Interview: Ashwani Mahajan

Ashwani Mahajan: 'Changes required, but with safeguards'

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Ashwani Mahajan, national convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Photo: Altaf Hussain/REUTERS

Interview with Ashwani Mahajan, national convener of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), the economic wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, has often criticised the policies of the BJP government. With regard to the farm Bills, it has found itself aligned closer to the opposition than is politically desirable. Ashwani Mahajan, national convener of the SJM, while categorically stating that the organisation was not in solidarity with the political parties leading the farmers’ agitation in different States, told Frontline that it stood for farmers and traders. Excerpts from an interview:

Why has the government bypassed the opportunity to implement the Swaminathan Commission reports on farmers?

I cannot answer that. It is the government’s prerogative to prioritise an issue and work on it. However, one thing I will say that these three farm Bills, now Acts, are steps in the right direction. The intent behind the new legislation is good. However, no matter how good an intent, there is always scope for improvement.

The SJM has raised the issue of minimum support price (MSP).

We have suggested to the government that MSP should also be applicable to purchases taking place outside mandis. There is a logic behind this. We are moving towards a new system of agricultural commerce. Now private parties, individuals or corporations can directly buy without going to mandis. Inside mandis, there is a fee and commissions of agents, which have to be borne by farmers. Therefore, naturally, purchase outside mandis, sans these fees and commissions, would be more attractive for farmers and procurers, and the farmer will have an opportunity to get a better price. But, private buyers will be in a dominant position. We understand that farmers have weak bargaining power, and outside agents may try to exploit the same by offering lower prices to farmers. Our point of view is that they should be offered at least an MSP that is scientific and not arbitrarily declared. This is the demand of various other farmers’ organisations also.

Let us draw a parallel with MRP [maximum retail price]. It is the price at which companies and manufacturers sell their produce. But it is arbitrary. It is not based on cost considerations but fixed on an unscientific basis. The SJM has, from the very beginning, demanded that manufacturers should announce their cost of production. We are not saying they should sell at that rate, but they should at least announce it so that the consumers can be aware of it. The SJM’s demand is when MRP, which is decided arbitrarily by the manufactures, is considered legitimate, how can the demand for MSP for farmers for purchases made outside mandis lack merit?

Now the argument is often given by market apologists that the market should function, and farmers get the price offered in the market. But markets do not always function as free markets should. There are dominant players who skew the benefits towards themselves. Now it’s possible that farmers will not have an alternative and will be forced to sell at the rates quoted by the dominant players. The government had announced some time ago that it would set up 2,200 farmers’ markets. It should expedite this so that farmers get more alternatives where they can sell their produce. Ideally speaking, the government should announce a floor price below which the produce of the farmer cannot be sold even outside the mandi, which ideally is the MSP that is scientifically calculated by the government itself from time to time.

Will not the big corporates exploit the small farmer?

Our country is made up of small farmers who are unable to enjoy the benefits of market forces. When the government encourages contract farming, and if there is an opportunity for the small farmer to enter into a contract, then the best farm practices can be made use of. But again, in a contract, a few things need to be taken care of. So far, the system is that when the farmer is selling in the mandi, he is able to get an advance from the trader, or arthiya. The arthiya is assured that farmer will bring his produce to him, and so he gives him the advance. But in the new system that assurance is not there. Therefore, an assurance needs to be made in the contract that the farmer will get his price in instalments. When you have sown, one instalment can be given. Then next instalment can be given after a few months. Otherwise, the farmer will be forced to go to the moneylender.

When there is some conflict, the dispute resolution mechanism should favour the farmer. At present, arbitration is on the basis of arbitrators appointed by the farmer and corporations. If the farmer does not get resolution through this process, then he can go to the SDM [sub-divisional magistrate]. Now, the SDM is already burdened with a lot of other work. We have suggested that “farmer courts” be set up on the lines of consumer courts. These will help settle disputes at the village level and reduce the burden on normal courts too.

Farmers have wondered why the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) cannot be reformed rather than being made redundant.

When the APMC was brought in, laws were enacted to save the farmer from malpractices in marketing and weighing. Mandis were reformed where fees and commissions were fixed. Now, mandis have lived their lives out. Today, in the time of computers and online trading, why should farmers be constrained to sell only in their own State? Why should the APMC be reformed when a better system can be put in place? At the same time, we must ensure that the farmer gets the correct price.

Your concerns with the farm Bills are similar to those of tfarmers agitating against them. Are you in solidarity with them on these specific issues?

There is no question of being with them or not. We are for the overall benefit of farmers. We are for small farmers, traders, small scale artisans and workers. We are also for the development of the economy. We are not against the corporates. However, those who are poor or less privileged need to be protected. These changes being brought in are very much required but equally important are certain safeguards for farmers.

 

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