“To be, or not to be”, the existentialist dilemma of Hamlet best mirrors the dilemma faced by all those watching the farm stir from the sidelines —to support or oppose their protest.
The divide is not just local, it’s gone global thanks to the powerful Indian diaspora.
Some understand the issue, others are going by their political leanings, or the opinion being peddled on social media.
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Famers have protested in the past too, most recently in November 2018 when over 100,000 farmers marched to Delhi in protest against the government’s “failure to address rural distress issues”.
Some wore skulls around their necks to represent the 12,000 debt-ridden farmers who commit suicide every year.
But this protest is unprecedented in terms of numbers and the support Punjab farmers are getting not just from their counterparts in states like Haryana and UP but also from all sections of society in the state.
On the face it, the three contentious laws seem well-intended.
PM Narendra Modi has called them very significant reforms, aimed at raising farmers’ incomes, lowering prices for consumers, and encouraging investment.
In a nutshell, the three laws give famers the freedom to sell outside APMC mandis and traders to buy without any state fee/ tax.
These also allow traders to store commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onions and potatoes by freeing these from the list of essential commodities.
Finally, these allow farmers to enter into a contract with agri-business firms or large corporates on pre-agreed prices for their produce.
Many economists agree that farmers and consumers will benefit from these laws in the long run.
A 118-page study by the Competition Commission of India in 2012 showed that government approved middlemen were using their “oligopoly-like situation” to control prices, leaving less money for farmers.
So, what is the problem, you may ask. Well, to start with, farmers feel that these laws will dismantle the MSP regime (minimum support price)—This price paid by the government for procuring mainly wheat and paddy is calculated keeping in mind the cost of cultivation for that year—and dismantle the government-run mandis.
Also Read: MSP – What profit does farmer makes?
Though the government says the farm laws will not impact the MSP or APMC system, the farmers cite the Bihar example to justify their fears.
Bihar had tried this proposed system of selling outside government APMCs more than 10 years ago, and today their farmers get arguably the lowest rate for their produce from private traders, who often buy wheat and paddy at half the MSP.
Punjab farmers fear that they will go the same way.
A study published by the National Council of Applied Economic Research last year also found that the Bihar model had neither brought any big investments nor improved the lot of farmers.
Farmers fear that the government wants to withdraw from grain procurement as it is food surplus,and is procuring more than it can store every year.
The benefits promised by the government are long term, with a lot of grief for small farmers in the short term.
The educated farmers say the three laws seem to clear the way for corporates to exploit the already ailing poor farmers given the size of the Agri market.
More than 80% farmers, they argue, have less than 2 acres of land, and do not have the means or education to sell across states.
Union leaders across the country claim the laws are tailored to benefit corporates who would have faced challenges with APMC and different state laws/taxes.
They see essential commodities act amendment as a way to allow these corporates to hoard. And then sell at a price of their choice at a time of their choosing for profiteering.
The farmers further fear that contract farming is a way to tie them down to produce only what the corporates want based on their requirements, converting them to body shops slaving for the corporates.
Is the fear legit?
An article published by The Economist says Gautam Adani whose conglomerate sprawls from ports to coal mines to food, has seen his personal wealth more than double, to some $32bn.
Mukesh Ambani’s riches, which derive from oil refining, telecoms and retail, among other things, have grown by just 25%, albeit to an intimidating $75bn or so.
All this growth happened when the entire country’s economy shrunk by a tenth, and Covid killed almost 35% of MSMEs (25-30 million jobs) soon after unemployment peaked to a 45-year high (before Covid).
It’s this coupled with the big strides made by these two giants even in areas where they had little experience (airport management for one) that is behind the fear of corporate entry into the business of agriculture.
Unions claim that small farmers will not be able to stand up to the money and political power they wield.
Also Read: Shekhar Gupta’s Forked Tongue
In sum, the farmers have issues with these reforms. The union government’s proposal to make half-a-dozen amendments to these laws to plug the loopholes that could be used to exploit the farmers shows that their fears were not unfounded.
But the farmers have now dug in their heels and say they want nothing less than a repeal.
This maximalist demand may have its roots in the way these laws were muscled through Parliament without consulting the farmers even though agriculture sector provides employment to about 55% of the country,and contributes almost 18% to the GDP.
In this context, it is worth remembering John Locke (1632-1704), one of the most influential political philosophers of the modern period.
In his Two Treatises of Government, he had said the government has no other end than the preservation of property. Men being by nature, all free, equal and independent, they cannot be subjected to political power of another, without their own consent.
Perhaps the maximalist demand for a repeal lies in this loss of agency that the farmer felt when these laws were shoved down his throat without any consultation or explanation.
Coming back to the raging debate on these laws among the netizens, it is worth remembering all these variables before pronouncing your judgement.
As they say, life is not black and white. Should you support, or not support these poor farmers? That’s one question that begs a judicious answer.
Also Read: A Punjab In Negotiation – What Did We Get?
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