Protesters aside, even farmers who support laws want price assurance
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on Friday, in which he defended the new agricultural laws and renewed his offer for talks to farm leaders, has been spurned by the protesting farmers camped on Delhi’s borders even as some other farm organisations said they are willing to give the changes a chance.
However, most farmers, whether part of the protest or not, seem to agree on one basic point: the need for assured prices.
Satpal Singh, a member of Bharatiya Kisan Majdoor Sangh, sat through the PM’s speech at his home in Balia, Uttar Pradesh. “The Prime Minister has said he will never allow interests of farmers to be harmed. I think these laws will benefit us by giving us more options. But farmers should get minimum prices,” Singh said.
To be sure, the organisation Singh is a member of has publicly supported the government’s reform agenda and its leader Chaudhury Ram Kumar Balia has met agriculture minister Narendra Tomar last well to pledge support for three farm laws that other unions, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, want scrapped.
Several small farmers unaligned to any large political party or farm unions, said they didn’t understand the laws.
“We watched the speech at the panchayat office. If farmers are protesting for better prices, I support them. I don’t understand the laws, but I feel big buyers should come to us. Local markets are in a bad shape,” said Kadam Barua, a paddy grower in Assam’s Lakhimpur district.
Modi, in a major address to farmers on Friday, said his government was open to talks with farm unions and even opposition parties who have pressed on with a massive pushback against his farm policies so long as discussions were based on “tark” and “tathya” (Hindi for ‘arguments and facts’), but staunchly defended his farm-reform agenda needed to “modernise” the farm sector.
Farm unions protesting the laws, who have hunkered down on the capital’s borders, slammed the PM’s speech.
“Not once did the PM address the protesting farmers. The issues he raised did not address the main problem. Farmers want assured prices,” said Avik Saha of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a leading platform of protesting farm unions.
Even those who said they agreed with the Prime Minister said farmers should get minimum prices, underscoring a common gripe of farmers.
“We have said we support the laws but mandis should strengthened so that farmers get minimum support prices,” said Satpal Singh of the Farmer Producer Organisation Association of Kurukshetra. He is a different person from his namesake mentioned above. His organisation, too, has supported the laws.
The massive farmers’ rebellion was set off by three laws pushed by the government in September that allow agribusinesses to trade with minimal regulation, permit traders to stockpile large quantities of food commodities for economies of scale and lay down new contract farming rules.
Farmers say the new rules favour big corporations to whom they will lose business and gradually end the system of state-set minimum prices.
The prime minister in his speech on Friday insisted that the reforms would not impact the MSP mechanism, which would continue as before. He however hasn’t committed to offer a legal backing for it. “The Opposition is misleading farmers regarding MSP. If farmers want to sell at msp, they can go to mandis. If they think they are getting price from private traders, they have the freedom,” the PM said.
On Wednesday, Darshan Pal, a senior farm leader, had spelt out why the assurance on minimum prices was not enough. The government sets minimum prices for 23 commodities but mainly buys wheat and rice at these floor prices. The so-called minimum support prices or MSP is calculated using a measure of cultivation cost known as A2+FL, which is a narrower measure of costs of farming that takes into account all expenses of farming a particular crop plus the value of family labour.
Pal said the farm unions want the government to adopt a comprehensive measure of cultivation costs that include the imputed cost of capital and the rent on the land, called ‘C2’ in economic parlance. Farmers also want the government to buy all 23 commodities, which would bloat its food subsidy bill hugely.
“The problem is that the government cannot buy all 23 commodities, as demanded by farmers. This makes little economic sense. Farmers need assured prices and support, but they have to be supported through less market-distorting means,” said Pravesh Sharma, former agriculture secretary of Madhya Pradesh and fellow of the think-tank ICRIER