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Citizen social responsibility (CSR): Farmers protest – Fight for rights or a political gimmick?

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Three divisive bills that will alter the way Indian farmers do business have roiled the parliament of the country and triggered demonstrations that have now spilled onto the streets.
Beyond the political farce, the bills also have divided views – although Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the reforms a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture, opposition parties called them “anti-farmer” and compared them to a “death warrant”. They are seen as unjust and exploitative by angry and worried farming communities. The step has been partially supported by pro-reform economists, but they argue it is a piecemeal strategy that is unlikely to achieve much.
There are many reasons for persistent agrarian distress in India, from low productivity to fragmented landholdings, lack of storage facilities and high indebtedness.
Agriculture, which employs half the population of India, has been in dire need of reform for a long time. But it is unlikely that the new – and contentious – bills would be a panacea for farmers’ troubles. In essence, their objective is to allow a greater play of market forces in agriculture. One view is that this will boost farm profits, draw investment and technology, and boost productivity. It will also free farmers from the influence of middlemen who operate wholesale markets effectively. They will lose their commissions with these reforms though, and state governments stand to lose vital tax revenue.
Experience worldwide has shown that, contrary to improving farm incomes, corporatisation of agriculture has often depressed them. Leaving farmers open to the tyranny of the markets would be akin to putting the sheep before the wolves.
In the current system, there are leakages that need to be reformed, but replacing one failed model with another is not the solution.”
This claim is backed by evidence from states where farmers have not gained even after dismantling wholesale markets. There are no simple answers. But experts accept that in a world where agriculture employs so many millions, leaving the fates of farmers to the vagaries of the market cannot be the only answer.
The problem is that it’s unclear how this is going to work out in practice. Farmers in many states can now sell to private players. These bills will have a National framework, but farmers are mostly worried that this will inevitably lead to the end of wholesale markets and guaranteed prices, leaving them with no choice for back-up. They will not return to the mandi or use it as a bargaining chip during negotiations if they are not happy with the price offered by a private buyer.
Initially, farmers will feel drawn to these private players, who will give a better price for the produce. In the meantime the state mandis will pack up and after a few years, these players will begin to exploit the farmers.
The government has said that the mandi scheme will continue, and the Minimum Support Price (MSP) they are currently providing will not be withdrawn. Yet they’re wary of producers. Farmers worry that this might be a death sentence for the ones who are small and oppressed. They claim that these bills are aimed at killing farmers by turning over large companies to agriculture and the economy.
For the political parties, farmers have long been a key voting block, and they are at the forefront of these protests – so vested interests are obviously at stake. Farmers have always been taken for a ride; often in the name of loan pardon; sometimes in the context of new laws. All political parties know that farmers are a crucial vote bank and they have no other option but to show them breathtaking dreams at the time of elections.
Is there ever going to be a day when the Country’s leaders and bureaucrats will give up their selfishness and genuinely care about the farmers’ interests? Will anyone think of a way out which will be beneficial for the farmers in the long run?
If the current central government really operates in the best interest of the farmers, then why is it so difficult to pledge in writing that the government will never kill the Mandi system nor withdraw the Minimum Support Price (MSP) that they currently offer? Why can the government not be open to amendment in the bill after discussing it with the farmers if there are deficiencies in it? If the legislation is meant for safeguarding the interests of farmers and giving them a better future, then why should there not be a debate with farmers representatives before submitting the bill?
There are many such questions and we hope that all these questions will be answered to our satisfaction.

The author, Amit Upadhyay, is Editor-in-Chief of The CSR Journal 

To read more articles by the author, click here

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