Bihar’s APMC Story Does Not Inspire Much Confidence

This is the third piece in the agriculture reform series. You can read the first two pieces here and here. While this piece stands on its own, for a better context on the overall issue, it makes sense to read the two pieces published earlier, before reading this piece.

Chintan Patel and Vivek Kaul

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 became a law on September 27, 2020. It is one of the three farm laws passed by the Modi government that has been met by stiff opposition from farmers. The law supposedly creates a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their farm produce outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs).

As we pointed out in an earlier article, the fate of the APMCs or mandis, under the new laws is a topic of much debate. Proponents of the bill claim that allowing farm trade outside the APMCs will encourage competition and help farmers get better prices for their produce. The idea being that there will be more competition for agriculture produce and in the process, farmers will make more money. QED.

Farmer organizations opposing the bill argue that unregulated transactions outside the APMCs will actually result in a price squeeze for the farmers, given the asymmetry or the huge difference of negotiating power between the individual farmer and corporate-backed buyers. As is often the case, both sides can lay claim to a logically coherent argument backed by economic theory. So, which argument has higher odds of manifestation?

When the future is uncertain, the past is often a reliable guide. Using that rationale, it is instructive to look deeper at the Bihar experience vis-a-vis APMC markets. Bihar had done away with APMC markets in 2006. But before we get into the specifics, let’s zoom out a little and take a look at the bigger picture first.

Bihar’s Backdrop

Bihar is India’s poorest state. Given below are tables that chart the per capita income of India’s richest and poorer states.

Source: https://statisticstimes.com/economy/india/indian-states-gdp-per-capita.php

Source: https://statisticstimes.com/economy/india/indian-states-gdp-per-capita.php

As the above tables show, Bihar has the lowest per capita income in the country. It is about 18 percent of the income of Haryana and less than 10 percent of the income of Goa. Ironically, Bihar is endowed with abundant natural resources, especially fertile soil and groundwater, and yet it continues to remain one of the poorest states in the country.

The state has a population of 11.52 crore (2016), with a very high population density of 1,218 per square km as compared to the national average of 396 per square km. It is largely an agrarian rural economy with approximately 88.5 percent rural population out of which 74 percent of the workforce is reliant on the agriculture sector for a livelihood as per the 2011 Census.

Even accounting for shifts in the economy away from agriculture and migration out of rural areas since the last Census, the poverty in Bihar is closely linked to state of its farmers.

The high population density is clearly reflected in the land holding pattern in Bihar. Compared to other states, Bihar has highly fragmented landholdings. As the same piece of land has got divided among more and more family members over the generations, the average holding has fallen dramatically. Even though quite a few migrate to the cities, they still keep their farmland. This also stems from the fact that selling agricultural land in India is not easy.

As the table below indicates, marginal holdings of less than one hectare (around 2.47 acres) constituted about 91.2 percent of all land parcels in 2015-16, compared to the national average of 68.5 percent. Additionally, 97 percent of all holdings are  less than 2 hectares in Bihar. This high skew towards small land holdings is an important statistic, as agricultural marketing policies affect small and marginal farmers differently from those with larger holdings.

Land holdings in Bihar.

APMC Abolishment in Bihar

In 2006, the Nitish Kumar state government made the decision to abolish its state-level APMC Act allowing private players to directly purchase agricultural produce from farmers. Under the erstwhile Bihar APMC Act, both farmers and buyers would pay 1 percent of the sale price to municipal bodies. After the APMCs were abolished, the government introduced Primary Agriculture Credit Societies (PACS). PACS are panchayat level cooperatives with farmer members that fulfil 3 roles in Bihar.

1) Help farmers borrow money for buying farm equipment, farming inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, etc., or to tide through losses. PACS in turn are given credit by cooperative banks which are funded by the state government.

2) A one-stop shop for high-quality seeds, fertilisers, and other inputs.

3) Most importantly, PACS are responsible for procurement of grains particularly rice-paddy and wheat from the farmers at the government-announced minimum support price (MSP). Thus, PACS act as an intermediary between the farmers and the eventual purchasers of wheat and rice – which can be any of the following; Food Corporation of India (FCI), state procurement agencies or private mills, for that matter. For other produce (other than rice and wheat), farmers interact directly with private traders.

Upon procurement of the crop, especially in the case of paddy, it goes to the Bihar State Food and Civil Supplies Corporation, and then on to the Food Corporation of India, who direct it to the Public Distribution System or ration shops as they are more popularly known. The payment is expected to reach the farmer within 48 hours of selling the crop at PACS.

It should be noted that PACS exist nationwide and have long been a part of the cooperative banking system in India, formed to provide credit to rural areas. Bihar however is unique in that it expanded the scope of PACS to b) and c) above. As we shall see later in the article, PACS have not been able to deliver effectively on these objectives.

The deregulation of agriculture market transactions in Bihar in 2006 shares significant similarities with the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 . Although the central law does not call for the closure of state APMCs or creation of PACS-like entities, the core idea of deregulating agriculture trade outside of APMCs is the same.

Thus, there is merit in examining the outcomes of what has happened in Bihar over the last decade and a half,  to form expectations from the new law.

Several leaders of the Bhartiya Janata Party including prime minister Narendra Modi  and other supporters  of the new laws have touted Bihar’s abolition of APMCs to make their case. At the same time, critics have invoked Bihar as a cautionary tale of deregulating agriculture market.   So, the same scenario is being presented to suit diametrically opposite arguments.

What gives? As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between two extremes.

Prices

The bane of Indian agriculture is the price difference between the first transaction – what the farmer gets for a commodity, and the last transaction – what you and I pay for the same commodity.  Any changes to agricultural markets like the abolition of APMCs in Bihar needs be assessed against its impact on prices.

The government recognizes the importance of collecting data on prices. Each year, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare publishes data on farm gate prices based on data received from the state governments “to facilitate fine-tuning of agriculture policies aimed at farmer welfare”  .

The average wholesale price of a commodity (e.g. wheat, rice, etc.) at which the farmer sells to a trader at the village site during the specified marketing period after the harvest of each commodity, is termed as the Farm Harvest Price (FHP) for each commodity.  The next few charts track both the FHP and MSP of four commodities (paddy, wheat, maize, and ragi) from 2000- 2017. The central government announces MSPs for 23 agricultural crops during the course of any year, but primarily buys only rice and wheat directly from farmers.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

The above chart shows that for rice paddy, the MSP has always been higher than the FHP. From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP was around 26 percent. This basically means that  the FHP was 26 percent lower than the MSP on an average. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference reduced to around 18 percent. 2015-16, onwards the difference has inched up to around 24 percent, for the last two years for which the data is available.

                                                                            Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

For wheat, the difference between MSP and FHP has been less stark than that for rice paddy.  From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for wheat was around 7 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference barely moved up to  around 8 percent . However, for the last two years 2015 to 2017, for which data is available, the difference has spiked to around 17 percent.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

For maize too, the difference between MSP and FHP has been less stark than for paddy but higher than that of wheat.  From 2001-2 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for wheat was around 19 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference reduced to around 12 percent . However, for the last two years 2015 to 2017, the difference has spiked to around 18 percent.

Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

Finally, for ragi, the difference between MSP and FHP has been quite high and has kept increasing.  From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the average difference between MSP and FHP for ragi was around 26 percent. From 2006-07 to 2014-15, the average difference increased to around 31 percent. Finally, for the last two years, 2015 to 2017, the difference has increased to around 37 percent.

The following table summarises the data from the above four charts.

Price Trends Summary
Source:  https://eands.dacnet.nic.in/

What can we infer from the above charts. Let’s take a look pointwise.

1)  The span from 2001 to 2017 can be divided into three periods : 2001-06, 2007-13, and 2015-17. Farm prices improved for paddy in the second period (around 18 percent lower than the MSP)  compared to the first period (around 25 percent lower than the MSP). Of course, they were lower than the MSP during both the periods.

Similarly maize prices improved in the second period (around 12 percent lower than the MSP) from the first period (around 19 percent lower than the MSP). Of course, they were lower than the MSP during both the periods.

For wheat, difference between the farm prices relative to MSP stood at 7 percent during the first period and at 8 percent during the second period. Hence, the difference increased though marginally.

Rice, wheat and maize are the three major cereals produced in Bihar and make up for 80 percent of the cropping area. The difference in prices between the FHP and the MSP, largely came down in the seven year period after the removal of the state level APMC Act. This finding weakens the argument that market deregulation will necessarily lead to lower prices, even though the farmers did not get the MSP.

2) As can be seen from the above table, starting in 2015, difference between FHP and MSP has increased for all the four commodities. Let’s take the case of maize. Between 2007 and 2014, the difference had stood at around 12 percent. It has since jumped to around 18 percent, almost back to pre-2006 levels.

A similar trend can be seen for the other three crops as well.

The official government data is only available till 2017, but this divergence between FHP and MSP is also reported in recent articles discussing the farmer situation in Bihar.

An article from People’s Archive of Rural India on Feb 20, 2021  reports  that “In 2019, a farmer sold his stock of raw paddy at the rate of Rs. 1,100 per quintal – this was 39 percent less than the MSP (minimum support price) of Rs. 1,815 at that time”.
Another article from December 2020 reports that “Paddy has sold for Rs 900-1,000 a quintal in Bihar, almost half the Rs 1,868 fixed by the Centre as MSP”.

The farm prices at which farmers sell continue to be depressed compared to the MSPs and given that difference has only increased in recent years, weakens the argument forwarded by supporters of the new farm laws which extrapolates deregulation to improved price realization for farmers. Economic theory doesn’t always fall in line with things actually happening on the ground.

A key underlying rationale behind dismantling of the APMCs in Bihar was that it would lead to an increase in the number of buyers in the marketplace. A similar argument is also being made in the case of the new farm laws. However, that is not how things have worked out, in markets across Bihar.

In fact, anecdotal evidence from newsreports emanating from Bihar suggests that sales to private traders are often distress sales since farmers don’t have access to a sizeable pool of local buyers .

A 2019 paper by the National Council of Economic Research makes a similar observation: “Despite the abolition of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act in 2006, private investment in the creation of new markets and strengthening of facilities in the existing ones did not take place in Bihar, leading to low market density. Further, the participation of government agencies in procurement and the scale of procurement of grains continue to be low. Thus, farmers are left to the mercy of traders who unscrupulously fix lower prices for agricultural produce that they buy from farmers..”

Of course, there are other reasons that push farmers to make these distress sales such as a deficient transport network, poor storage facilities, and lack of capital. All of these are exacerbated for small and marginal farmers who form the bulk of agriculturists in Bihar. Given these harsh conditions, it is unsurprising that farmers are unhappy with the present system.

The disillusionment of the Bihar farmer can also be understood looking at incomes of farmers, because ultimately the proof is in the pudding.

Income of Farmers in Bihar

 Source: Study on Agricultural Diagnostics for the State of Bihar in India, 2019 report by NCAER

                                   
The above chart shows that while the net income of farmers in Bihar rose from 2007 to 2010, nevertheless, it has been declining continuously since 2010, up to the point we have data for. The declining income is explained by a rise in costs of agriculture inputs (seeds, power, labour, fertilizers, cost of finance, etc.) without a commensurate increase in sales revenue. The net income per hectare farmed, has moved alarmingly towards zero.

Government procurement of foodgrains 

Farm prices and farmer incomes are significantly affected by the level of government procurement of foodgrains in Bihar. The Central Government extends price support to paddy and wheat through the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and state procurement agencies across the country.

As per this policy, state governments are supposed to purchase paddy and wheat (conforming to certain specifications) from farmers at the declared MSP. Farmers have the option to sell their produce to private traders if they can get better prices in the open market. The objective of foodgrains procurement by government agencies is to ensure that farmers get remunerative prices for their produce and do not have to resort to distress sale. The central government accepts the responsibility to fund the procurement operations.

The next two tables give a breakdown of foodgrain procurement in the recent few years for major rice and wheat producing states.

State wise FCI Procurement of rice-paddy 
Source: Food Corporation of India.

State wise FCI procurement of wheat

Source: Food Corporation of India.

Procurement of paddy in Bihar is around 20 percent of the state’s total production, and that of wheat is almost negligible (less than 1 percent). Compare this to Punjab and Haryana, where procurement levels for paddy are over 80 percent and that of wheat are over 60 percent. This is primarily because of historical reasons, in order to promote the green revolution in the states.

This is one of the reasons for the disparity of wealth between Bihar and the other states. Since government buys paddy and wheat at MSP rates, low levels of government procurement in Bihar negatively impact the FHP for wheat and paddy, and in the process farmer incomes.

If the government purchased 100 percent (hypothetically speaking) of the paddy grown in the state, the FHP for paddy would more than likely be the same as the MSP. At 2016-17 prices, that would mean the farmer would get Rs 1,510 per quintal instead of Rs 1,147 per quintal for paddy – an increase of around 32 percent or Rs 363 per quintal. This additional revenue would directly pass-through as added income for farmers. This explains why procurement at MSP rates is a pressing demand by farmers during any policy debates on improving farmer incomes.

Low procurement of foodgrains by the state of Bihar can be attributed to two main reasons: a) inadequate funding by the state and b) Poorly functioning PACS.

There are several deficiencies in how PACS operate including restrictive registration requirements which limit who can sell to PACS, limited windows of procurement, sub-optimal timing of procurement, rejection of crop by the PACS due to excessive moisture content, and excessive delays in payment.  In fact, the number of PACS  in Bihar has declined by over 82 percent, from 9,035 in 2015-16 to 1,619 in 2019-20.

While the specific problems of PACS are less relevant to the national debate on the farm bills, they point to an important fact. The success or failure of market deregulation is highly dependent on the alternate systems that emerge in that environment, which will be unique for each state. Hence, the “vocal for local” mantra should also be applied when implementing policy solutions that strengthen federalism over a one solution-fits-all approach.

Conclusions

1) The so-called opening up of the agriculture market in Bihar to private players has not fundamentally altered the state of the Bihari farmer. The data on farm prices and farmer incomes is mixed after dismantling the APMCs. The difference between FHP and MSP for commodities like paddy and maize did decrease after APMCs were abolished, but those gains have reversed since 2015. The lived experience of farmers as reported by ground reports and the data on farmer incomes and prices paint a grim picture.

2) The PACS created by the state government for procuring food-grains have proven to be inefficient and non-responsive to farmer needs.

3) The government procurement at MSP continues to be a key contributing factor in improving FHPs and farmer incomes. This underlines why MSPs continue to be a key issue for farmers protesting the new farm laws.

4) The Bihar experiment is pertinent to the 2020 Farm Laws, but extrapolating the outcomes in Bihar to the current farm law debate needs some nuance. The data can be presented selectively, both by opponents and proponents of the farm laws to further their argument. But based on the analysis presented here, it is clear that deregulating agriculture markets in Bihar, did not cause prices to crash, though the difference with the MSPs has risen in the recent years. Neither did it usher in a wave of private buyers vying for agriculture produce, buoying up farmer incomes and prosperity in its wake.

It must be noted that the total output of an agrarian economy is affected by a host of factors including crop yield (how much crop is produced per unit area), land usage (how much area is used for cropping), cropping patterns (choice of high-value vs low-value agricultural produce), and prices . Of these, only prices are affected by the new law.

The other factors are influenced by variables such as irrigation, power availability, fertilizer usage, seed quality, rainfall, weather events, mechanization, among others. In a 2017 paper on agriculture in Bihar, the authors identify the following factors as drivers of agricultural growth. These are, irrigation, flood protection, energy for agriculture, roads, procurement system and agriculture markets.

While government policy has a role to play in shaping some of these variables, Bihar’s APMC abolishment law in 2006 and the central laws in 2020, are limited to procurement and agriculture markets. Thus, commentary correlating the abolishment of APMCs in 2006 with changes in macroeconomic metrics in Bihar such as total agricultural output or agricultural growth is disingenuous.

PS: Such a detailed data dive takes a lot of time and effort and you won’t see it anywhere in the mainstream media. Given this, our work needs your constant financial support. 

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.

Government of India must stop hoarding food

 rot-in-the-fci-godowns

Vivek Kaul

Food inflation has been an issue of huge concern over the last few years. In a recent report titled What a waste! Crisil Research points out that “food inflation has averaged 8.1% in the last decade, and over 10% in recent times.”
This when agricultural growth has been robust and our granaries continue to overflow. Agricultural growth over the last decade stood at 3.6% per year, in comparison to 2.9% per year, in the decade before that. Hence, the conventional argument that food inflation is a result of not enough supply in comparison to demand, doesn’t totally hold.
The Food Corporation of India (FCI) puts out a number indicating its food grains stock every month. As on June 1, 2014, the food grain stock, which includes rice, wheat, unmilled paddy and coarse grains, stood at 74.8 million tonnes. At the beginning of June 2008, the stock had stood at 36.4 million tonnes.
This indicates that the government through FCI has bought and hoarded more and more of rice and wheat produced in the country. In a May 2013 research report titled Buffer Stocking Policy in Wake of NFSB (National Food Security Bill) written by Ashok Gulati and Surbhi Jain of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices(CACP) it was estimated that anywhere between 41-47 million tonnes, would be a comfortable level of buffer stocks.
This would be enough to take care of the subsidised grain that needs to be distributed to implement the food security scheme. At the same time it would also take care of the strategic reserves that the government needs to maintain, to be ready for a drought or any other exigency.
The current level of food grains with the FCI is significantly more than 41-47 million tonnes. One impact of this is that the government spends money in buying the “extra grain” which it does not require. This adds to the government expenditure and in turn the fiscal deficit. The fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. The CACP authors had estimated that an excess stock of 30-40 million tonnes would cost the government anywhere between Rs 70,000 to Rs 92,000 crore.
The main reason for this “extra procurement” is the fact that the Congress led UPA government kept increasing minimum support price(MSP) of food grains over the years, at a fast pace. In 2005-2006, the MSP for common paddy(rice) was Rs 570 per quintal. By 2013-2014 this had shot up to Rs 1310 per quintal, an increase in price of around 11% per year. In comparison, between 1998-1999 and 2005-2006, the MSP of rice had increased at the rate of 3.8% per year.
In case of wheat the MSP has gone up by 14% per year between 2005-2006 and 2013-2014. In comparison, between 1999-2000 and 2005-2006, the price had gone up by 4% per year.
In fact, the decision to increase the MSP was totally random. A report released by the Comptroller and Auditor General in May 2013 pointed out that “No specific norm was followed for fixing of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) over the cost of production. Resultantly, it was observed the margin of MSP fixed over the cost of production varied between 29 per cent and 66 per cent in case of wheat, and 14 per cent and 50 per cent in case of paddy during the period 2006-2007 to 2011-2012.”
Other than the government expenditure shooting up, the rapid increase in MSP has led to more and more food grains landing up with the government. The FCI does not have enough storage capacity for this grain. This is one reason why newspapers frequently carry pictures of food grains rotting, lying in the open. “Between 2005 and 2013, close to 1.94 lakh tonnes of food grain were wasted in India, as per FCI’s own admission in the Parliament,” the Crisil report points out. Rice formed 84% of the total damage.
Further, the excess procurement has also led to high inflation, as a lower amount of rice and wheat have landed up in the open market. The CAG report points out that in 2006-2007, 63.3 million tonnes of rice landed in the open market. By 2011-2012, this had fallen by a huge 23.6% to 48.3 million tonnes. The same is true about about wheat as well, though the drop is not as pronounced as it is in the case of rice. In 2006-2007, the total amount of wheat in the open market stood at 62.1 million tonnes. By 2011-2012, this had dropped to 61.4 million tonnes.
Also, with MSPs going up every year at a rapid rate, “the cropping pattern” the Crisil report points out “has been biased towards food grains like rice and wheat, and have led to excessive production”.
Given this, one way of bringing down food inflation is the government releasing stocks of rice and wheat into the open market. One problem here can be that the procurement is concentrated in a few states. In case of wheat these states are Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh. And in case of rice, these states are Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Punjab. Hence, stocks will have to be moved from these parts of the country to other parts. More than that the government needs to stop procuring more than what it needs to run its various programmes. This will be beneficial from the fiscal deficit front as well as help moderate inflation.
This becomes even more important given that the India Meteorological Department expects the monsoon to be below normal at 93 per cent of the long period average. In this scenario, the production of grains is expected to take a hit. If the government continues with excess procurement, less grains will land up in the open market and push prices further up.
Also, when it comes to production of food products like milk, milk products, egg, fish and meat, supply has been lagging demand. The production has risen only at the rate of 3-4% between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, whereas the price has risen at the rate of 14-15%, the Crisil report points out. This needs to be addressed.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the Agricultural Product and Market Committee(APMC) Act was passed to help farmers. Instead, it has made them vulnerable to traders backed by political parties. The huge increase in price of onion last year, despite a small fall in production is an excellent example of the same. The trader cartels need to be broken down.
These steps need to be taken if food inflation has to be controlled in the time to come.

 The article originally appeared in The Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle on June 17, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]