After farmers protest, India asks what they want: Give us policies that work

By Anupam Khera

Commonwealth leaders will meet in Australia next week for the annual summit to discuss ways to improve the lives of the people in developing countries. In a show of its concern, India held a press conference last week to announce that its farmers will be involved in the political process in Australia as one of the 500 citizens.

For the last year, farmers in Maharashtra state have been protesting government policies that penalize farmers for falling to rain and sell their produce as cheap as they can to large corporates.

The farmers in India’s richest state are united in their opinion. Their message has gone viral and caught the attention of thousands of people around the world.

What have the farmers on strike in India been protesting?

The farmers want Parliament to reform farm policies so that large agricultural corporations do not pay state-curtailed prices for their produce. They also want to be given the benefit of farmers’ credit-pooling policies which would allow them to borrow from multiple banks without collateral.

Farmers are seeking revision of Maharashtra’s Agricultural Produce Market Committees Act, which puts major restrictions on the farmer’s bargaining power and the size of the harvest, and the allotment of government land to industrial expansion for wholesale and retail market purposes. These problems disproportionately affect small, medium and marginal farmers who do not own land or have it surrendered to a private investor, a violation of the Maharashtra government’s 1996 land-swap policy, which envisaged an industrial corridor connecting Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

Farmers in other states have similar problems.

In May this year, the Madhya Pradesh government announced a plan to increase the state’s kharif crop yield by 20 percent while reducing the number of farmers willing to plant rice. According to observers, this decision was based on the premise that this would be the most economically viable course of action for the farmers. Besides doubling farmers’ produce prices, which, had it happened, would have killed the remunerative price margins necessary for poor farmers to even pay for the growing value of their produce.

This assumes significance because, post-monsoon harvesting in India is critical for the population, which relies on perishables for their livelihood.

The farmers whose incomes had, over the past decade, declined by 15 percent due to the government’s price-support system, had more reason to protest the government’s “new policy” of tripling rice prices.

Unburdened by inflation, they were making a good living selling at small, manageable margins on the traditional markets.

By ensuring that all agricultural produce would be distributed at sufficient prices, the government was in effect punishing the small farmer who has not exploited the market.

What is the Bihar government doing?

The Bihar government is fast-tracking its farmer debt collection program, which targets mostly farming families, by working with the village committees. As part of the program, committees can collect and transfer a loan from banks within 30 days without having to go through any government channels, unlike the old piecemeal scheme the previous government of Nitish Kumar.

Bihar already has a system of banks distributing agriculture loans to individual farmers without knowing any details about them. After paying the bank fee of 1 percent, the farmer is granted a loan of Rs.20,000 per crop year from which he pays the remaining amount for purchases at the market.

Another problem faced by small and marginal farmers is the monopolization of food procurement by big food companies, an activity based in procurement in the private sector.

It is shocking that a policy maker of Bihar’s stature has not realized that, since 1996, the state has been a centre of corporate manipulation and business takeovers.

The result is that, in a state dominated by tribals, landless, and marginal farmers, many people who could never have bought a house do have property in those cities that also are corporate hubs. This is an issue of serious injustice.

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