By Rosemary Marandi
Even as the COVID19 pandemic raged through the country, affecting millions and taking the economy down, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government on Sept. 20 passed three major agriculture bills with a promise to reform the sector and in turn benefit farmers.
For the uninitiated, the three bills that are now three separate Acts -- the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act , and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act -- seek to change the way agriculture produce is sold and stored and invite private sector investment. Essentially, farmers can now sell their harvest in markets other than government-run mandis (wholesale markets) notified under the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC); they can enter into direct agreement with prospective buyers on an agreed price; and they can store and sell essential commodities, such as cereals, pulses and onion, without government control.
Private players can buy cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes at market determined price instead of a government-set floor price, and stock agricultural goods without government restriction. The Bill, basically, aims at removing fears of private investors of excessive regulatory interference in their business operations.
To the eternal optimist, the bills look like a masterstroke, a true attempt at reforming the sector after the 1991 economic liberalization. However, to farmers and close watchers of the sector, this new law reeks of regression rather than progress. Although there is lack of knowledge or information about these changes among many farmers, the various instances of protest rallies and vehement voices of opposition are testimony to how the law has been received by the people who will be most affected, the farmers themselves.
Since it is crucial to take into account the voice of farmers, Video Volunteers ‘ Community Correspondents, a vast majority of whom are farmers, explain how they view this new law and just what is wrong with it. Video Volunteers, with a network of over 200 Correspondents, has been documenting farmer concerns for years.
- Bharti Kumari, Jharkhand
Farmers’ current state: Bharti’s family at Gola block of Ramgarh district is engaged in farming for subsistence. Her family of nine members are able to sell only a small portion of their agricultural produce, mostly vegetables such as potato and onion, as most of it is used for their personal consumption. Her husband also works as a construction laborer in Gujarat to support the family. Because of the closure of Mandis during the COVID19 pandemic lockdown, her family has had to sell vegetables secretly in unorganized markets in the Jungles.
Her view: “The problem with the selling directly to private parties is that they (private parties) are not answerable to anyone. Seeds are very expensive but by the time we harvest and are ready to sell, the price of grains or vegetables fall. Even at regulated Mandis, which I fear may eventually be abolished completely, when too many people bring their produce, the prices fall. I don’t feel we will get fair price even under the new law because then accountability will vanish completely”.
Bharti’s suggestion: The government should make sure the minimum support price is strictly implemented even in price negotiations with private companies, keeping in mind the cost of the inputs that farmers have to bear.
- S M Zafar Equbal, Arwal, Bihar
Farmers’ current state: Zaffar, who belongs to a family of farmers and landowners, says that many farmers either take farm land on yearly lease or follow the Bataidari system. In the Bataidari system in Bihar, land owners lend their land to small farmers, who spend on labor and other related farming expenses, while the produce is equally shared between them. The problem with the Bataidari system is that the input costs are borne by the farmers, which becomes a problem if they are not able to recover costs by selling their produce in the existing faulty Primary Agriculture Cooperative Societies (PACS). In Bihar, around 35% of cultivable land is under the Bataidari system.
His view: “The new law will not have much impact in our region because Bihar did not have government-mandated mandis in any case. Farmers in my area, including my family, sell their produce to small traders. The main issue they face is not getting fair price for their produce. Here, people don’t know about minimum support price (MSP), because MSP has been scrapped by the Bihar government”.
Zafar’s suggestion: There should be a Mandi at the panchayat level where farmers can sell their produce at a minimum support price and not have to venture out far from their homes.
“We sell grains to Primary Agriculture Cooperative Societies (PACS). The problem with this is PCAS authorities take commission, and the farmers don’t get payments on time. Only a few farmers are able to sell to these co-operatives. A month back, rice that was Rs. 20 per Kg is now Rs. 13 per Kg, which is a big impact on farmers because their costs remain the same”. For more on the problem of PACS, please watch Zafar’s video:
- Mahima Bhengra, Palamu district, Jharkhand
Farmers’ current state: Mahima is a farmer with tracts of family-disputed land. While her share of land holding is not so small, Mahima’s family is unable to farm on a big portion because of lack of capital. They grow grains, urad, maize, masoor dal, and black grams. They consume most of their produce because they do not have enough money to produce on a large scale.
Her view: “The agriculture reform bills, does not affect me directly as I don’t sell. I wish I had sources of capital to be able to utilize my land optimally. Also, the land in our area is hilly, which means water does not gather and rainfall is patchy”. For more on the plights of farmers in Jharkhand, please watch: https://youtu.be/CJ_ldY5iKG
- Chetan Salve, Maharashtra
Farmers’ current state: Chetan, a seasoned activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and farm land owner has been observing the plight of rehabilitated farmers for several years. The land they were given in exchange for the fertile land that was flooded by the Sardar Sarovar Dam is unsuitable for organic farming. Farming can only be carried out on this new land with the use of fertilizers yes, thank you. This increases their costsand limits their options of what they can produce.
His view: “I believe that if this law comes into effect, the government will slowly move away from its responsibility. With joint families breaking up, land holding has decreased because of division of land. A farmer has to produce for his family as well for selling from this small piece of land. He is forced to sell most of the produce to support the family. With this new law, he will have to sell at a price that companies dictate. At the same time when they go to buy for their own consumption, they will have to pay a higher price for their own produce because private companies will inflate the price by hoarding it”. For more on what farmers have to say about the farm bill, please watch Chetan’s video
Chetan’s suggestion: Instead, he says, the government should have stressed on building good warehouses for farmers to store their produce.
- Madhuri Chauhan, Uttar Pradesh
Farmers’ current state: In the Kushinagar district where Madhuri works, most farmers are landless. They take land on lease to farm and are severely affected by the COVID19 pandemic, when they have had to sell their produce at minimal prices. Others work as laborers in order to survive.
Her view: “Only rich farmers will benefit from the new law. Landless farmers will suffer more if the Minimum Support Price is abolished. If they fail to recover the cost of leasing and other inputs from the selling price, there condition will worsen. They are already in serious loss because mandis were shut during the pandemic.” Madhuri's reporting on Kushinagar landless farmers can be watched here: https://youtu.be/PWfr_kfzPpg
Madhuri’s suggestion:The government should have kept the interest of landless farmers in mind before framing any law.
- Shankarlal Raikwar, Uttar Pradesh
Farmers’ current state: Shankarlal is a farmer by profession and has reported extensively on the agrarian crisis in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. He is growing grains for years , and his harvests have been damaged by hailstorms and unpredictable weather. This year, they were unable to sell their produce because of the pandemic situation. This has added a blow to their situation. The farmers in the region are caught in the cycle of debt, as on the one hand the government compensations are a pittance, and on the other, their input prices for items like diesel and fertilizers are increasing.
His view: “These bills will benefit middlemen and traders rather than farmers. One bill states that farmers can sell to anyone, which would mean these buyers can stock the produce and sell it later at an inflated price. In contract farming, farmers will lose their bargaining power. They will be bound to agree to the terms of the private company. We will not even have control over what we want to grow. This will become a new form of slavery”.
One piece in his extensive reporting on Bundelkhand farmer suicides can be can be watched here:
Shankarlal’s suggestion: The government should have instead focused on keeping prices of inputs such as diesel and fertilizer low and seen to it that loan waiver amounts are commensurate with each farmer’s situation.
- Krishna Mondal, West Bengal
Farmers’ current state: The recent Amphan cyclone-affected farmers are only now emerging from that natural disaster and the damage to their crops. Earlier in October, many people from Bhunerswari village of Maipith Coastal Police Station in Kultali Block of South 24 Parganas District had taken to the streets demanding the new farm bills be scrapped. They walked 7 km to Maipith Coastal Police Station.
Her conversation with a protester: “The Central government new law is very dangerous to farmers because as it is they are not getting the minimum price and the markets are not operational. They did not take farmers’ views or ask us what we need. They should’ve asked. They passed the bill without consulting anyone. We saw the same thing with farm insurance bill and other bills. Moreover, we cannot appeal against any price dispute. This is regressive and anti-farmer.”
For more on the South 24 Parganas District farmers’ protest video, please watch Krishna’s video:
Protesters’ demand: The government should take farmers’ views into account or scrap the law.
Even as we write this report, the government has tried sitting across the table to discuss the new law with farmers in states, particularly Punjab. But talks have failed because farmers saw the absence of any minister as a sign that the government lack seriousness.
Daily wage labourers and small vendors are struggling to make ends meet.
Ambulance drivers are risking their lives without any protective equipment.