Issue 18

Harvesting a Vote Bank

As the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh gear up for their respective state elections, political parties are making several promises to the farmers of the two states. The looming shadow of the year-long farmer’s agitation that ended in November 2021 with the repeal of the three farm laws has made its mark, as political parties have taken resurgent interest in farmer’s issues. In Punjab, farmers’ unions who were part of the agitation have created their own political party, Samyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) to contest the state elections. Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has sustained his campaign against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the face of the elections.

Amidst the debate and the rhetoric around farmer’s issues, we take a look into the promises made for the farmers by the main contenders in the upcoming elections of UP and Punjab. 

In Uttar Pradesh, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is primarily banking on agricultural schemes and decisions it had already implemented, both at the state and center to campaign among the farmers. Sugarcane prices have been a contentious issue in Uttar Pradesh, especially the Western UP region where 40 lakh farmers grow sugarcane. In 2021, the UP government had increased the purchasing price of sugarcane by Rs 25 per quintal, hoping to pursue the UP farmer population. However, the opposition has not shied away from pointing out that sugar mills are yet to clear around Rs 2000 crore pending dues to farmers. 

The BJP is also campaigning on the basis of national level schemes such as the PM Kisan Nidhi instalments, which it claims has benefitted numerous farmers. On the issue of guaranteed Minimum Support Price (MSP), which emerged as one of the main demands of farmers during their year-long protest, the BJP has largely stayed silent. Overall, the party has primarily chosen to campaign on the issue of better law and order, occasionally raising issues around “Jinnah”, or “80 vs 20 elections”, in what can be seen as a way to polarise Hindu-Muslim voters. 

The alliance of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) have emerged as the main challengers to the incumbent BJP. The alliance has opted to heavily emphasise on farmers issues throughout their campaign. In a press conference dedicated to farmers’ issues, former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of SP stated that upon coming to power their government will make a law to assure MSP for every crop. 

Additionally, he also stated that his government will provide free electricity up to 300 units which will benefit the farmers immensely. The party also promised to provide free irrigation facilities for the farmers. Yadav also mentioned that a Farmers Corpus Fund and a Farmers Revolving Fund would be created to pay arrears to sugarcane farmers within 15 days of their government formation. He further stated that farmers will be granted interest free loans, while insurance and pension schemes will be implemented for their benefit. 

Another big promise that the SP-RLD alliance has made is that it will withdraw all cases filed against farmers during the year long agitation. They have promised to pay a compensation of Rs 25 lakhs to the family of each farmer who died during the protest. Additionally, they have assured to grant the status of ‘martyrs’ to the farmers who died during the protests. RLD leader Jayant Choudhury’s claim that “this is an election between ‘ganna’ (sugarcane) vs ‘Jinnah’” seems to epitomise the campaign approaches of the two main contenders in Uttar Pradesh. 

In Punjab, the state which participated most vehemently in the farmer’s agitation, the upcoming election is witnessing a tri-cornered contest. While incumbent Congress is looking to retain power, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and the alliance of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are seen as the main challengers. Responsible for the supply of wheat and paddy to most of the country, the farmers of Punjab have been promised several benefits by each party. 

The Congress recently released a ‘farm model, ’ which promises to help farmers steer out of the wheat-paddy cycle by replacing paddy with diversified crops, thereby allowing beneficial returns. The party has promised the procurement of dal, oilseeds, and maize at guaranteed MSPs through state cooperatives and corporations. The party has also promised to create a parallel market intervention scheme under which the government would pay the differential between market selling price and MSP directly to the farmers. 

Similarly, the SAD-BSP alliance has also promised to introduce MSP for fruits and vegetables and pay the differential to farmers. The alliance further promised crop insurance for any damage of crops during the protests. The alliance also acknowledged the need to end the culture of over-reliance on wheat and paddy crops in the state. 

Meanwhile, the Aam Aadmi Party has promised to make farming profitable through a ‘special plan.’ While the special plan itself has not been revealed, nor a manifesto published, the AAP has made several pledges through its campaigns. The party has promised that upon forming the government farmers will be paid crop loss compensation by April 30th. The party also stated that they would facilitate the use of stubble for power, cardboard and agro-based industries, and DAP fertilisers. 

Uttar Pradesh will vote from February 10th to March 7th in seven phases, meanwhile Punjab is set to vote on 20th February in a single phase. The results will be announced on 10th March. While the election rhetoric has often tended to shift towards religious and caste based issues in both the states, the impact of the farmers protests have assured that agrarian issues are not overlooked by the parties. One can imagine the stakes for the farmers to be higher in these state elections given the backdrop of a successful farmers’ agitation and given that agriculture remains a state subject. 

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student in Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes keen interest in anything related to Indian politics. 

Picture Credits: Al Jazeera

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 7

The Violence We Inherit

This year, the morning of 26th January held two instead of just one Republic Day parade. At Rajpath, celebrations for the 72nd year of the adoption of the Indian Constitution took place, whereas, in another part of Delhi, the farmers were exercising their right promised by this prestigious document, to highlight their demand to revoke the three controversial farm bills through a tractor rally. While at one end, the sound of the 21-Gun salute echoed in the air, in another part, chants of ‘kisaan kanoon wapas lo’ and clashes between the police and farmers were observed. 

Soon, videos surfaced on social media platforms of farmers driving tractors recklessly, bringing down barricades as policemen scrambled out of their way. Instances of police indulging in lathi-charge and tear-gas at protestors were also recorded. Events escalated to a level where certain protestors derailed from their march to hang the Nishaan Sahib, a saffron flag of great relevance to Sikh religion, at the Red Fort. The aftermath resulted in over 80 police personnel injured. 

In the past, having been known as the land of satyagraha, we have developed a certain identity rooted in non-violence. Does this notion influence the different ways we view violence in a protest today? While violence has been excused in certain contexts, it has been condemned in others. Moreover, there is a culture of blaming the violence on a ‘foreigner’ as a means to separate oneself from the narrative as it hinders the ‘non-violent’ reputation of India.  

With regards to R-Day, various conflicting views have surfaced regarding who holds the baton of responsibility for instigating the derailment of events. While Delhi Police Commissioner, SN Srivastava claims that the farmers were responsible for inciting violence and should be held accountable for their condemnable actions, various farmer leaders have explicitly separated themselves from those who chose to deviate. In an interview with the Hindu, Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union claimed that “it was a historic parade by lakhs of farmers with over 2 lakh tractors and 99.9% of the farmers stayed peaceful”. Along with this, certain farmer union leaders, as well as the opposition, have been propagating the view that the farmers were not responsible for the mayhem, and violence was instead enforced by individuals who were ‘foreign’ to the community and aimed at wanting to defame the peaceful farmer protests.

As simply consumers of news content, judgement about ‘who is responsible’ cannot be passed without proper investigation. However, it is interesting to note the emergence of different narratives surrounding the violence witnessed on R-Day. Certain sections that support the farmers argue that the violence showcased was ‘minimal’ and justified, considering that the government was choosing to ignore their citizens’ demands. Some even claim that it was anyone but the farmer responsible for the upheaval. However, those who do not believe in the farmers’ cause broadly argue that engaging in violence is condemnable and therefore warrants severe repercussions.

This manner of justifying violence in certain instances, and condemning it in others is not new to Indian culture. Ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata have justified use of violence, where dharma (duty) to the caste system supersedes the value of kinship bonds. Romila Thapar, in her paper ‘War in Mahabharata’, highlights the moral-ethical dilemma that surrounded the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, where the latter encouraged the former to kill his maternal uncle as he was an ally of the Kauravas. So, social obligations towards one’s caste became a valid explanation for killing a kinsman. Despite the description of “arrows tearing apart chests of warriors and free flow of blood creating a pandemonium”, the epic is still passed on in the form of tales to future generations, with gruesome violence deemed acceptable in the name of acquiring a kingdom and protecting its people. While the aim may be universal peace, it is reached through violent means.

Furthermore, ancient India has often been deemed as ‘peaceful’ and the reign of terror and violence has often been blamed on the ‘foreigner’ or ‘intruder’, like the Mughals and the British. This association of non-violence with ancient India exists  because we predominantly identify ancient India with Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty who chose the path of non-violence and Buddhism after witnessing the repercussions of the Kalinga war. However, historian and author of ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’, Upinder Singh, in an interview with theWire, highlights how even “Jain and Buddhism texts use the vocabulary and imagery of war. Mahavira is a jina (victor); the Buddha fights a battle against the god Mara before attaining enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.” Historian DN Jha, in his book ‘Against the Grain’ also challenges this rhetoric of ancient India being devoid of any religious violence. Jha traces the Buddhist Sanskrit work, Divyavadana that describes Pushyamitra Shunga, a Hindu ruler and founder of the Shunga dynasty in 185 BCE, as the “great persecutor of Buddhists”. Jha claims that the ruler was responsible for the vandalising of the Sanchi Stupa and burning of the Ghositaram monastery in Kaushami that killed Buddhist monks. 

While these are just a few of the various instances of violence in India’s past, they have either not been emphasised enough or have been consciously ignored. The question to raise then is, when is violence excused and when is it not? 

The glorification of non-violence can be credited to satyagraha for freedom from British colonialism in modern Indian history. As Indians, we identify as the land of ahimsa and, therefore, choose to ignore the other side of the story. In fact, school history textbooks, sidelined those who engaged in violence for the freedom struggle and labelled them as ‘radicals’. However, movements like the 1857 revolt, showcased extreme violence that shook the stability of the East India Company within the country. The violence, while aimed towards a ‘foreigner’ was instigated and chosen by us as a path to rebel. If it weren’t for the widespread killing and burning of bungalows as well as chants of “maro firangi ko” (kill the white man) that filled the streets, would the British have left when they did?

Coming back to the opinions concerning the farmers’ protests—it can be observed that both the views justifying the violence and the ones condemning it and blaming it on an ‘intruder’, are views that are not new to Indian history. These biases can be observed in the ways we judge violence in current times.

Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 7

Farm Bills 2020 and The Future of The Indian Economy

Thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh, have been protesting at several Delhi border points since the 26th of November 2020. Their demands are centred around the repealment of three recently passed farm bills. The bills are namely, Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. Unable to reach a consensus with respect to the terms of these bills, the central government has decided to postpone the implementation of the bill.

The discontent of the farmers and the inability of the government to meet their demands raises several questions about their validity and the causes for grievance. While the protests have received major media attention, this article will endeavour to shed light on the larger impact the bills could potentially have on the Indian economy.

The Indian agricultural sector has been the least efficient sector of the Indian economy. While over  42% of the country’s manpower is employed in the primary sector, it contributes to about 17% of the GDP, making it the most populated and least efficient wing of the Indian economy. Several factors contribute to the inefficiency of the industry, most of which the new farm bills aim to address. 

The Indian agricultural industry has had a grave imbalance over the last couple of years, in terms of surplus production as well as issues with Minimum Support Price (MSP). This imbalance has continued to plague the market. Farmers fear that with the three new laws, the government is signaling its movement away from the current patterns of procurement at MSP. This uncertainty and lack of trust is one the primary causes of the recent protests. 

Surplus stocks of wheat and rice have hindered the agricultural economy in India and also the environment. The continuous wheat-rice crop pattern, especially in North India, has resulted in dead and excess stock lying at FCI warehouses. Most of the surplus is mainly a result of MSP laws that have given farmers a guarantee of purchase at a fixed price. This has allowed farmers from green revolution states such as Punjab and Haryana to grow MSP crops like wheat and rice irrespective of the market demand. As per certain reports, nearly 89% of the rice produced by the farmers in Punjab and 85% in Haryana is procured by the government. Hence, farmers in Punjab and Haryana face no price risk and are incentivised to grow paddy and wheat that are going to waste in FCI godowns. The surplus production at highly subsidised rates leads to increasing government expenditure and wastage of resources. While the government has assured farmers that MSP will continue to be provided, its continued implementation will surely hinder economic growth. 

The APMC Bypass law introduced permits for trade in agricultural produce outside the APMC regulated mandis. Private mandis can be set up across the country where anyone can buy produce from farmers. In addition to this, the bill also includes contract farming laws that facilitate an agreement between farmers and buyers before sowing under which farmers are contracted to sell produce to buyers at a predetermined price. Both the AMPC bypass law and contract farming laws are designed to allow farmers to deal directly with buyers and eliminate middlemen, giving them more choices on whom to sell their produce to. The laws will also allow firms to dictate the crops that the farmers can grow, thereby eliminating the surplus issue and meeting market demands. Crop diversification will allow farmers to contribute more efficiently to the economy and could provide them with greater financial security. In addition to the economic benefits, crop diversification will make farms more environmentally friendly. Planting a variety of crops makes the soil healthier thereby reducing the need to use excessive amounts of fertilizer. It also ensures that crops are more resistant to disease and therefore require fewer pesticides.

If we view these laws through a simple high-school economic lens, they look great as more buyers usually means a better price for the seller. However, that may cease to be the case in a realistic scenario. There is a possibility that these laws may lead to the rise of oligopolies that dictate prices and bulldoze their way with the farmers. This fear of oligopolies controlling the market is a major concern for farmers and a crucial debate made by protestors. The bill in itself doesn’t do much to prevent the rise of oligopolies. It is peremptory that the government regulate these markets to ensure that farmers have a choice in buyers and are not forced to deal in an unfair market.

It is not uncommon for governments to subsidise agriculture.The agricultural industry continues to have the highest subsidies around the world. The government must switch their subsidy allocation. There needs to be a shift from spending money in the MSP system to increasing capital expenditure on infrastructure in machinery and irrigation facilities to help Indian farmers be more competitive in local and global markets. The solution to the economic and environmental challenges facing agriculture in Indian states points towards a shift from the current system to a revised one. The farmer’s bill while representing the first step towards this economic shift requires a second look to ensure that farmers continue to remain protected. 

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Program. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 6

MSP: What has it Meant Historically and What does it Mean Now?

We must keep in mind three  things – 1) price systems are symptoms, not solutions 2) all group interests have sub group interests, which further disintegrate to individual interests and  3) agricultural political economy is shaped by history. So when someone calls farmers protesting  “khalistani”, not only is that horrible behaviour but also a disservice to the nation & detrimental for national interest.

Recently, the parliament passed three bills that were hailed to be both anti farm and farm liberating. This led to widespread protests throughout the country, more so in north india. The main summary is – farmers can sell their produce outside the government controlled mandis, they can get into contracts with agents as they prefer. When and  how depends on  their judgement & capacity.

During the 1960’s owing to war, and political instability, India suffered a food shortage which made the idea of “High Yield Variety” seeds attractive in order to ramp up agriculture. The MSP, or Minimum Support Price was hence brought in, to a) Incentivise  crops like wheat, rice & b) to create a sense of agricultural stability. 

In 1965 an Agricultural Price Commission (renamed as CACP now) was set up to estimate and advise the price policy. It is a price floor, under which the government ensures all the listed crops. Since it is a five decade old policy, scrutiny is natural. Normally there are around two  dozen crops under it. It was after all, , a temporary reform to boost production..

The APMC or Agricultural Produce Market Committee formed by the government . has two major roles – tackling exploitation coupled with  fixing power asymmetry between farmers & bigger agents and reducing farm to retail prices. By dividing states into geographical spots it runs mandis where there are charges and licenses for participation. Now many mandis have been brought to online mode of operation like e-mandis through digital means & token systems. All MSP procurement is not through APMC either. There are other ways like through the arhatiya (agents) who are generally powerful figures.

The next major economic reforms came in 1990, needless to say, bypassed the farm.

Our focus is primarily on the MSP. Is it a right? Is it a solution? In my opinion, it is not. Price assurance isn’t belling the cat, it is rather negotiating with the cat at the expense of another cat, with heavy consequences. Prices are indicators of the market, they are a product of people’s preferences. They cannot arise out of legislation. The birth of MSP took place to boost certain crops. Today it leads to overproduction (and wastage) of these crops at the expense of the taxpayer. Another important concern is the diversion of resources. Since MSP makes these crops attractive it leads to diversion of resources that could be used for growing other suitable crops (only where MSP is accessible). 

At best, the MSP is a symptom of inefficiency and need of a safety net, not a solution to it. It distorts the market in the promise of safe outcomes. The FCI currently stocks more than twice the buffer stock requirement (97mt in 2020 vs 41 mt req.). This is not just overproduction but dead capital. Other concerns are the inequality in the policy itself. A small number of farmers concentrated in a few states are beneficiaries of the scheme e.g. Punjab, Haryana, MP vs Odisha. Therefore farmers do not benefit equally from it. In fact there are large inequalities which are reflected in the outcomes. Smaller farmers in states like Odisha (which in fact produces 1/10th of rice) depend on public welfare, not  price insurance.  There are also information barriers as not many small farmers are even aware about the MSP, let alone derive their income from it. It is quite possible that this policy makes rich farmers richer and poor ones poorer. An average farming household in Punjab enjoys 1.2 lac per annum in subsidy, 2.5 times of national avg. More importantly, by definition, the government . cannot “predict” prices, it will most certainly predict it wrong. 

APMC’s hurt both the freedom of selling and the freedom of movement as per one’s wish. There is excessive cartelization and barriers to entry and trade. In that sense there’s fundamentally nothing revolutionary about these bills as the government claims while they may be more freedom enabling. They do little to address the broken system. The fear or misconception that the private sector will consume the farmers is not exactly true. Firstly it is a fact that agriculture, which is heavily state regulated is ironically one of the largest private sectors in the country. It runs on trust, contracts, promises and so on, much of which are informal. Mark that only about 6-7 percent of total farmers have access to MSP. More than 90 percent are doing trade in their personal capacities voluntarily in local markets, through agents and supply chains which are private sector transactions. If the government starts buying all the production of all MSP crops, it will go broke. Moreover the govt claims the MSP isn’t going anywhere. Neither are the mandis. Though if people find better opportunities by this increase in freedom, they will become obsolete. The bigger question is how many farmers have the resources to deal directly?  The blame towards the “middlemen” is unwarranted as they play a crucial role in any supply chain.

Another misconception is that farmers are driven by other politics and belong to certain states. Such claims aren’t well founded either. The reason is simple. Even though the protests are widespread, Punjab & Haryana have  been at the forefront of agro movements, historically. They were the biggest beneficiaries of the Green Revolution and they’re biggest beneficiaries of MSP and mandi systems. Wheat & Rice contribute to huge parts of agri-revenue. They have bigger and more connected unions unlike say Odisha. Punjab has avg land holdings of 3.7 hectares vs national avg of 1.08 hectares. Involvement in states such as Bihar (avg 0.4 hectares holding) isn’t very wide spread as they have already abolished APMC

The point is whether they’re aware about how good/bad the alternatives (which haven’t been tested) are or they realise the trade-offs which may come at the expense of someone else. With these bills some speculations are obvious. What about the price support? What about volatility without it? Are there not going to be any mandis anymore? It is only natural that we dissent. With these bills that will supposedly “liberalise” agriculture, some sections might suffer losses too and then move from farming to manufacturing or other productive sectors as most developed nations do. But are there enough opportunities ? How smooth is this transition? Will this lead to alienation of traditional occupation? What about power asymmetry, negotiation and information barriers? These are genuine questions and the government response to them have been lacklustre and opaque. The problem of agriculture is two fold – productivity and accessibility. The removal  of APMCs in themselves does little to solve either. However it is worth pointing out that most parties protesting or disapproving of the bills demanded similar reforms. Some even included them in their manifestos.

Almost all countries protect their primary sector and so should India. But not through price supports where there is overproduction. Incentives to increase productivity and shift to other beneficial crops, transition to farm entrepreneurship etc.The alternative should be to have a more universal, decentralised and direct support e.g. an income support. A Universal Basic Income could be on the cards but it is still a long long time away. Some policies that have delivered results the Rythu Bandhu scheme or the Kalia scheme by the Odisha govt. Welfare is a tricky, slippery slope and old policies must be tested and retested before they get politicised. Farm prosperity must be the priority, even if it comes at the cost of knee jerk decisions. The image of a poor farmer representing the country seems patronising and representative at the same time. But it must go.

Amlan is a final year student at Ashoka University who hails from Odisha.

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