The last two months have seen tremendous agitation by India’s farmers. They have agitated, set up camp and protested on the borders of Delhi. On Republic Day, they even took their protests to the streets of Delhi. The protests were by and large peaceful except for a small group which went up to the Red Fort amidst backlash from the police. There was much furor about the fact that a Sikh holy flag was hoisted at the Red Fort albeit the Indian tricolor was not disrespected.
Lets take a close look at the reasons behind these protests. Much has been made of the fact that the bills were passed through Parliament without any discussions and speed tracked to be laws. However, there can be no doubts about the fact that Indian agriculture is in dire need of reforms. It is worth trying to understand what the farm bills are attempting to do and the impact they would have on farmers.
One of the main objectives behind the bills is to open the agricultural sector to the open market and remove middlemen who pay a pittance to the farmers while not passing on any benefits to the end consumer. The government’s logic is that if the farm sector directly deals with corporate representatives then they would be benefited. However, this free market approach means that the assured income that farmers currently make would not be guaranteed to them any longer. This is worth analyzing a bit further.
Currently, the government offers a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for rice and wheat. This is a guaranteed income which is usually availed of by larger farmers from the traditional agricultural strongholds of Punjab and Haryana. Since the farmers are assured this income, they automatically gravitate towards producing these crops regardless of whether their land is suited for such cultivation or not. As a result, the land in Punjab has been depleted of water and it is forecast that it would be akin to a desert in a decade or two. This is a dangerous trend.
It is also a fact that the farmer’s agitation has been led by the more well-off farmers in Punjab who have large landholdings unlike what we see in the rest of the country. These farmers have been dependent on MSP and government support since the days of the Green Revolution which goes back to the 1960s. It is interesting to note that prior to the Green Revolution, India was facing a food crisis and did not have the capacity to feed the nation. The Green Revolution with its focus on genetically modified seeds, chemicals and fertilizers led to extremely high growth of crops.
However, it is only now that we are seeing the detrimental effects that the Green Revolution has had on the health of our soils and our population. The focus on chemicals and genetically altered seeds means that there has been a spurt in cancer cases while also degrading our soils. This means that the farmers of Punjab which is known as the bread basket of the country are faced with a tough ask. If the government measures go through then MSP would no longer be assured and the farmers would be subject to the demands of an open market. They could no longer be dependent on rice and wheat for their earnings.
The farmers in Punjab have had many benefits from the times of Indian independence. They own large holdings and have had the benefit of irrigation from the very beginning. Notwithstanding, their productivity has not been in sync with these facts. Contrast this with a state like Bihar where market forces have been in operation for over a decade now and the state has witnessed high growth in contrast to previous years.
There has been considerable focus given by the opposition to the fact that MSP needs to be legalized. This is erroneous thinking. Currently, the government procures wheat and rice at MSP in excess of the requirements of the country. The extra purchase rots in warehouses and the cost has to be borne by the Indian taxpayer. This is one of the fundamental problems with a system where MSP is in place.
However, Indian agriculture needs much more than reforms where MSP is removed and the market is opened up to private players. Farmers need to be educated on what crops best suit their land and how they can appropriately meet market demands. There are crops such as avocados which command a premium in the market and their price will always exceed MSP. These crops should be focused on. Farmers need to plant as per seasonal requirements and also get educated how the soil can be improved so as to meet the agricultural demands.
We may have had to resort to the Green Revolution because of a crisis. However, if we do not take action now, remove MSP, educate farmers about crops and soil quality then we will be faced with an even more serious crisis where our farmland is severely depleted and population highly unhealthy. Unfortunately, the protesting farmers are not willing to have detailed discussions with the government as they believe that these laws would destroy their livelihood.
Simply removing MSP and opening up the agriculture sector to private players is a short-term measure for the sector. The government needs to take a long hard look at how the sector can be reformed keeping the future in mind. Good measures only come about through consensus and discussion, qualities that are sorely lacking in today’s government. The common sense thing would be to set up a committee which represents the ruling party, opposition and farmers so that a set of reforms can be worked out. Until then, the farmer will be dependent on government support while his land cannot handle the crops and the public has to bear the cost of wastage.
The Green Revolution was needed because India was in a crisis. However, it is only now that we realize that we may have made a pact with the devil. In order to ensure a sustainable future for farmers and the Indian public, a set of agreeable reforms needs to be arrived at after discussion and deliberation. It is time that we explained to the farmers that they must embrace the free market economy while also explaining to them how they can change their choice of crops without much loss. This is easier said than done. However, reforms require a vision and effort. The Modi government prides itself on being visionary, It is time for it to explain its vision to the public without Rihanna having to wade in it.