On Thursday, thousands of farmers from across India are expected to gather at various points in Delhi. They plan to march to Parliament on Friday with their demand for a Joint Session of Parliament to discuss the nation’s agricultural crisis. The march is being organised by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a coalition of around 200 large and small farmer groups from around the country.
In particular, the groups want to discuss two private member bills tabled in the Lok Sabha in August by Hatkanangle MP Raju Shetti, leader of the Swabhimani Paksha, an independent farmers’ political party in Maharashtra. The Bills – The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Bill, 2018, and The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill, 2018 – are the culmination of a series of protests that began in June 2017.
“This is the last opportunity for farmers to assert their voice and get their demands heard,” said Yogendra Yadav, head of Swaraj Kisan Abhiyan and convenor of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee. “If these bills are not introduced in the Winter Session, which is effectively the last of this Lok Sabha, we will have to think of how to respond politically.”
In June 2017, farmer groups in Maharashtra announced a 10-day strike to demand a loan waiver from the state government. The viral WhatsApp messages planning the strike crossed the border into Madhya Pradesh, where groups organised their own strikes as well. On June 6 that year, police fired on protesting farmers and killed six of them in Mandsaur in western Madhya Pradesh. The deaths were a flashpoint for protests by farmers’ groups across the country. The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee was one of two major coalitions to be created soon after. Since then, the committee has been pushing for institutional agrarian reforms, including the two Bills.
The Bills were first discussed and approved in a Kisan Sansad or mock parliamentary session conducted by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee in Delhi in November 2017. Between December and May, the committee organised 18 Kisan Mukti Sammelans across India with farmers to endorse and finalise the Bills.
“There are many things in the economic system of the country that are controlled at the national level,” said Kiran Kumar Vissa, founder of the Rythu Swarajya Vedika in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, on the need for a central Bill. “Banking, trade, and minimum support prices are all central subjects which influence farmers decisions.”
Said Ajit Navale, head of the All India Kisan Sabha in Maharashtra: “We want to correct the direction of the government. Nothing will change with just one or two policies. The entire point of view and grammar of how we approach agriculture must change.”
What are the broad demands this change of perspective covers? Roughly, fair and remunerative prices for farmers’ crops and freedom from debt.
Minimum Support Prices
A key demand of the Bills is to make the minimum support price a legal requirement. At the start of each agricultural season, the Centre announces a minimum support price for around 20 crops, based on the cost of inputs, labour, land value and other considerations. This price represents a promise from the State to farmers that should market prices fall below a certain level, it will intervene to guarantee that price. In practice, the State procures only paddy and wheat, making higher minimum support prices somewhat meaningless.
Higher minimum support prices announced in June have done little to influence market prices today, with market prices now up to 30% below the minimum support price for certain crops.
“Because there is no such Bill, minimum support price now has no statutory value,” said Vissa. “Central government agencies have recommended a legal backing to minimum support prices to make it statutory. This is what we are also demanding so that the government will be obligated to ensure minimum support prices are given to farmers.”
The minimum support prices Bill suggests that this price should be the base price for auctions conducted at any agricultural market, including those run by Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees. This would mean that traders will be unable to pay farmers anything less than this price. Some economists argue that interventions like this could also distort the markets, with traders exiting the market or buying lower quantities.
‘Procurement for all crops’
If minimum support prices are a promise of security, procurement is the other aspect.
Historically, the only crops the Centre and states have procured with any regularity have been paddy and wheat, leading farmers in states such as Punjab and Haryana, where procurement is stable, to rely heavily on those two crops for their income.
“Our demand is that minimum support price and procurement should be there for all crops,” said S Jagmohan Singh of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Dakaunda). “Diversification is a must. Paddy can’t be our only crop because it is polluting our water and Punjab’s farmers are getting a bad name for burning their fields. We do this only because we have to sow every season.”
In September, the Centre announced PM-AASHA, the Pradhan Mantri Annadata Aay Sanrakshan Abhiyan, a three-part scheme that will end up shifting the responsibility– as well as expenditure – for procurement to states.
Vissa cautiously welcomed this scheme, but said that it was not clear yet how they would function. Since 2017, states have experimented with schemes to ensure minimum support prices to farmers, including Madhya Pradesh’s Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, which promised to pay farmers the difference between market prices and the minimum support price, but instead of farmers, it ended up benefiting traders who were distorting markets.
A key demand since farm protests began is loan waivers for farmers. The committee has called for a one-time loan waiver to all farmers to provide them with immediate credit relief. This will include those indebted to private moneylenders. The freedom from indebtedness Bill suggests that the state will repay private loans, if approached by moneylenders with adequate proof.
The Bill also suggests a Debt Relief Commission to be set up at the Centre and states to identify distressed areas, prevent debt recovery for up to three years, reschedule loans, and to waive certain loans.
In the several farmer rallies of the last two years, a glaring absence has been that of tenant farmers, agricultural workers and women farmers. The committee wants to expand the definition of farmers to include not just those who own land, which is a critical point in accessing government support including institutional credit, crop insurance and drought compensation. The Bill suggests that all those engaged in agriculture should become eligible for Kisan Credit Cards with a five-year validity that will serve as identity proof in accessing this support. According to Vissa, the recognition for tenant farmers came from the group’s experience in Telangana, which has a high percentage of tenant farmers.
Said Yadav, “This is a historic occasion in many ways. Never before has a forum of 200 organisations, of landed and landless farmers, of red, green and blue ideologies, come together in this way.”