Friday, Mar 24, 2023

Doors Unlocked for Corporate Loot as Farmers Kept in Lockdown

Doors Unlocked for Corporate Loot as Farmers Kept in Lockdown

BJP government’s anti-farmer bills face stiff resistance from farmers

Punjab Farmers stages protest against the recently passed Farm Bills PTI

Massive resistance has been built up by the peasantry against the three anti-farmer Ordinances/Bills which the Narendra Modi led BJP Government and its propaganda machinery claim to be “pro-farmer”. The intense struggles across the country, especially in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh also created enough pressure to force the Union Minister for Food Processing Industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal to resign from the Union Cabinet “in protest against anti-farmer ordinances and legislation”. It is significant that the Minister from Shiromani Akali Dal, one of the oldest allies of the BJP that stood steadfast with the Narendra Modi regime from 2014 even in the wake of massive united struggles of the peasantry and decisions like the Land Acquisition Ordinance, demonetisation, GST, CAA/NPR/NRC, abrogation of Article 370 etc., has been forced to quit. Clearly, the Prime Minister and BJP Government are running roughshod over even its closest political allies to please the big corporate companies and traders’ lobby. The Congress Party which in its election manifesto of 2019 had said “Congress will repeal the Agricultural Produce Market Committees Act and make trade in agricultural produce—including exports and inter-state trade — free from all restrictions” are also today forced to toe a different line and come out in support of the on-going protests. This is a vindication of the line consistently taken by the CPI(M) and the Left Parties as well as the All India Kisan Sabha which also is in the forefront of these struggles. If the legislations are “pro-farmer” as Mr. Modi claims why are farmers coming out in united protests against these measures? We need to look at look at each one of them and understand their implications to find an answer to this question.

Attack on Federal Rights of States to Usher In Company Raj

The BJP Government audaciously claimed that farmers did not get freedom on August 15th, 1947 and it is only on June 3rd 2020 through the 3 Ordinances now being passed as Bills in Parliament the farmers have been granted freedom to sell anywhere in India. Some have also claimed it is the 1991 moment for agriculture; they seem to be forgetting that the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation ushered in then have led to an acute agrarian crisis and over 4 lakh suicides by distress-stricken farmers. The 'Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020' and ‘The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020’ and ‘The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 are a direct attack against federal principles and infringes on the rights of the State Governments. Agriculture is a State subject or forms part of the State list of the Indian Constitution. The BJP Government at the Centre is actually seeking to override the States centralise all powers in its hands to remove all regulations and allow a free hand for corporate companies. The legislations will put farmers at the mercy of agribusinesses, large retailers and exporters. All regulation or controls on private players and agribusinesses will be removed. Although agriculture is a State subject as also trade and commerce within a State is its prerogative, State Governments will have no control over these operations in future. The limited protection provided to farmers will be removed and an unequal playing field with agribusinesses or big traders dictating the terms will become the order of the day. The changes brought will effectively disempower farmers and usher in Company Raj in agriculture.

Deregulation of Markets to Promote Corporate Profiteering

The BJP Government claims that the 'Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020' will promote barrier-free inter-state and intra-state trade and commerce, including e-commerce or outside the physical premises of markets notified under State Agricultural Produce Marketing legislations. It is being claimed that for the first time the farmers have got the freedom to sell their produce wherever they want. This is far from reality and is again only in line with their penchant for attractive packaging of lies and high-pitch propaganda for the same. The truth is that all through the years a majority of marketable surplus in the hands of the farmers has been sold outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Market Yards. For 31 crops sold between July, 2012 and June 2013, local private traders were the biggest buyers in the case of 29 crops. Market yards or Mandis not all of which were under APMCs were the biggest buyers in just two crops arhar in kharif season and gram in the rabi season. The share of farmers selling their crops in APMC yards does not exceed 25 per cent for any crop except soyabean (Roshan Kishore, “Why farmers are opposing pro-farmer reforms”, the Hindustan Times, 19th September, 2020). Kerala for instance does not have APMC Markets but the Government intervenes in favour of farmers. Bihar did away with APMCs and that has led to farmers getting even lower prices. Clearly, the network of regulated markets alone cannot be handling the marketing of surplus agricultural produce across India.

The APMC Acts were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s to put a check on the monopoly powers of large traders and big buyers who historically used their economic power and extra-economic means to buy grain from poor farmers at low prices. It was to ensure there would not be exploitation of farmer in price fixation, grading, weighing and payments. Although not always implemented effectively, the APMC Acts introduced a system of auctions which was designed to bring more competition in purchase of agricultural produce. Even with such a mechanism the Minimum Support Price (MSP) could not be ensured. Allowing the traders and big buyers to buy produce outside the notified markets directly from farmers would mean that the produce would be purchased without auctions and through bilateral negotiations between large traders and poor peasants. Such a system would be inherently biased against the interests of farmers who will not get remunerative prices. The farmers, who often resort to distress sale of their harvest to pay back loans, invest in the next season or for family expenses will be exposed to a grossly unequal system when local traders are replaced by big capital and the Government having no role. Even in existing systems where contract farming is going on farmers are often denied even the prices agreed upon (usually unreasonably low and not adhering to C2+50%) by citing quality or grading issues or even manipulation of weights. Price support will no longer be available and farmers will be exposed to volatile world market prices having to bear burden of price crashes while being unable to gain from high prices. In effect the support system of Minimum Support Price and public procurement will be finished. All talk of One Nation One Market like its earlier slogan of One Nation One Tax will only bring more distress to peasant producers. It is not restrictions in marketing that is causing distress of farmers; it is rather the absence of remunerative prices and assured procurement that is leading to distress. Nowhere in the three Bills there is any talk of assured purchase at not less than the MSP calculated as per C2+50% is mentioned.

When the three Ordinances/Bills are read together one can clearly understand how the World Trade Organisation diktats to cut subsidies, reduce public stockholding and such measures are being implemented. The Shanta Kumar Committee had articulated the same and recommended privatisation of procurement and storage operations as well as for a reduced role for the Central Government. The Committee had recommended that the Centre should make it clear to States that it would not accept grains under the Central pool beyond the quantity needed by the State for its own PDS and OWS in case of any bonus being given by them on top of MSP. This is the direction in which the BJP Government is moving. In a State like Kerala where the LDF Government is procuring paddy at Rs.2750/Quintal that is about Rs.900/Quintal more than the Central MSP one can imagine what impact that will have on the farmers’ lives.

Unbridled Freedom for Hoarding and Blackmarketing

Amendments to the ECA removing commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potatoes from the list of essential commodities will not only emerge as a threat to food security but in the context of the above Legislation also allow traders and agribusinesses to buy unlimited quantity directly from farmers and hoard even in times of emergencies. This was the single most important Act to prevent hoarding of these essential commodities particularly in times of crisis such as the present. Even in normal times, it is not uncommon for the big traders to collude and use practices such as hoarding, creating artificial scarcity to drive up retail prices. The ECA was the main legal instrument against such practices. While the BJP Government claims that in situations such as war, famine, extraordinary price rise and natural calamity, such agricultural foodstuff can be regulated it in the same breath contradicts the claim by saying in the Bill that the installed capacity of a value chain participant and export demand of an exporter will remain exempted from any such stock limit imposition. The changes to the ECA almost render the original Act null and void. The consumers will be affected and we can visualise artificial scarcity, hoarding and black-marketing as well as price rise with such uncontrolled field for the agribusinesses.

The claim that ECA is being amended for attracting investment for cold chain, storage, agricultural infrastructure and processing industries along with its push for 100 percent FDI in these sectors clearly indicates that the purpose is to allow agri-businesses and corporate houses to take over agriculture. The BJP Government using the COVID Pandemic is going all out to woo private sector and FDI into agriculture by simultaneously withdrawing from its responsibility of building a network of scientific storage facilities easily accessible to farmers. The agricultural infrastructure fund of Rs.1 lakh crore announced will also be put at the disposal of corporate agribusinesses in the name of developing infrastructure for procurement, cold storages, transportation connecting farm-gate and accumulation points.

Promotion of Corporate Contract Farming

The hollowness of the claim of granting freedom to farmers to sell their produce wherever they want at guaranteed price is exposed when we look at the ‘The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020’ so attractively packaged. Though the name mentions price assurance nowhere in the Ordinance does it say prices given by a trader or agribusiness to the farmer cannot go below the MSP. Neither is there any mention of fixing the prices at 50 percent above the comprehensive cost of production or C2+50% as promised by the BJP and Narendra Modi in 2014. In reality the Central Government has deregulated the markets and withdrawn its commitment to price support and procurement by the two Bills we discussed earlier. It claims that it will empower farmers to engage with processors, aggregators, wholesalers, large retailers and exporters on a level playing field without any fear of exploitation. Can one imagine a level playing field between agribusinesses like Adani Wilmar, Pepsico, Walmart, Reliance Fresh, ITC etc., and a poor indebted farmer or tenant cultivator? They will only shed crocodile tears after finishing off the peasantry. The claim that the risk of market instability will be transferred from the farmer to the sponsor is baseless. Rather than empowering farmers it will eliminate them and aid the big landlords and agribusinesses to profit at their expense. The SDM will be given all powers of dispute settlement over-ruling the power of the courts. It will put the poor farmers having dispute with big corporate companies at the mercy of the bureaucracy. Predatory agri-businesses and corporate forces will take over agriculture dispossessing the peasantry and firmly ensure corporatisation of agriculture. The thrust to Contract Farming will only enslave the farmers eternally to produce as per the demand and requirement of the agri-businesses. If the intention was genuinely for farmers’ empowerment, protection and price assurance why there is no concrete provision for price guarantee in the Bills?

The “1991 moment” has already seen gradual withdrawal of the State, cuts in farm subsidies and deregulation of the agricultural input markets. It has only lead to removal of price controls and rising input costs as corporate monopolies were given a free hand to fix prices. It has only meant increasing costs of production and falling prices of produce. Farmers aware of this two way squeeze are no longer going to be fooled by seemingly attractive false promises of Narendra Modi and the BJP Government. These moves as well as amendments to Electricity Act to remove subsidies, amendments to EIA; changes in land and labour laws are all at the bidding of corporates. During a pandemic and lockdown the unusual haste in pushing through these legislations in the Parliament without any consultation with farmers, State Governments and in the absence of any such popular demand from below also indicate that the BJP Government have much to hide.

United Struggles of Peasants With Active Solidarity of Workers

The entire peasantry and toiling masses have suffered huge losses of incomes due to the unplanned Lockdown. Instead of providing relief to them with income support, loan waivers, providing foodgrains, generating employment and health facilities the BJP Government is only showering unending benefits as well as concessions to the corporate companies. Rather than facilitating corporate loot and dependence on FDI, the government must ensure cooperative farming by promoting cooperatives of the peasantry and agriculture workers. What is required is remunerative Minimum Support Price for all crops at C2+50% with guaranteed procurement. employment at minimum wage of Rs 600/day to all agricultural workers, income support of at least Rs,7,500/- per month to all non-tax paying poor, at least Rs.300/day as unemployment wages under MGNREGA, increase of PM-KISAN to Rs.18,000/- per year and extending benefits to tenant farmers also and complete loan waiver for landless, tenant, small and middle peasants. Food security and comprehensive social security must also be ensured.

The three Ordinances and the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2020 were burnt in protest in more than 3000 centres across India within a week of its promulgation. United struggles by workers, peasants and agricultural workers have been going on and a plan was worked out for taking up elaborate struggles. On August 9th, 2020, the anniversary of Quit India Movement and 5th September, 2020 massive united struggles with over 2 million participating across the country in each of these actions have taken place. All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee with over 250 organisations in which AIKS is a major constituent, Central Trade Unions and the Bhumi Adhikar Andolan extended solidarity and have been in the forefront of these struggles. The AIKSCC have given a call for Pratirodh Diwas or Resistance Day on 25th September across India. Farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have decided to observe it in the form of a Bandh and farmers across India will have massive protest actions. The working class and Central Trade Unions have extended support. The Left Members of Parliament pushed for Statutory Resolution against the three Bills in Parliament and also protested. Even as real issues of farmers and toiling masses are lying unaddressed, the BJP is trying to divert attention from them. The protests are only going to intensify and these anti-farmer legislations will be resisted come what may.