Why Farmers Are Protesting Against Laws Which Will ‘Supposedly’ Help Them

Over the last week many of you have asked me to write on this particular topic. One gentleman even suggested on Twitter, perhaps sarcastically, that I was slacking. (I guess after this 3,800 word piece, he will clearly not say that).

Well, I wasn’t slacking. This is a complicated topic with multiple issues and because of that I was trying to read as much as I could, before offering my views on the issue. (Also, I might be writing more on the issue in the days to come).

What do the Bills which have been passed by the Parliament seek to achieve?

Yesterday, the Rajya Sabha passed two out of the three Bills being referred to as the Farm Bills. These two Bills are the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020.

The Lok Sabha had already passed these Bills. There was some ruckus in the Rajya Sabha where the Bill was passed through a voice vote.

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, allows the farmers to sell their produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) regulated markets. The APMCs are government controlled marketing yards or mandis.

This law allows farmers to sell their produce to cold storages, warehouses, processing plants or even directly to the end consumer (you and I, restaurants, hotels etc.) The state government is not allowed from levying any market fee, cess or any other levy in these other market places (or trade areas). In short, anything that the state government can do is limited to the physical area of the APMCs. The Bill allows intra-state trade and inter-state trade.

So, the farmers clearly have more choice on who they want to sell. But they are still unhappy about it? Why? This is a question that will get answered in the piece.

Now let’s take a look at the other Bill.  The idea behind Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, is essentially to create a framework for contract farming. This needs an agreement between the farmer and a buyer, before the production happens.

Of course, this hasn’t gone down well with the farmers either.

Why are the farmers protesting?

The passage of both the Bills hasn’t gone down well with the farmers. In fact, farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, had been protesting even before the Bills were passed by the Parliament. Why has that been the case? Let’s take a look pointwise.

1) As mentioned earlier, the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, are the ones, primarily protesting. Hence, farmers across the country are not protesting against these Bills.

The farmers of these states are primarily protesting because the government procurement infrastructure in these areas is very good. This is primarily because the Green Revolution of the 1960s started here. In order to encourage farmers to adopt a new variety of wheat, the government offered procurement through the Food Corporation of India and a minimum support price (MSP) to farmers, which was declared before every agriculture season. Since then the system has evolved and the government sets an MSP on 23 agricultural crops, though it primarily buys only rice and wheat. In the recent years, it has bought some pulses and oilseeds as well.

The fear among farmers is that the next step in the agriculture reform process will be the doing away of government procurement process as well as the MSP. This is going to primarily hurt the farmers from Punjab and Haryana, who benefit tremendously from this.

2) The farmers who benefit from the government procurement process and MSP are medium and large farmers. As the document titled Price Policy for Rabi  Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21, published by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices 2020-21, which is a part of the Agriculture Ministry points out:

“As indicated by data received from some states, medium and large farmers occupy a major share in total procurement in the State and share of small and marginal farmers, though improved during last few years, remain low.”

Hence, it’s the bigger farmers who are protesting against the passage of these Bills. (It is important to make this distinction because the media is largely using the word farmers).

The government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have assured that there are no plans to do away with government procurement or the MSP policy for that matter. The trouble is the protestors don’t seem to be buying these assurances and there is good reason for the same.

3) Why are the big farmers not buying the government’s assurances? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that it is but natural that the next step in the process of reforming agriculture is reforming government procurement and the MSP policy.

As NITI Aayog’s occasional paper titled Raising Agricultural Productivity and Making Farming Remunerative for Farmers published in December 2015, points out:

“There is a need for reorientation of price policy if it is to serve the basic goal of remunerative prices for farmers. This goal cannot be achieved through procurement backed MSP since it is neither feasible nor desirable for the government to buy each commodity in each market in all region.”

This paper essentially had the philosophical underpinnings on which both the Bills we have been talking about are based. Also, if the government purchases and the MSP are done away with, there will be further danger of free power, fertiliser subsidy etc., being done away with as well.

4) The MSP policy has led to excess production and excess procurement of rice and wheat by the government over the years. As of September 2020, the Food Corporation of India had 700.27 lakh tonnes of rice and wheat. As per the stocking norms for food grains, FCI needs to have an operational and strategic reserve of 411.2 lakh tonnes as of July and 307.70 lakh tonnes as of October. These massive stocks of rice and wheat are despite the government deciding to distribute a lot of rice and wheat for free to bring down the negative impact of the covid pandemic.

It has also led to farmers growing rice and wheat at the cost of other agricultural crops. As the NITI Aayog research paper referred to earlier points out: “Per capita intake and availability of pulses in the country has declined to two third since early 1960s. During the 50 years between 1964-65 and 2014-15, per capita production of pulses declined from 25 kg to 13.6 kg.”

Now, you cannot fault farmers for doing this. If they are incentivised to grow something, with a regular buyer available in the form of the government, they are bound to do that. Why take a risk, when a safer option where the government increases the price of rice and wheat every year, and buys what is produced, is available.

In fact, it is safe to say that if the government procurement is lowered (even without the MSP being done away with), the price of rice and wheat will fall. If private markets are established, it will fall even faster. This is something that the big farmers of Punjab and Haryana, don’t want, hence, the protests. It is worth remembering here that the marginal and small farmers, who own land of less than two hectares, are largely consumers of food, and food inflation tends to hurt them.

5) Let’s look at how strong the incentives of big farmers of Punjab and Haryana are. As the document titled Price Policy for Kharif Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21 points out:

“For example, more than 95 percent paddy farmers in Punjab and about 70 percent farmers in Haryana are covered under procurement operations while in other major rice producing States like Uttar Pradesh (3.6%), West Bengal (7.3%) Odisha (20.6%) and Bihar (1.7%), very small number of rice farmers benefit from procurement operations.”

In total, the procurement system reaches around 11.8% of the rice farmers. This explains by the protests are limited largely to Punjab and Haryana.

6)  Punjabis themselves eat very little rice. But the solid procurement system in place ensures that the Punjabi farmers grow a lot of rice.

Procurement of rice in major producing states 2018-19.

Source: Price Policy for Kharif Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21.

As can be seen from the above chart nearly 89% of the rice produced by the farmers in Punjab is procured by the government. In Haryana, it is 85%. Clearly, the farmers in Punjab and Haryana have a huge incentive in growing rice and doing away with price risk.

The government procurement system and the MSP have essentially ensured that semi-arid areas like Punjab and Haryana, grow rice, a crop which needs a lot of water. And this has created its own set of problems. “Continuous adoption of rice-wheat cropping system in North-Western plains of Punjab, Haryana and West Uttar Pradesh has resulted in depletion of ground water and deterioration of soil quality, posing a serious threat to its sustainability.” It also creates the problem of stubble burning during the winter months.

7) How do things look for wheat, the other crop procured majorly by the government? Take a look at the following table.

Statewise procurement of wheat.

Source: Price Policy for Rabi Season—The Marketing Season of 2020-21.

As can be seen from the above table Punjab and Haryana are again the major beneficiaries when it comes to procurement of wheat. Uttar Pradesh is the biggest producer of wheat but only around 11-12% of its production gets procured by the government.

As the NITI Aayog paper referred to earlier points out: “The pricing policy has also discriminated against eastern states where procurement at the MSP is minimal or non-existent. With part of the demand in these states satisfied by subsidised PDS sales of the grain procured in other states, prices of wheat and rice in these states end up below what they would be in the absence of price interventions of the government. The price policy has thus also created a regional bias in crop pattern as well as incomes of farmers.” The fact that inequality has gone on for years is disturbing. But this does not mean that the government should procure more rice and wheat from these states as well.

8) The other big fear among farmers, those representing them and many economists, is that large corporates will take over contract farming. The politicians suddenly want farmers to trust corporates and the market process, after spending decades abusing them. This is not going to happen suddenly, especially in an environment where there is big fear of large corporates taking over many other areas of business. All this is happening precisely at a time when the government has banned the export of onions. The messaging just isn’t right, given that if the government trusted the market process, it wouldn’t have banned the export of onions.

9) Another reason that farmers don’t trust corporates is the rise in their input costs. As the document titled Price Policy for Rabi Season points out: “The increase in cost of production was mainly driven by rise in farm input costs such as human labour, machinery, seeds, fertilisers, fuel, etc.” The belief is that this rise in prices is primarily because of the increasing corporatisation of the agri-input sector.

To conclude this section, the government procurement and the MSP where introduced in a certain time when India didn’t produce enough food grains to feed itself. These are policies of a bygone era and help only big farmers in certain states, and hence, they are the ones protesting, despite the assurances by the government.

Will the government be able to do away with procurement and MSP?

This is a tricky question. The procurement and the MSP system are one side of the equation, the supply side. On the demand side, the government sells the rice and wheat thus procured at heavily subsidised prices under the aegis of the Food Security Act, through lakhs of ration shops under the public distribution system.

So, while the big farmers of Punjab and Haryana might feel that the government will do away with procurement and MSP, it is not possible at one go. What is possible is that the government can cut down on procurement, in order to ensure that FCI does not have to maintain excess stocks like it has over the last few years.

The food subsidy system is a system which has been in place and which is much more complicated and much more spread across the country, than just the big-farmers of Punjab and Haryana. Also, with the covid pandemic, the importance of the food security system has clearly come to light. Actually, only once the government does away with the food security system can it do away with MSP and procurement. This is too big a challenge for any government.

Theoretically, it’s possible to do this and give cash handouts to people so that they can buy rice and wheat, but the political repercussions of doing away with food security the way it currently exists, is not something any government will be able to handle. It’s too big a risk.

This problem of  government assuming something and farmers believing the opposite, can only be solved if the two sides talk it out. But that is unlikely to happen, given that the Bills have already been passed.

Reform by stealth

Like has been the case with economic reforms in India in the past, this time was no different as well. The government resorted to reform by stealth and aggressively pushed the Bills through the Parliament, without either talking to the Opposition parties or farmer organisations.

This has led to the firm farmer belief that MSP and government procurement will go in the next round of reform. If the government had tried to talk to the farmers before pushing through the Bills that might perhaps have helped.

Secondly, if contract farming and trade markets other than APMC have to pick up, the state governments need to be on board as well. No corporate or businessman is going to attempt contract farming or setting up trade markets where agricultural produce can be sold by farmers, unless the state government is on board as well.

Hence, some talking would have helped. But then that’s not this government’s style.

My views

Let’s take a look pointwise.

1) There are multiple problems with the way the APMC markets across the country have been functioning. As the Sixty Second Report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture (2018-19), stated, highlighting some of the problems:

a) “Market Committees are reportedly democratic institution but in fact… [the] Committee is dominated by politicians and traders not by farmers as required.”

b) “The provisions of the APMC Acts are not implemented in their true sense. For example, market fee and commission charges are legally to be levied on traders, however, same is collected from farmers by deducting the amount from farmers’ net proceed.”

c) “Market fee is collected in some States even without actual trade-transaction has taken place and simply on landing the commodity at processing units. While in other States trade transaction outside the market yard is illegal.”

Once we take this into account, there is a clearly problem with the way APMCs function. Also, they restrict competition and tend to assume that the farmers are not smart enough to do their own thing (something that many politicians have made a career of). In that sense the freedom that these Bills provide the farmer are great.

Having said that, the absence of any regulation in non-APMC trade markets is not a good sign.

2) Are the farmers going to benefit almost overnight, as is being projected on the social media in particular and media in general? The simple answer is no. It needs to be pointed out here that as per the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, 12.56 crore or 86.2% of India’s operational holdings are small and marginal that is less than two acres in size.

Hence, most of the farmers really don’t produce enough to be able to deal with any marketing system, the old one or the new one, in a direct profitable way. For such small farmers to be able to benefit and get a better price for their produce without selling to a middleman, all kinds of other infrastructure is needed. These include everything from more cold storages to improved roads connecting villages to the newer markets that come up, power supply which can be relied upon (so that a cold storage can function like one) and traders who compete to get their produce.

All of this is very important if farmers are to get a better price for their produce. A survey carried out by the Reserve Bank of India and published in the central bank’s October 2019 bulletin found:

“The survey findings revealed that farmers’ average share in retail prices vary across crops between a range of 28 per cent and 78 per cent [across 14 crops]. The traders’ and retailers’ mark-ups were generally found to be higher for perishables than nonperishables.” The Survey also found that “retailers’ margins were generally higher than the traders’ margins in consumption centres across commodities, possibly due to significant product loss at the retail stage, particularly for perishables.”

In fact, the state of Bihar did away with the APMC Act in 2006 and didn’t get anywhere near higher incomes for farmers, given that the basic infrastructure to get market transactions going was not available.

This is why all the other infrastructure mentioned earlier becomes important. And it can’t be achieved without the active participation of the state governments. Hence, communication between the central government and the state governments on this issue is very important. And that hasn’t happened. Also, as usual, the central government hasn’t gone into the details. It has talked about how the farmers will benefit and is driving home that narrative aggressively, without really talking about the all the practical issues that will keep cropping up. (Remember demonetisation? Remember GST? Why does this feel like déjà vu?).

3) It is worth remembering that arthiyas (commission agents) who buy produce from farmers at APMCs, are locally influential people. Hence, assuming that parallel systems of buying and selling in the form of new trade markets, will come up automatically, is rather stupid. It is worth remembering that many arthiyas are themselves big farmers and can ensure that the system continues to work as it is. They might just move out of APMCs to avoid paying levies (which are very high especially in states of Punjab and Haryana at 8.5% and 6.5%, respectively). Everything else might continue to be the same. This depends on whether creation of new infrastructure is worth not paying the levy.

This is why, at the cost of repetition, proper healthy communication between state governments and the central government becomes very important. Also, it will be interesting to see whether the central government continues to procure rice and wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) at the APMC mandis in Punjab and Haryana, using arthiyas and paying levies amounting to 6.5-8.5%? Or will it choose to move out, thereby hurting the revenue stream of the state governments? (Did someone say cooperative federalism?)

4) It is being assumed that buyers who currently buy from big commission agents, will start buying directly from farmers and let go of the middleman. There is a reason why these buyers buy from agents. It is convenient for them to do so. Do they want to take on the headache of building a new system right from scratch? Is it worth their time and money?

These are questions for which answers will become clearer in the days to come. But prima facie given the abysmal ease of doing business in most states, I see no reason why the buyers won’t continue buying from the agents, instead of having to deal with many farmers. As mentioned earlier, a bulk of India’s farmers are too small to benefit from any market- oriented system, unless they organise themselves in the forms of cooperatives and farmers-producer organisations.

Also, if governments really want to help these small and marginal farmers, they need to reform the change in land usage norms, and let farmers who want to sell their land be able to sell it anyone else and not just other farmers.

5) There is great fear of Big Business taking over agriculture. As per the Agricultural Census of 2015-16, the number of medium and large operational holdings is at 63.16 lakh (A medium sized operational holding has an area of 4 hectares to up to less than 10 hectares. And a large sized operational holding has an area of 10 hectares or more). These are huge numbers we are looking at. Just imagine the kind of scale needed to deal with these many number of farmers. If just take a look at large operational holdings, they are at 8.31 lakh. Hence, it’s not going to be easy for any corporate to do anything without involving middlemen.

If businesses just concentrated on states which have a higher proportion of medium and large operational holdings they are looking at Punjab (33.21% of the total operational holdings), Rajasthan (19.47% of the total operational holdings) and Haryana (14.35%). Not surprisingly, farmers of Punjab and Haryana are worried. They would rather deal with the known devil, the government, who, they can always vote out in the next election. But how do you vote out a corporate?

To conclude, the central government clearly hasn’t gone into the details of what will it take to really make the life of an average farmer better. As usual it is only interested in selling the narrative that the passage of these Farm Bills will ensure that farmers get a better price for what they produce. (Remember, the 50% higher MSP story they tried selling sometime back?)

When it comes to the opposition parties, they have managed to get low-hanging fruit to put the government on the mat after a while, and not surprisingly, they are cashing in on that.

Meanwhile, nobody is really worried about the farmer.

I would like to thank Chintan Patel for research assistance.