Prem Shankar Jha

The fact that the RSS has intervened to ensure the government does not implement the farm Acts is significant.

Centre’s Offer to Defer Farm Acts Is a Victory for Democracy. Don’t Throw it Away.
Farmers take out a tractor march as part of the preparations for their planned tractor parade in the national capital on Republic Day, during a protest against the new farm laws, in Amritsar, Friday, January 22, 2021. Photo: PTI

The decision by protesting farmers to not accept the government’s offer to defer the farm Acts could be the first misstep in what has so far been the most meticulously planned, responsible and peaceful mass demonstration that India has seen in recent times.

More than the number of people mobilised at the Singhu and Tikri borders, it was their discipline and organisation that demonstrated the strength of the movement and the support it commanded. It is these, rather than the implied threat of violence, that has made the government pull back.

All of this immense accretion of credibility and respect is under threat today because, for the first time, the farmers were split on whether to accept the government’s offer of an 18-month stay or not. The longer the split lasts, the more the farmers’ movement will lose its moral ascendancy in the eyes of a public that has been almost solidly behind it so far. The more that happens, the more will the accusations of the Modi bhakts in the BJP and the media, that this is a movement fuelled by an irresponsible political opposition, backed by Khalistanis, begin to sound credible to the common, apolitical public.

An even greater threat from the failure to arrive at an agreement is it will increase the possibility of a violent confrontation between the Delhi police and the farmers on January 26. This is something that the farmers cannot afford, now that the government has put the farm Acts on hold, because it will cost them much of the public support they now enjoy.

But there is an even greater price that the country will have to pay if the farmers do not accept the government’s offer. This will be a substantial weakening of the RSS in relation to Modi and his extremist base of support in the Sangh parivar. This is because the government’s decision to stay the implementation of its farm Acts by 18 months did not emerge from second thoughts that Modi may have had on it, but from an unambiguous directive issued by the RSS.

The government’s  decision came within 24 hours of a categorical statement by RSS general secretary Suresh (Bhaiyyaji) Joshi, the second-in command in the organisation, that “a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.

Bhaiyyaji’s statement needs to be read in full to appreciate its significance:

“Democracy provides an opportunity to both sides. I consider both sides right (in) their place. Agitators must consider that whatever they can get through dialogue, they must accept. The government must think about what more it can give. …So it is important to find that point where the two sides can agree and the agitation can end. Any agitation running for long is not beneficial. No one should have a problem with an agitation taking place. But a middle ground must be found. An agitation does not just affect people associated with it, but also impacts society, directly or indirectly. It is not good for the health of society for any agitation to run for too long. So a middle ground must be found and both sides must work to find a solution”.

As significant as the contents of the statement is how and to whom Bhaiyyaji gave it – in an interview to the Indian Express, a newspaper not known for its support to this government or the ideology that propels it.

Joshi went on to advise moderation to the farmers:

“Whenever a discussion is held, there can’t be an argument that my position is non-negotiable…The government is repeatedly saying we are ready to discuss, but (the protesters) are saying any discussion will take place only after the laws are repealed. How will a discussion take place like that. ..I believe farmers must have a discussion with the government over issues they have with the laws… There should be a positive initiative from both sides. If agitators also take a positive approach it will be good.”

It is against this remarkably candid reproach of its own government that the farmers need to determine their future course today. That this was not just another appeal being made from behind a veil of seeming impartiality, to put the farmers in the wrong, became clear when the government postponed the implementation of the farm laws by not a few weeks or even months but a year and a half. This is as close as any democratic government can come to admitting that it had made a mistake. To ask it to do more is to ask for the moon.

The political significance of the RSS’s intervention goes beyond the farmers’ struggle. It is a reminder to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that even if he does not consider himself to be accountable to the public, he remains accountable to the organisation to which he owes his present position. And that organisation did not appreciate his haste in announcing new decisions, and rushing new laws through parliament, without going through the process of consultation, with the party, the parliament and the public, which is the essence of democracy.

One swallow does not a summer make, but the possibility that Bhaiyyaji’s admonition is only the tip of a larger iceberg of dissatisfaction with this government’s performance cannot be ruled out. For the RSS’s credo, which is drilled into every pracharak during its orientation programmes in Nagpur, is to work quietly behind the scenes, and avoid the limelight at almost any cost. This is a credo that Modi began rebelling against in various small ways soon after the RSS made him its pracharak for the Gujarat unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad more than two decades ago.

It was only his organisational capacity, his irreproachable financial integrity and, regrettably, his handling of the riots in 2002, that kept him in its good books. But since he became the prime minister, the drawbacks of his personality – his haste, impetuosity and constant thirst for acclamation – have become more of a liability than an asset.

After Modi became prime minister, the RSS almost certainly did not expect to be consulted on every action of the government, for that would have gone against its entire credo of being a social organisation whose purpose was the revival and glorification of Bharat Mata. But Modi’s relentless presentation of every major decision of the government  as his and his alone with neither consultation before nor credit shared afterwards, could not have failed to disturb the parent organisation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, India, August 15, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Despite the increasingly frequent blowback from Modi’s hasty decisions, the RSS stayed clear of intervening so long as these remained broadly within the parameters of Hindutva ideology, and of its stated political aims. Thus, Modi’s tacit support through silence of programmes like love jihad, gau raksha and ghar wapsi; his party and government’s determination to ensure that no one accused of a communal atrocity ever faced punishment; his determination to push “illegal” Muslim immigrants out of Assam and India no matter what the cost; his open invitation to RSS and BJP cadres to ‘help’ the police to break up the Shaheen Bagh satyagraha movement, which resulted in the North East Delhi massacres; and his abrogation of Article 370 after brutally crushing political and civil society activity in the state, drew no criticism from the parent organisation.

But RSS could scarcely have remained unaffected by his other blunders: his jump-the-gun demonetisation of 86% of the currency in November 2016 which forced most of 150 million migrant workers to stop work in the cities and go home when the facility for converting old currency notes for new ran out on December 31, and the new notes were not even ready for dispensation; his equally hasty and ill-planned introduction of the Goods and Services Tax and, finally his eagerness to be the first country to declare a lockdown against COVID-19 without his even realising that this would destroy hundreds of millions of livelihoods, and force ten million or more persons to start walking or cycling  home to villages from 60 to 2,000 km away in the heat of summer.

Finally, it would be surprising indeed if some, at least, in the RSS have not realised that Modi’s determination not to enter into discussions with the Chinese, and his systematic turning of economic screws on China’s trade and investment with India, are pushing the two countries ever closer to a war in the Himalayas that India can only lose.

If my analysis above is correct, then the RSS has broken its silence on the farmers’ struggle not only because this is the first mass movement that truly has no ideological, political or anti-nationalist moorings, that because it has been triggered by the first hasty action of Modi government that it cannot justify by invoking a policy espoused earlier by the Sangh parivar.

That is why it is imperative for the farmers’ movement to accept his government’s offer to stay the farm Acts and enter into a serious discussion of how they can be revised to get the best instead of the worst out of them. Needless to say, any meaningful discussion of this nature needs to be held within accepted parameters.

The first and most important of these is that the agreed reforms must be left to the state governments to implement. Agro-climatic conditions are simply too diverse in India to permit any-one-size-fits-all solutions. So every state will have to decide how to implement them within the constraints these impose.

Secondly, inter-state trade needs to be opened to the private sector, but once more, at a pace and in products that that is left to the states to decide.

Thirdly, farmers, particularly those who produce perishable crops, need to be empowered in various ways to increase their bargaining power against the traders. This requires the rapid creation of essential rural infrastructure – notably the provision of 24×7 power to facilitate the creation of village-level cold storages, and the creation of small bank branches in villages above a minimum size, for prompt dispersal of credit.

Lastly, the opening of export trade must be closely correlated with the establishment of buffer stocks of vegetables and dairy products in particular, that prevent the shocks caused by sudden natural disasters, such as drought or unseasonal rain, from falling  solely upon domestic supply and prices.

These are only the most essential first steps towards compensating farmers for the prolonged neglect they have suffered from our urban-centred planners and administrators. If the farmers’ struggle ends by bringing these to the forefront of policy and shifting the priorities of planned investment, it will have more than fulfilled its purpose.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

Read More

Read More

If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture.

The Remedy to the Agricultural Crisis That No One Is Talking AboutFarmers during a protest against the new farm laws, at Ghazipur Border in New Delhi, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

Five weeks after the Farmers agitation began, and a day after the Supreme Court urged the government to put the three farm bills passed in September on hold, Prime Minister Modi has finally agreed to hold talks with their leaders.

But what will he hold talks about when neither he, nor anyone else in his government, has shown any understanding of what has driven the entire community of farmers from North India to the edge of despair?

Their ignorance is writ large on his party propagandists’ attempts to ascribe political, even traitorous, motives to the farm leaders. That is the reaction of schoolyard bullies who, when they find themselves losing an argument, start hitting their opponents.

Now that Modi has decided to talk to the farmers himself, he would do well to understand the predicament that has driven them to desperation. In a nutshell, it is this: India is now a chronically food surplus economy. So while opening up the foodgrains trade to traders from all over the country will benefit rich farmers – who have the maximum bargaining power and can contact, or be contacted by, buyers in other states and countries most easily – the entire price shock of the foodgrains surplus will be felt by the small landholders who make up four-fifths of the farming community.

The government’s recent decision not to abolish the Minimum Sale Price system will cushion this shock, but no one knows to what extent it will do so if the thriving mandis of Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and northern Rajasthan lose the bulk of their business to private buyers and start closing down.

Even if the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees that manage these mandis survive no one can foretell how far their straitened finances will permit them to provide the small farmers with the host of ancillary services, such as advances to buy seed and fertiliser in time to sow the next crop, that they are doing today. In sum, these ‘reforms’ will plunge the largest, most vulnerable, segment of the country’s population into a sea of uncertainty, in which they presently have no idea, of how they will stay afloat.

Liberal economists are treating this as the unavoidable price of economic development. The solution, they say, lies in product diversification. The cereals market will automatically come back into balance if farmers divert some of their land to horticulture, dairy and poultry farming. What they seem to be unaware of is that farmers have been doing this since the early 1990s. Those with small and marginal holdings were the first to attempt it.

But the world they entered was frighteningly different from the world they were leaving, for it was one in which near-complete market security was replaced by equally complete market insecurity. While cereals are not perishable and can easily be stored for six months or more (wheat) to several years ( lentils), fruit, vegetables (other than onions and potatoes),  milk and eggs perish in days. Horticulturalists have therefore found that, from the moment they harvest their crop, they are at the utter mercy of the trader.

Despite this more and more farmers have taken to growing vegetables, fruit and flowers because of the rapid and unexpected growth of exports. Since exporters offer contracted prices to ensure, and often pre-empt, supply, a degree of income stability has been given to horticulturists. As a result, the area under horticulture has more than doubled in the past twenty years to 25 million hectares, and exports have grown eightfold from Rs 8,000 crores in 2000-01 to Rs 63,700 crores in 2018-19.

Farmers protest against the farm bills at Singhu border near Delhi, India, December 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

But only traders, exporters and well-to-do farmers have benefited from this windfall.  To manage the growing volume of horticultural produce giant cold storages that can store up to 40,000 tonnes of produce, have sprung up all over India in the last two decades. In March 2019, there were an estimated 7,645 large cold storages with a refrigerated space of 150 million cubic metres, capable of storing  37 to 39 million tonnes of perishable produce.

But the small farmers, who have grown most of the fruits and vegetables, have been left out in the cold because, even today, almost three-quarters of a century after independence, there are no cold storages in the villages.

The following data from the agriculture ministry’s report, ‘Horticulture Statistics at a Glance 2018‘ shows how this single omission has chained the small farmers to poverty. In Punjab, one hectare under horticulture yields four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat, but close to 20 tonnes of vegetables.

But between 2013 and 2018, the wholesale price of onions, potatoes and tomatoes – the three principal horticulture crops – has averaged Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 per tonne in March and April at the end of the growing season, when the farmers have no option but to sell their produce.  Since farm-gate prices average at most half of the wholesale price, the vegetable growers earn at best Rs 6,000 per tonne for their produce,  and a gross income, therefore, of Rs 120,000 in the year.

But the procurement price fixed by the central government for both paddy and wheat is over Rs 18,000 per tonne. So four tonnes of paddy and five tonnes of wheat a year fetch the farmer a gross income of Rs 162,000, one-third more than vegetables fetch the marginal farmers. Vegetable farming is therefore not only less secure, but also pays less than cereal farming. That is the second reason why the farmers are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills. If the present marketing structure is weakened or destroyed, all of them, from the largest landholders to the smallest, have no place to go but down.

The bitter experience of vegetable growers has shown the farmers who are surrounding Delhi today that the ‘market’ upon whose mercy Modi wants to cast them is exploitative and merciless. That is why they are not only insisting upon the retention of the MSP but the repeal of all the three farm bills as a prelude to negotiation.

If Modi wants to pull India out of the ‘Cereals Trap’, the path lies through the creation of infrastructure for agriculture that India’s governments and intelligentsia had promised to farmers when the Congress party made land reform its first national policy initiative in 1948, but subsequently forgot.

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.

Read More

These “reforms” bear exactly the same stamp of hubris, lack of consultation and foresight that has characterised all the major initiatives taken by the Narendra Modi government in the past six years.

The Protests Against the Farm Laws Present a Familiar Pattern
A farmer holds the tricolor at Ghazipur border during the protest against the Centre’s agri-laws, December 15, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

If there is anyone who should not be surprised by the sustained and widespread opposition by farmers to the laws passed in September, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For these “reforms” bear exactly the same stamp of hubris, lack of consultation and foresight that has characterised all the major initiatives his government has taken in the past six or more years.

This is not the first time that Modi has announced draconian measures that have far-reaching consequences, without prior warning, let alone consultation. He did this with demonetisation in 2016; with the Goods and Services Tax in 2017; with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Population Register in 2019, and with a hasty lockdown to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in March that proved a monumental failure but inflicted untold hardship on 40-50 million migrant workers this year.

The many failures that have followed his exaggerated promises, and the unrest that many of these have generated, have sown a growing scepticism in the people. So it is not surprising that the farmers distrust the government’s assurances that the Acts will help double their earnings and are demanding their repeal.

A farmer holding a flag stands on top of a truck during the ongoing protest against the Center’s new farm laws at Singhu
border in New Delhi, December 10, 2020. Photo: PTI/Arun Sharma

What is not so easy to understand is their refusal to discuss amendments to the three lawseven after the government reassured them that it will not abolish the minimum support price (MSP) system that has existed for the past five decades. This will allow the farmers to sell their rice, wheat and other MSP-covered crops in the open market while they enjoy the security of knowing that they can sell these to the government if the need arises.

So, predictably, Modi’s spokespersons have reverted to coercion and accused the farmers’ leaders of being ‘Leftists’, ‘Khalistanis’ and puppets of the ‘tukde tukde gang’ that wants to ‘dismember’ India on the pretext of protecting its ethnic, political and religious diversity.

These tactics will not intimidate the farmers for, unlike India’s English-speaking elite, and unlike even the thousands of Muslim women and their non-Muslim supporters in the Shaheen Bagh movement, they are, and will remain, the bedrock of India’s civilisation and politics for many more decades to come. So if the government really wishes to improve the lot of the farmers, it needs to understand the causes of their stubborn resistance first.

The benefits of the Green Revolution have been exhausted

These do not spring so much from doubt about the government’s intentions, as from their doubts about their own capacity to take advantage of these new ‘freedoms’. This capacity has declined sharply in the past three decades as the growth spurt given by the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s has been exhausted and nothing has taken its place.

The Green Revolution was made possible by the development of hybrid varieties of wheat and rice, but India was able to take spectacular advantage of it only because of the immensely fertile soil of the Indo-Gangetic plain and the abundant supply of groundwater – often likened to an immense underground lake – beneath it.

By the end of the 1980s, both were being fully exploited. In 2015, 28.6 out of the 37.5 million hectares of cultivated land in these five states was irrigated, and all but a tiny part was growing both wheat and rice, or two crops of rice. The cropping intensity was greatest in Punjab and Haryana, where 7.2 out of their 7.6 million hectares of cultivated land was growing both rice and wheat every year. Uttar Pradesh was only slightly behind, with 14.5 million out of its 17.6 million hectares growing both wheat and rice.

Paddy farmers in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Feng Zhong/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Representative image of paddy farmers. Photo: Feng Zhong/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This relentlessly intense cultivation has exhausted the soil. The tell-tale indicator is the need to use more and more fertilisers for every tonne of output. While the production of foodgrains has increased by 134% – from 126 to 285 million tonnes – between 1977-78 and 2018-19, the consumption of fertilisers grew by more than 600%, from 4.2 million tonnes to 27.2 million tonnes.

This increase has turned India into a food surplus country, but caught farmers in a ‘scissors crisis’ of rising costs of production and falling market prices. To prevent a crash in the latter, successive governments have turned what used to be a compulsory procurement price in the 1950s and 60s, designed to ensure a supply of foodgrains at reasonable prices, into a support price that would sustain the real income of the farmers in the villages. This was the genesis of the MSP and Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC), that the government’s new farm laws will make redundant. What this will mean for the farmer can be gleaned from the statement of their purpose as spelt out by Wikipedia:

“An Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) is a marketing board established by state governments in India to ensure farmers are safeguarded from exploitation by large retailers, as well as ensuring the farm to retail price spread does not reach excessively high levels.”

The APMCs are the farmers’ shields against the stormy winds of the free market. It is no surprise therefore that state governments have tried, albeit with limited degrees of success, to extend the MSP system to 21 more agricultural crops.

But over time, this shield has turned into a trap: the more the farmers produce, the higher becomes the cliff from which they will fall if the MSP system is abolished and they are thrown into an open market. In such a market, the better off farmers, who have the means, the leisure and the contacts to make direct sales to traders in other states, and abroad, will prosper. But the small and marginal farmers will find themselves at the bottom end, forced to sell to middlemen who have none of the obligations that the state governments have imposed upon the APMCs.

And today, 125 million of the country’s 146 million farmers own or operate, an average of a little more than two hectares of land. For them, the abolition of the MSP and with it the disappearance or emasculation of the APMCs is virtually a kiss of death. Yes, given enough time many, perhaps most, of them will learn to survive and even prosper in a free market. But time is precisely what the farm laws will deprive them of. If they are forced through even with the retention of MSPs, the APMCs will survive: farmers will have the option to sell to them. But they will become progressively weaker. Many, probably most traders will migrate out of them. Those that remain will have a much smaller turnover and will therefore no longer have the resources to carry out the many functions, from warehousing to electrification to the construction of rural roads that they help perform now in Punjab and Haryana.

This is why the farmers are not satisfied with simply the retention of the MSP. They need much more support, but as of now cannot see how, and from where they will get it, if the laws are not repealed.

Unsold stocks of wheat and rice

In fairness to the government, it must, however, be admitted that the present system also is not sustainable. The warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are bursting with unsold stocks of wheat and rice and this food mountain continues to grow. At the end of June, they held 27.7 million tonnes of rice and 55 million tonnes of wheat. Together these amounted to 42.1 million tonnes more than the stipulated buffer stock requirement on July 1. Wheat is hygroscopic, i.e sucks in moisture from the air. It cannot, therefore, be stored for more than a few months before it becomes inedible.

The only way out at present has been to export the surplus. As a result, India has been transformed from the chronically food importing country it was in the 1960s into the world’s largest exporter of rice. In 2019-20, it exported 12 million tonnes – one-third of global exports – and over 6 million tonnes of wheat, much of the latter as cattle feed after it had become ‘unfit for human consumption’ in the FCI’s granaries. There are no reports of what the wheat fetched the government, but the rice fetched 7.1 billion dollars, i.e $591, or Rs 44,325 per tonne. The MSP for rice in 2019 was Rs 1,815 per quintal, i.e. Rs, 18,150 per tonne. The net profit from paddy exports in 2019-20 was, therefore, $4.18 billion.

This is the golden apple that has prompted the government and its supporters in Big Business to pick. The immediate beneficiaries will be the large urban exporters to whom the FCI will sell its surplus stocks. No one knows how much the FCI will sell these surpluses to private traders at, but it has been selling some of its stocks at the MSP or a little above that already. So this is likely to continue. The annual bonanza may be somewhat reduced from the $4.18 billion of 2019-20 by the fall in world prices that increased supply will trigger, but it will still be huge and will come to the exporters and their political backers every ear.

Labourers carry sacks of rice after unloading them from a wagon train at an FCI godown in Jammu, April 16, 2020. Photo: PTI

I will be surprised indeed if this is not the main motivation behind this supposedly benevolent reform. But the reform itself is needed, so to be accepted, it needs to be made benevolent. The simplest way would be to levy a 10% state GST upon all sales made to private traders, and something like a 28% GST upon rice and wheat exports, and channel these back to the APMCs via the state governments to continue performing the functions they perform today.

There will be cracks, even in such a system, through which a few farmers may fall through. But the chasm that all but the richest among them are facing today will be closed.


Read More