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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 6 New Delhi January 26, 2019 - Republic Day Special

Why Farmers and Farm Workers are demanding Special Session of Parliament

Monday 28 January 2019

by Gopal Krishna

Inspired by the Long March of Maharashtra farmers and farm workers, that is, the astute practitioners of democracy who walked from Nashik to Mumbai to encircle the State Legislative Assembly in Mumbai in March 2018, this year’s fourth march of farmers and farm workers to Parliament Street has brought the demand for a 21-day joint session of Parliament on agrarian crisis to the centre-stage. This demand of the All India Kisan Struggle Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), comprising of some 210 organisations of farmers and farm workers, got the support of 21 political parties including two parties from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Nation for Farmers, a collective of the concerned citizens.

Farmers and farm workers converged from all over the country at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi by the night of November 29. These farmers and farm workers commenced their march from different points from the outskirts of the National Capital Region. They weren’t adequately covered for a somewhat cold night. Those from southern India reached the Nizamuddin Railway Station in the morning of November 29. These farmers from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra had started their march from the Nizamuddin Railway Station. The ones from Rajasthan gathered in the vicinity of Delhi near Bijwasan. Those from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal gathered at Anand Vihar Railway Station. The farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh gathered at Delhi’s Kishanganj Sabzi Mandi. The assembly points were pre-planned. Gurudwara Shri Bala Sahebji, Sarai Kalekhan, near Nizamuddin Railway Station—were the assembly points for farmers and farm workers from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana marchers. The Kisan Mukti March began at 11 in the morning. Barat Ghar, Saini Mohalla, near the Bijwasan Railway Station was the assembly point for those coming from Rajasthan and southern Haryana. Here the March began at 9 in the morning. Anand Vihar Railway Station was the assembly point for those coming in from the eastern side like from West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh. The March from this point began at 11.30 am.

Sabzi Mandi Kishanganj was the assembly point for those coming from Punjab, Uttara-khand, Haryana. The March from this point commenced at 11 am. At night around 8-9 pm on November 29 former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Devegowda turned up at the Ramlila Ground to express his support to the Kisan Mukti March and the demands of the farmers and farm workers as he had to be in Nepal on November 30. “Prime Minister should personally take note of this. I would like to appeal to the Union Government to try and solve the farmers’ problem,” said the former Prime Minister. He added: “The Modi Government and BJP are boasting about betterment of India’s position in the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ index. India should better itself in ‘Ease of Doing Agriculture’.” He said: “Eradication of poverty, employment generation and rural development is possible if India betters itself in ‘Ease of Doing Agriculture’ too.”

Commenting on the march, Dr Ashok Dhawale, the President of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said that the BJP Government has no interest in solving the problems of farmers. For this betrayal, farmers will give the Modi Government and the BJP a befitting reply in the 2019 election. “Note bandi ka jawab, kisan vote bandi se denge (farmers will respond to demonetisation with their votes)” because the government’s initiatives have failed to solve the farmers’ distress. During the night of November 29, there were cultural programmes—Ek Sham Kisano ke Naam—for farmers and farm workers. Similar programmes were organised in many cities like Pune and Patna to express solidarity with the Kisan Mukti March.

A petition has been sent to the President of India requesting him to urgently convene a special joint session of Parliament on the agrarian crisis and related issues. The letter submitted that the agrarian crisis “is no longer just a measure of loss of land, incomes, jobs and productivity, but of our own humanity”. It contended that “in the recent past there was a midnight joint session of Parliament to discuss the Goods and Services Tax. Surely the pre-cariousness of the lives of millions of citizens merits the undivided attention of Parliament and thereby its commitment to find enduring solutions.” This is necessitated by the fact that a situation has arisen wherein a demand is being made for setting up a Disaster Mitigation Fund and overhauling of the Disaster Relief System under the Disaster Management Act wherein Ministries of Finance, Home and Agriculture would ensure that they work in tandem. It has sought an outlay of at least Rs 25,000 crores this year for disaster relief to farmers in the face of drought in several States. The Manifesto of Indian Farmers seeks reversal of the changes in the Manual for Drought Management. It also seeks a review of the Contract Farming Act, 2018 and expresses opposition to foreign direct investment in agriculture and food processing and their inclusion in free trade agreements like regional comprehensive economic partnership.

This demand for a special parliamentary session emerged after numerous protests, petitions, pleadings by distressed farmers, labourers, forest communities, fisher folk and the foot soldiers of the country’s literacy and health care programmes—Anganwadi, Accredited Social Health Activists and Auxiliary Nurse Midwife workers—failed to get the attention of successive governments. This demand is a quest for social and economic justice that strives for liberation from debt, remunerative prices, fair wages, employment and education, as well as health and nutritional security.

At the concluding programme of the Kisan Mukti March it was announced that a Charter of Demands for Farmers including enactment of two bills—The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebted-ness Bill, 2018, and The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill, 2018—has been prepared to address the problems of farmer suicides, deaths of children due to starvation, growing unemployment, increased informalisation, indebtedness, a devastation of the country’s cattle economy and overall precariousness that has led to the collapse of agriculture. Both the Bills have been introduced in Parliament as Private Members’ Bills which can be passed if these get adequate support of legislators.

As a consequence of such a grim situation, as per the Census, nearly 15 million farmers left farming between 1991-2011. This has led to distress migration undermining both the country’s food security and our collective food sovereignty. Due to monetary drought for wage payments under the MGNREGA and demonetisation, the rate of migration has increased. Researchers have estimated that there is a need for an allocation of Rs 80,000 crores in this year’s Budget to deal with pending liabilities and pending payments for delay in compensation.

AS per the Farmers Freedom from Indebtedness Bill, 2018, which finds mention in the Manifesto of Indian Farmers, “farmer” means a person actively engaged in the economic and/or liveli-hood activity of growing crops or producing other primary agricultural commodities with or without land ownership, including all agricultural operational holders, cultivators, sharecroppers, tenants, lessee cultivators, adivasi farmers, tribal farmers, agricultural labourers, poultry and livestock rearers, fisherpeople, beekeepers, pastoralists, noncor-porate planters of plantation crops and planting labourers, forest-gatherers, women farmers and self-help groups doing cultivation on collectively owned or leased-in land.

The women farmers included in the definition of farmer were also the focus of the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Act, 2011. As per this Bill, a “woman farmer” means and includes, irres-pective of marital status or ownership of land, any woman who is a farmer including (i) any woman living in rural area and primarily engaged in agricultural activity, though occasio-nally engaged in non-agricultural activity; or (ii) any woman living in urban or semi-urban areas and engaged in agriculture; or (iii) any tribal woman directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture or shifting cultivation or in the collection, use and sale of minor or non-timber forest produce by virtue of usufructory rights. The definition of “farmer” in the Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill, 2018 also refers to women farmers. A joint perusal of all the three Bills reveals that there is merit in incorporating the definition of “women farmers” given in the 2011 Bill in the 2018 Bills.

The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remune-rative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill, 2018 defined “guaranteed remunerative minimum support price” as the price that ensures a minimum fifty per cent profit margin over and above the comprehensive cost of production of a given agricultural commodity, to which shall be added the bonus announced by the State Government wherein the comprehensive cost of production at the State level is covered with at least a fifty per cent. profit margin over and above such cost of production; and in the case of standing (plantation) crops, as specifically determined. These Bills and the Manifesto of Indian Farmers have created a logical compulsion for the Parliament to ponder over and address the issues of increased vulnerabilities of landless peasants, tenant farmers, agricultural labourers, Dalit and Adivasi farmers, and include the suffering of minority groups practising diverse, allied occupations.

A blue-print of the agenda for the 21-day special session of Parliament has been prepared. It seeks a three-day discussion on the 12-year- old recommendations of the National Commission of Farmers on issues of productivity, profitability, sustainability, technology, dry land farming, price shocks and stablisation, technology fatigue, privatisation of agricultural research and technology to avoid ecocide. It wants testimonies of victims of agrarian crisis who need to be heard from and inside Parliament to understand the impact of the devastating farming policies and unbearable violence of privatising healthcare and education for three days in Parliament.

Indebtedness has emerged as the driving factor for farm suicides; a thee-day discussion is required for it. As per the Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Act, 2018, “debt” means any liability, including that incurred for agricultural production, including purchase and rearing of cattle and other livestock improvement of production infrastructure and services (cattle shed, pump house, farm machinery and equipment, processing and value addition), basic needs of the household like survival, health and education, whether secured or unsecured, due from a farmer, whether payable under a contract or under a decree or order of any Court or Tribunal or otherwise, and includes any sum payable to—(i) an institutional creditor; or (ii) a private creditor, but does not include any loan amount taken by the farmer for commercial purposes or luxury other than agricultural and allied purposes.

Indebtedness-related consequences compel farmers and farm labourers to end their life even as indebted commercial czars get bailed out or get protected or are allowed to run away with impunity paving the way for return of the moneylenders who create yet another vicious circle of poor being poor because they are poor. Indebtedness leads to loss of farmers’ land and drives them into the vice-like grip of traditional moneylenders. Rationality demands that indebted farmers need to be treated in the same way as beneficial owners of indebted companies. At present, credit policy of the banking system has adopted double standards. It waives off the defaulting amount of credit at the earliest opportunity arguing that it leads to economic growth. It restructures the loans of the beneficial owners of corporate sector but penalises the farmers. In such a scenario, waiving of farm loans too can lead to such growth. If waiving loans is a moral hazard, then it is so for both the corporate and farm sectors.

Given the fact that out of the total Non- Performing Assets (NPAs) of Rs 7285 billion in March 2017, only Rs 602 billion was from the agriculture sector which is a mere 8.3 per cent of the overall NPAs in banks, there is a demand for setting up a Credit Guarantee Fund “to the increase the banker’s confidence in lending to non-land owning ‘licensed’ cultivators or lessee farmers, both as individual farmers and as Joint Liability Groups”. Unlike the corporate sector, farmers do not run away from the land when they have to pay.

The conversion of agricultural land into non-agricultural land across the country is happening without cumulative impact assess-ment in a business-as-usual scenario. The ongoing corporatisation of water and promotion of cash crops have turned rivers and ground water aquifers into monetising machines. Such an approach has prevented rivers and other water sources to perform their geological and ecological functions. One of the core natural functions of rivers is land building. Amidst shrinking of land under agriculture, anonymous donors of political parties, real estate operators and development fundamentalists have stopped the rivers from performing their natural work. The proposed legislations refer to “land” as any land or water body utilised for the purpose of agriculture. Land and water co-exist but their commodification, corporatisation and acquisition are undermining farming as a source of livelihood. A three-day deliberation is needed on the country’s water crisis.

Although the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Act, 2011 has lapsed in 2013, the Bill can be used to deliberate on the rights of farmers for three days. A three-day discussion is needed to dwell on the rights of landless women and men labourers. And another three-day deliberation is required to safeguard the future of agriculture amidst shrinking agricultural land due to unnatural market forces. As per the proposed Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Act, 2018, “market” means regulated markets, systems of procurement of agricultural commodities run by State procure-ment agencies, consumer or service cooperatives, corporations as well as contract farming arrangements (formal or informal) that different entities have, for procuring agricultural commodities from farmers, including milk collection centres, and procurement centres opened by different public sector agencies and other market yards run by the government agencies including Panchayats and cooperatives and includes private markets.

Given the fact that an unjust structural arrangement has ensured that market remains consistently against farmers, it has emerged that fall in the prices in the open market of farm produce despite there being a bountiful harvest is a bigger calamity than continuing drought, heavy rainfall or any other natural disaster. So much so that farming is no more about farming crops but it is about cultivating losses. There is a demand to move away from external-input-based model bulldozed by body corporate in favour of organic farming schemes. It has been acknowledged that farmers suffer from many intermediaries who increase cost of agricultural commodities without adding much value. The Manifesto of Indian Farmers proposes that all incentives being provided under the Startup India Mission should be extended to Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) including tax exemptions, provision of capital, decentralised storage infrastructure, processing and value addition facilities for farmer collectives. There should be an allocation of Rs 3000 crores for it.

ALARMED at the ongoing farm suicides, the government has stopped the publication of farm suicide data since 2015. The deliberate effort by the government to stop data collection does not alter the reality of worsening agrarian distress. The absence of data underlines that the govern-ment is unable to look at its own performance in the mirror of its own data. The government has also discouraged implementation of the Right to Information Act in order to discourage data collection at least since 2016. Earlier, it used to hide behind the veil of aggregate data but now the situation has become so grim and dismal that this veil proved inadequate to hide its acts of omission and commission. Farmers have been committing suicides in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar. The farmer suicide rates in Maharashtra, Kerala and Pondicherry are about 10 times higher than Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Besides western India, southern India and central India, the status of agrarian crisis in eastern India is not getting sufficiently articulated because of the absence of data collection. As per the 2001 Census data, the farm suicide rate was 12.9 suicides per 100,000 farmers, which was higher than the general suicide rate at 10.6 for 2001 in India. Data for the subsequent period is not available.

The fact remains the there is difference of opinion regarding estimates for the total number of farmers. There are estimates that include cultivators and agricultural labourers in their definition of total farmers besides anyone engaged in any form of farming. One estimate for total number of farmers puts the total number of farmers in India to be about 50 per cent of the total population. There is also a view that official census underestimates the total number of people engaged in agriculture. The general view of the farmers’ organisations is that total some 70 per cent of the population is engaged in agricultural activity. The real agricultural revenue has stagnated. Even the Economic Survey 2018 has revealed it. It implies that while input and production cost in agriculture had increased substantially, farmers’ incomes have remained frozen. While the wages and salary of all including legislators have increased, 94 per cent of the farmers have been kept out of the purview of income security because farmers’ income has remained the same resulting in the marginalisation of farming communities. After the implementation of the recommendations of the Seventh Finance Commission, the plight of farmers is likely to worsen further in comparison to even the lowly paid employees of the government. It cannot be forgotten that these very farmers saved the country from ship-to-mouth existence to feed Indians without waiting for ships to arrive but the government forgot to fulfill its promise of 2014 about doubling farmers’ incomes.

The political leaders, who assembled in Parliament Street on November 30, admitted that unmindful of the fact that agriculture is the biggest employer which has the potential to rejuvenate the country’s economy, the existing policies and laws continue to give it least priority in comparison to the corporate sector. Law and policy-driven dispossession, deprivation, misery and distress migration have adversely affected agriculture. It is now up to Parliament to address this agrarian crisis which is transforming itself into a crisis of civilisation.

REFERENCES 

1. Nation for Farmers’ Petition to the President of India seeking Special Joint Session of Parliament on the agrarian crisis and related issues (2018), September 19, https://dillichalo.in/sign-the-petition/~

2. Manifesto of Farmers,All India Kisan Struggle Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) (2018), November 30.

3. Harvesting Despair: Agrarian Crisis in India (2009), The Perspectives Team, January.

4. Sainath, P. (2018), A long march of the dispossessed to Delhi, August 22.

5. Green Paper on Farmers, Farming and Rural Economy: Four Years—four Budgets: What has this Central Government delivered? (2018), ASHA-Kisan Swaraj Alliance, Jai Kisan Andolan, Swaraj India, Rythu Swarajya Vedika.

6. The Farmers’ Freedom from Indebtedness Bill (2018).

7. The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill (2018).

8. The Women Farmers’ Entitlements Act (2011).

9. Golait, Ramesh (2007), ‘Current Issues in Agriculture Credit in India: An Assessment’, Reserve Bank of India Occasional Papers, Vol. 28, No. 1, Summer 2007.

10. Economic Survey 2018.

The author is a research consultant with Nation for Farmers (NFF), a forum of non-farmers to support over 210 farmers’ organisations, farmers and farm workers. He had appeared before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015. He is also the editor, Toxic Watch Journal.

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