm reform” as usual a part of their propaganda. They even branded the protesters as “anti-national”, “Khalistani”(6), “funded by foreign funds”, “communist”, “urban naxal” to derail and defame the farmer protest and to portray the bill as most beneficial and with the interest of farmers. However, the question is: could any reform in the market and trading of farm produces be called farm reforms? Agriculture includes land, farmers, farming equipment, seeds, and pesticides and so on. So any reform in the agriculture sector goes beyond the idea of the liberalized market which is merely one component may be. What happened to the earlier plan of redistributing land which was initiated during the early era of independence? Why did it fail and why can that not be the priority today where the inequalities of landholding among various social groups are continued if the Modi-led government is so serious about the farm reforms?
The Scheduled Caste who constitutes around 15 percent of the total population holds only 8.54 per cent of total operating land. The Scheduled Tribes who constitute around 8 percent of the total population holds 11.27 per cent of the total operated land. While other castes that include the other backward classes and upper castes holds 79.21 per cent of the total operated landmass(7). Because, during the pre-British and British rule (1858-1947), land was controlled by Brahmin, Kshtriya (both are considered upper castes) and Sudra (other backward classes in constitutional terms) based on caste system, except in some of the remote tribal pockets where some Tribes (scheduled tribes) had controlled the land. On the other hand Atisudra (the scheduled castes) were mainly the workers and service provider castes who did not own land except in some of the remote and tribal pockets.
In the Indian context, farm reforms begin with the land reforms and redistribution of land among the earlier service provider castes and tribes. Thus, any so-called farm reform that does not touch the redistribution of land is a myth in the name of farm reforms. That is because no liberalized market system in the farm and agricultural sector will compensate unequal landholding based on the caste system. It is the same for earlier landowning upper castes, vis-a-vis the ruling class, who once deliberately failed the redistribution of land, who also claim today the idea of free trade in the agricultural market is the biggest farm reforms in India. The only difference is that, earlier they were directly connected with the agricultural economy and mostly located in the rural areas. But now some of their fraction have moved out of rural areas and the agricultural economy and located in the urban areas and service sector economy, forming a new category called “urban consumerist middle class”. Therefore, other than land reforms and redistribution of land they can raise and support any other issues related to farm and agricultural reforms but are not ready to give up their privileges due to the caste based unequal distribution of land. In fact market reform is an easy reform because it does not touch the status quo in land holding patterns.
No matter how appealing may the government and some of their lobbyist media’s words be (“biggest farm reforms” and “for the largest interest of farmers”) on the introduced farm bills, the manner and the timing at which these reforms have been brought in the parliament through ordinance is questionable. In other words, the interest of the bill claimed by the government is dubious. It cannot outrightly deny the capitalist influence and interest in government decisions because of the capitalist and corporate political funding and their increasing interest in agro-business. Besides, instead of strengthening the capacity of bargaining power of the marginal and small farmers, the government is further paving the way for the vulnerability of the rest of the 10 per cent medium and large farmers in the country. No liberalized market system in the farm and agricultural sector is going to compensate for the loss of the nation due to the unequal landholding in the society based on the caste system. Hence, any reform, if it is to be called as farm reforms, should begin with fulfilling the agenda of land reforms and redistribution of land; otherwise, the claimed agricultural market reform is a myth in the name of farm reforms.
 50 farmers have died so far during the agitation, says union leader | Business Standard News.
 The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation Ordinance).
 See agricultural census 2015-16 at Radha Singh.
 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Retrieved 01.08.2020).
 The word Khalistani is refers to the people of Punjab who were associated with Kalisthan movement seen in 1970s and 80s for a separate nation called Khalistan (Khalistan | Sikh political ideology | Britannica). So in today’s context, Khalisthani is a derogatory word to portray the Khalistani movement as an anti-national movement and their supporters as anti-national. Thus, it is a derogatory label to the protesting farmers as anti-nationals and to show them in bad light.
 See agricultural census 2015-16 at Radha Singh.
Cover Art by Dhrupadi Ghosh
About the Author
Deepak Kumar Nanda is a PhD Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai, India. Currently, he is working on “Politics of Development and Regional Disparities in Odisha” as his PhD research. His research and writing interests lie in poverty, inequality, and politics of development with specific geographical focus on India and South Asia.