Regardless of how the government negotiates with the farmers on the issue of legally guaranteed minimum support price for 23 crops, there seems to be no way it can abandon them. The State has been a foster father to the farmers, encouraging them to grow wheat and rice, pushing them to grow more and more of them, pumping their hearts with pride that they were feeders of the nation, glorifying them as warriors who drove the US food ships away.
The State did it for well over five decades, and suddenly one fine morning it tells the farmers, “I am no more your father. From now on a new father, the food tycoon, is going to take care of you.” To the farmers it was like the shepherd asking his sheep to go live under the guardianship of a pack of wolves. They were shocked, shaken and terrified. And the resistance, as imperishable as the glitter in gold, began. They would squat on roads, in freezing cold or scalding heat, until the foster father tore up the transfer of guardianship papers.
To the advocates of free enterprise that seemed like fully grown adults insisting to stay home as suckling babes. In their view they had to be detached. They had to be forced to go out and build their own lives, like all adult children do. They had to go find their place in the marketplace.
The champions of privatization said they were not being cruel to the farmers. They just wanted them to be self-dependent, to stand on their own feet. They were imparting wisdom to them. What Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his address to the nation announcing the repeal of the three farm laws essentially meant the same thing: “We had only the best interests of the farmers in mind. But some of them were too foolish to understand.”
Were the farmers really stubborn and stolid? The answer is: they were stubborn but not stolid. The farmers are not against the private sector. How can they be? They are themselves in the private sector. Agriculture is the largest segment of the country’s private sector. The same farmer in turban and country clothes who sat on the roads in protest and who was derided for seeking protection from the State as a permanent dependant is deeply engaged with the private sector. He buys his seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, equipment and spaces in warehouses and cold storages from private players. He sells most of his produce to the private sector. He is not only in the domestic marketplace but also in the world marketplace. India’s agri exports have been significantly growing and are likely to reach US$ 60 billion by 2022, which is the clinching proof of the participation of the farmers in turban and country clothes in the global market.
The question then is: Why was the farmer opposing the entry of the private sector into the agri produce market through the three laws? The answer is: It was not the solution to his problems.
One of his major problems is dwindling groundwater and soil nutrients. Was the food tycoon going to make the aquifers and the soil young, muscular and vigorous again? Armed with the three laws, private players would have come and carted away all the agri produce. They would not have bothered to see how the land was deteriorating. If one land deteriorated, they would have gone to another land, telling the abandoned farmers, “Sorry, we can’t help. It’s your problem. You have to fix it.”
The trouble is the farmer cannot fix it himself. Only the State can do it. At the core of the farmer-State confrontation, and now of the hard negotiations between them, lies this issue: Who will fix the cracking food bowl?
The picture presented of the farmers is that they are big landowners who have amassed wealth growing rice and wheat and selling it to the government and want to go on doing it, unmindful of their folly that they were cutting the branch of the tree they were sitting on. This is a wrong picture. The farmers are aware that their land, their main resource, is under threat. They want to move out of cereals into other crops, provided they get the same or more income from them. They are desperate to start with getting out of rice, for this crop is water guzzling and has drunk off much of the aquifers.
It is only the State that can help the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Western UP, the browning land of green revolution, transition from cereals to other profitable crops. The State can only do it by fixing a minimum support price for non-cereal crops and by raising it every year, The State has done it in pulses. If today the country is close to achieving self-sufficiency in pulses, the reason is the State alluring farmers to switch from cereals to pulses with incremental MSP.
The work of the State should not end with self-sufficiency in pulses. The green revolutionaries can be driven to grow pulses instead of cereals. There is a huge global demand for pulses. The country can claim an increasing share of global pulses exports by inducing farmers for the switch. Not only pulses, the farmers can be shepherded into oilseeds to make the country self-sufficient in cooking oils and then join the group of cooking oil exporting nations.
The farmer is no different from any of us. They want to make a good amount of money for a good life. As long as the State makes policies and implements schemes that help them earn a decent income they would be willing to grow anything. Even in the developed countries the State plays the role of a guardian to the farmers. The Indian State cannot give up that responsibility.
The State has to begin by moving rice cultivation out of the green revolution belt to other states and helping the farmers in the region diversify to pulses, oilseeds and other commercial crops. That will help solve many problems: It will help raise the groundwater table; it will end stubble burning, the additional cause of Delhi’s air pollution; it will save foreign exchange by reducing imports of pulses and oilseeds; it will earn foreign exchange through their exports.
(The views expressed is personal)