Mumbai: Farmers across several states, particularly in Punjab and Haryana, have hit the streets in protest against the three contentious farm bills passed by Parliament last month.
While many farmers in Maharashtra too have joined the agitation, there were some who took to the streets for a different reason — to celebrate the very same farm laws.
They gathered in groups of 15-20, held rallies as a show of support, burst crackers in celebration and even raised gudhis, usually a Gudhi Padwa tradition to mark the beginning of the new year in Maharashtra.
These are farmers associated with the Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ group founded by economist and agriculturist Sharad Joshi, also a former MP, in 1978.
For this group, the new farm laws are a step towards exactly what it has always advocated — freedom of access to markets.
The Shetkari Sanghatana
The Shetkari Sanghatana was born in the Pune district at a time when onion prices had plummeted in the primary markets.
Joshi, who himself had some experience in dry farming, said it was decades of unremunerative prices that had kept farmers poor, and rural poverty can be dealt with only by making agriculture profitable with cost-based pricing. He coined the phrase, ‘India versus Bharat’ — with India being the idea of the urban, British-minded and elite, while Bharat is the idea of rural farmers — and sought to highlight how India’s industrial planning was benefiting India at the cost of Bharat.
“Over the eighties, the organisation and its activities had a countrywide influence and no political party could afford to ignore its existence and strength,” said a paper by R.R. Doshi, published in the Indian Journal of Agricultural Economists in 1990.
Under Joshi, who was a Rajya Sabha member from 2004 to 2010, the Shetkari Sanghatana had also agitated in favour of genetically modified (GM) technology to be made available to farmers, demanding freedom of technology along with freedom of markets. Last year, farmers of the Shetkari Sanghatana planted unapproved varieties of GM seed in defiance of the law, to strongly press for their demand for GM technology to be made freely available to Indian farmers.
‘Opposition to farm laws political’
Of the three laws, the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act seeks to give farmers the freedom to sell outside notified agricultural produce marketing committee (APMC) markets.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act makes contract farming possible, allowing farmers to enter into agreements with agribusinesses, wholesalers, retailers, processors or exporters to sell at a pre-agreed price.
The third law, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, removes commodities such as cereals, pulses, onion, potato and oilseeds from the essential commodities list, doing away with the stock holding limits on these.
Several political parties as well as farmer groups across the country have strongly opposed the laws, saying the changes will leave farmers at the mercy of big corporates with better bargaining power, and may also trigger unemployment in APMC mandis. The Shiromani Akali Dal, a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally, even broke away from the National Democratic Alliance over the issue.
But the Sanghatana believes the opposition to the legislations is politically motivated.
“The protests are all politically motivated,” Lalit Bahale, spokesperson of the Shetkari Sanghatana who is a farmer himself in Vidarbha’s Akola district, told ThePrint.
“Farmers know that APMCs exploit them and that hami bhav (minimum support prices) is kami bhav (low price.) Today, if you go to malls, you see organic cereals and pulses nicely packaged and being sold by brands at high prices. That could be us, putting our produce directly on the shelf out there,” he added.
Soon after Parliament cleared the three farm bills despite strong protests by opposition parties, including the Congress, members of the Shetkari Sanghatana circulated messages on various social media platforms and farmers’ WhatsApp groups talking about how the opposition is just for the sake of opposing.
One such message, posted on a WhatsApp group by the organisation’s West Vidarbha division, said, “Just like late Sharad Joshi, former Prime Ministers Dr. Manmohan Singh and late PV Narasimha Rao were also in favour (of such reforms). Congress had also mentioned this in its manifesto. But now Congress, Trinamool Congress Party and Akali Dal are opposing just for the sake of opposition. Considering the present and the future, if we want happy days for the farmers, how can we keep them constrained?”
Another such forwarded message has been circulating a page from Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar’s political autobiography, Lok Majhe Sangati, in which the leader has advocated direct access to markets for farmers and doing away with APMCs. The NCP has joined the bandwagon of parties opposing the controversial farm laws.
Speaking to the media last month, Pawar had said the farm bills were well intentioned, but questioned the hurry in which they were being pushed through.
‘Support ideological but more needs to be done’
While the Shetkari Sanghatana is patting the back of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led central government for opening up the market for farmers, the backing comes with a word of caution.
The impact of the recently-approved farm laws will not be as strong as anticipated if the move is not accompanied with other agriculture-related reforms, the farmers’ group says.
“Our support is ideological and we are not saying this will have an assured impact. The impact can be good or bad, we don’t know, because the associated laws have not been reformed,” Bahale said. “The government took this step because it was an economic inevitability.”
On 24 August, members of the Shetkari Sanghatana at the taluka level across multiple districts in Maharashtra submitted letters addressed to PM Modi at the local tehsildar’s office, welcoming the farm bills. The letters, however, also said more needed to be done to completely free the farmer from restrictions.
The organisation is now in the process of drafting a more detailed letter to Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar with specific recommendations for reforms, such as amending the Foreign Trade Act for ease of exports of Indian agricultural produce, especially onions, and abolishing the Seed Act. The Centre recently issued a notification banning the export of onions after a steady spike in the price of wholesale onions over two months.
The Seed Act regulates seed production and certification, and thus the quality of certain notifier varieties for sale. This, the Shetkari Sanghatana thinks, will limit the farmer from choosing different newer varieties of crops.
For better acceptability among people and politicians, farmers of the Shetkari Sanghatana think the new bunch of laws should not be called the ‘farm laws,’ but ‘consumer laws’.
“Between the farmer and the consumer, there were eight steps. This law will cut the distance. The farmer will get a more remunerative price and the consumer will also get better produce at a lower price,” Bahale said. “Call them consumer laws and they will instantly be more acceptable, to people and to politicians.”
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