The Farm Bill 2020 or Indian agriculture act 2020 created quite an uproar across India and in the international sphere as well. The government claims that the farm bill empowers the small farmers who have no means to bargain for their production to get a better price or to invest in technologies to increase productivity. Such farmers are 80% of the total farming population in India. What is the status of small scale farmers in the existing structure? Are they benefitting or they should embrace the new Farm Bill?
The Parliament passed three Farm Bills in September 2020 which provoked farmers from many states like Bihar, UP, Punjab, Haryana and West Bengal to a paramount extent. Thousands of farmers marched to the capital and built sites of protest at the Singhu Border, expressing their dissent against these laws, despite objections from the state machinery in several, severe ways. The farmers say that these laws may look ‘farmer friendly’ but in reality, they cater to the corporate interests of the country.
Hannan Mollah, General Secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) calls these contentious laws “corporate syndicates”, indicating them to be a huge threat to the small scale farmers and sharecroppers in the country. While large scale farmers have expressed problems with the imposition of the Farm Bills, the problems rooted among the small scale farmers of West Bengal are even more ghastly.
It is interesting to observe that the agro-economy status of West Bengal is different from Punjab, Haryana or Kerala although farming is a predominant occupation in these states. West Bengal comprises a huge sector of small scale farmers, a pool of cheap labor who barely owns a land of few acres of their own. Most of these farmers earn less than 5,000 rupees a month. Needless to say, that is not enough to sustain a family of four.
Their daily wage is calculated to 166 rupees per day, even less than the minimum daily wage. This leads to migration to the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka in search of contractual jobs. This marks their distraction from farming. A more important threat is farmers’ suicide which is hardly talked about. The rate of farmer suicides has drastically increased over the last 5-8 years. Most of them choose this path as an escape from their neck-deep debt to the money lenders.
Rising amounts of interest, poor crop growth, inability to get a fair share of price lead to the farmers of Maldah, Murshidabad, Burdwan or Dinajpur losing out on their lives under broad daylight, in dampened rooms, handing out their fate to ropes tied around their neck. Why these farmers commit suicide and what can be done to provide temporal relief to their families is a question much asked. How often do we address the existing power that comes into play involving farmers and the agricultural market?
Here comes the role of kishan mandis into play. At present, there are about 186 mandis spread across several districts in the state. Theoretically, the presence of mandis in every block protects the farmers’ rights by controlling the prices of crops, as stated by the government and ensuring their supply to the market. Mandis act as a mediating body between the farmers and the consumers. While the rest of the states are opposing the banishment of the mandi system, West Bengal farmers demand reformation of the mandi system.
Although farmers are protesting as the farm bills aim to boost corporatization in the name of farmers’ autonomy to sell produce and dictate its price, they are also suffocated with the existing system of supply and transaction. The existing hegemony in the agricultural sector leaves little in the hands of the farmers. Although the State Government of West Bengal has rejected the appeal of e-Mandis as regulated by the Central Government in 2017, the intervention of middlemen in the agriculture markets is ruthlessly dominant and controls the farming schemes according to their whims and terms.
The government should weed out broker raj and not the mandis. For the government’s failure, the APMCs cannot be made scapegoats.~ Professor Kalyan Kanti Das, agricultural economist
The middlemen are present in the panchayat blocks who barely prioritize the farmers’ demands and welfare. Instances of potato farmers facing severe distress due to low profits despite high productions are not unheard of. They demand instilling the Market Support Price (MSP) for the protection of their crops against price hikes or market domination. Most of the farmers own less than a hectare of land which paves way for relentless exploitation by the local lumpens and musclemen.
To this, Professor Kalyan Kanti Das, leading agricultural economist of West Bengal says, “The government should weed out broker raj and not the mandis. For the government’s failure, the APMCs cannot be made scapegoats.” He stressed on a fair transaction and government’s interference in this cycle of exploitation and domination.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee rejected Central’s plea to amend APMC saying that she would not allow contract-based farming but instead set a public-private development of these mandis. HannanMollah, leader of CPIM and AIKS who happens to be in opposition alleges that these mandis are lying unused. No proper implementation of MSP for years has increased the troubles of farmers over the years. How?
The oddity of weather conditions forces the farmers to be armed with measures of protecting their crops. The high cost of fertilizers and pesticides are often beyond the affordable price. The farmers have to ask for loans from the money lenders of the village. By the time, they grow crops and send them for sale, they are neck-deep in debt and the amount of money they earn on selling crops barely bring any inches of profit.
‘Tough luck!’ one may say but when money is the factor and people of higher-order of the society are holding the steering of the farmer’s fate, their ‘luck’ is not just ‘tough’ but also quite ‘ill.’ Farmers have to travel long distances to reach their respective arenas where prices are determined based on auction and power. They cannot afford the time and risk associated with forging complaints or looking for authentic, state-sponsored mandis.
Therefore, they are compelled to sell their produce at a rate much less than the invested amount. The complex relationship that the farmers share with baniyas and local musclemen exempts them from selling their crops at government declared price.
“What shall I do with the money on the first place? Should I eat or should I free myself from the incurring debt only to fall into the same circle again?” says a farmer from Burdwan who grows paddy in his fields. Last year when the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee conducted a three-day sit-in protest in Kolkata, he had arrived to raise slogans against the farm bills and to demand reformation of the existing structure of the farming sector.
“Agrarian crisis is like a friend to me now who never leaves my side. Just like the natural calamities. No matter what, we have to stick together.”
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee extended her support and solidarity to the brave farmers and says she doesn’t approve of the Farm Bills and even going to the extent of calling in ‘undemocratic.’ She asks the Centre to withdraw these bills and protect the federal structure of the country as it was. However, Mamata Banerjee faced sharp critique from the opposition who says that she is opposing the Farm Bills now whereas she is the one who passed the Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation) (Amendment) Bill in the Vidhan Sabha in 2014 in haste and without concrete discussion. Although, the bill was passed to regulate middlemen interference, did it aim to do so in reality?
While farmers protest enraged in the heart of the capital, several districts of West Bengal and its capital Kolkata witnessed farmers’ demonstration, repeated organized meetings and processions to organize farmers and get their voices heard. The left organizations played the role of catalysts in doing so.
“We don’t want farmers to die and wither away. It’s time their lives are attended with proper care and civility. We demand a stable wage of the farmers and protection of their welfare rights.” says the farmer leaders of West Bengal. It’s time to pay attention to the plight of small scale farmers and uplift their economy to prevent them from withering away.
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(Ankita Paul is a student of Masters in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University and a Teach For India fellow.)
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