The three controversial farm Bills steamrolled by the Central government in Parliament in September proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Uttar Pradesh’s beleaguered farming sector. In utter desperation, farmers poured out onto the streets to protest in Bijnor, Gorakhpur, Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Ghaziabad, Noida, Hapur, Meerut, Shahjahanpur, Rampur, Mainpur, Agra and Mathura.
One of the first election promises made by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had been a loan waiver for small and marginal farmers. After chairing his first Cabinet meeting as Chief Minister, Adityanath announced with much fanfare that he had fulfilled his promise to waive farm loans of up to Rs.1 lakh.
But soon it was reported that over 17,260 farmers in Uttar Pradesh had received loan waiver certificates for only Rs.1,000 or less. In an astounding revelation, some farmers said they had received less than Re.1 as loan waiver. As many as 4,814 farmers got loan waivers of amounts between Re.1 and Rs.100, while 6,895 farmers received waivers of amounts between Rs.100 and Rs.500, and another 5,553 got waivers between Rs.500 and Rs.1,000. The revelations embarrassed the government, which attempted some damage control, but the farmers were not impressed. Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav hit out at Adityanath, tweeting the photograph of a Mathura-based farmer’s 1-paisa farm loan waiver certificate with the line: “ Bhool chukey jo apna sankalp patra, shweta patra unka bahana hai (The white paper is an excuse by those who have forgotten their election promises)”.
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After a series of such stunts by the Adityanath government, apart from heavy rains and hailstorms and the COVID-19 lockdown, the introduction of the three Bills by the Centre was the last straw. The three Bills, the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020, the Farmer’s (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, which later became Acts, threaten to disrupt agribusiness in a major way.
Expressing anguish, the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Dharmendra Malik, said that the Bills felt like a slap on the face. He said that it seemed as if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government wanted to wash its hands off of farmers’ interests forever. Instead of upholding their election promise of doubling farm incomes, the BJP had in fact strengthened corporate control over the food system. It would gradually make the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) defunct and leave the small and marginal farmer at the mercy of corporate giants. Malik opined that while the farm-to-fork dream of global food corporations would be fulfilled as they gained control over all aspects of the food supply chain, the farmer would lose his independence as well as social security.
Chaudhary Charan Singh, the “kisan” (farmer) Prime Minister from Uttar Pradesh, who reorganised the political economy of agriculture, is often credited with the creation of the APMC. It was set up as a cooperative of farmers, by farmers and for farmers. Close to the farm gate, it empowered farmers by ensuring them social security and timely payment. It developed, at least in theory, a fair price system for the farmer where the transparent auction mechanism fetched him a better price for his produce.
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The buyer, be it the government through the Food Corporation of India, a middleman, or Walmart and Monsanto, has to obtain a licence from the mandi (market). Until the farmer gets his payment, the buyer cannot take the produce out of the mandi . This provides immense protection to the small farmer, who cannot otherwise enforce a timely payment from the big buyers. Big farmers always had the option to take their produce outside the mandi and sell it to private players at whatever price. But, according to the Economic Survey Report 2020, the majority, or as many as 87 per cent of India’s farmers, own less than one hectare of land and are considered small or marginal farmers.
The new Bill introduces the practice of contract farming. This would enable big business houses to lease out land for farming and has a lot of farmers worried. Ram Pratap Singh, spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party, told Frontline that some people were hailing the new agricultural regime as the 1991 moment for agriculture. “But it is closer to the 1940s United States when the process of corporatising agriculture began in that country. It took 40 years to corporatise agricultural processes in the U.S. Today, from the seed to the final end product that one buys from the shelf in a food mart stands corporatised there. There are three or four players who control the entire food chain. The result of this is that for every food dollar spent by a consumer, only 14 cents go to the farmer. Suicide rates, surprisingly, are very high in the U.S. Compared to that, in India, for every food rupee spent by a consumer, a farmer for food grains gets 60p and for perishables, he gets 35-40 per cent.”
He added that unfortunately, the corporatisation of the food market in India has been a process in the making for some time. The previous United Progressive Alliance government had had these Bills in a similar format on their election agenda.
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A farmer from the potato belt of south-west Uttar Pradesh told Frontline: “Under the new laws, any big business will be able to establish large farms catering to the global market. Sixty per cent of India or 70 crore people are dependent on farming. Of these, 80 per cent are marginal farmers. Fifty per cent of the marginal farmers are tenant farmers, that is, they till the land for absentee landlords who are sitting in big cities or abroad. Now, when bigger companies come, the absentee landlord will find it easier to lease land to them than to deal with a bunch of small farmers. This will have a tremendous social impact. A quarter of India’s population is constituted by landless farmers’ families and they will have no land to lease. They will go from being sharecroppers to becoming landless labourers. For the big farmers contract farming will be brilliant but for the rest, it is very bad news.
“Moreover, this will lead to monoculture and kill the wonderful diversity we have. Today, during the monsoons I grow seven or eight kinds of crops. On an average, in one year a farmer grows more than a dozen crops on his field. This keeps the environment alive. But when big businesses come in, they might lease out the entire land in my area. They can ask us all to produce pearl millet, since there is great demand for it in the Asia Pacific.”
The outpouring of anger onto the streets is a result of deeper problems in the farm sector than simply the Bills. Pending sugarcane dues, farmer suicides, and the non-implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan Committee report and loan waivers are just a few of the long-standing issues that have plagued the farm sector. Farmers accuse the BJP government of being anti-farmer for its failure to act on all these fronts. They are hurt that instead of heeding to their demands, the it pushed through the Bills arbitrarily.
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Sugarcane farmers were particularly aggrieved that their dues remained unpaid. In Shamli, some farmers have not been paid their sugarcane dues since November last year. For others, it has been pending for two years. The Thana Bhavan sugar factory had cleared payments for only 20 days until April this year.
Minister of State for Food and Consumer Affairs Danve Raosaheb Dadarao informed Parliament that sugar mills across 16 States and Union Territories owed farmers nearly Rs.13,000 crore as on September 11 for the crop procured during the 2019-2020 season which started in October last year. The dues of Uttar Pradesh farmers alone were estimated to be Rs.10,000 crore.
Ram Pratap Singh said that mill owners were brazenly flouting the rules of payment and added that there were three or four big players in the sugarcane industry who exercised a lot of control on the market and managed to get away by not paying farmers their dues. He worried that once the new laws were implemented, paddy might also face a similar cartelisation problem. “For paddy to become edible, it needs to go to a rice factory to get polished, and so on. I am apprehensive that three or four rice mill owners might start controlling prices and the process. We desperately need social security for small farmers,” he said.
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The lockdown further aggravated the woes of farmers, especially those dealing with perishables and dairy. Thana Bhavan and Jalalabad are two of the biggest suppliers of vegetables. But supply chain disruptions owing to the lockdown and fear of COVID-19 led to perishables rotting in farms across Uttar Pradesh despite a good crop.
When the lockdown was announced, it was the harvest season for almost all major crops including wheat, potato, spinach, carrot and beetroot. In the absence of government support, harvesting, procurement and distribution suffered for the first couple of months. Farmers could not hire labour and this delayed the harvest cycle.
In Agra, the prices of milk fell by half to Rs.25. Despite Amul having the biggest footprint in Uttar Pradesh, it could make procurements only once in two days. The prices of vegetables across Azamgarh, Bahraich, Hardoi, Jhansi, Sultanpur, Bulandshahr, Banda and Sant Kabir Nagar crashed owing to the lockdown and despite this, farmers still could not sell their produce.
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But the farm sector made a quick recovery once agriculture was removed from the restricted activities category under the lockdown. Non-perishables such as wheat sold fast as people started stocking them up. Potato farmers also got a good price as governments across India procured in bulk for various programmes such as food distribution networks for migrant workers and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
For the past few decades, the rural economy in India has been on a downward spiral. For the past six years, the average annual growth rate remained static, affecting farmers’ income, according to the Economic Survey 2019-20. The annual growth rate in real terms in agriculture and its allied sectors was 2.88 per cent from 2014-15 to 2018-19 and the estimated growth rate in 2019-20 was 2.9 per cent.
Worryingly, the decline in the agricultural sector has now reached Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, collectively considered the food bowl of India. About 20 per cent of the nation’s foodgrain stock and 15 per cent of the livestock had come from Uttar Pradesh. The rural population survived through both farming and non-farm activities. Wheat, rice, pulses, oilseeds, potatoes, sugarcane, vegetables and fruits are grown in the six agro-geographic regions of the State. Nurtured by the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, western Uttar Pradesh contributes more than half of the State’s overall production.
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But as the profitability of agriculture declined nationwide, the position of farmers in Uttar Pradesh worsened. The children of farmers no longer wanted to continue in the occupation. Out of an estimated number of 22.15 million rural households in Uttar Pradesh, 77.4 per cent are farming households. According to the 59th round of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data for 2003, 24 per cent of Uttar Pradesh farmers felt that agriculture was not profitable and sustainable. As many as 41 per cent of farmers in Uttar Pradesh felt that, given a choice, they would take up some other career.
The situation has only worsened since then. Further, the data state that of the 17.16 million farmer households in Uttar Pradesh, 40.3 per cent are in debt. Households with a hectare of land, or less, account for 74 per cent of all farmer households, and about 39 per cent of them are in debt.
According to farmer’s organisations, farmer suicides in Uttar Pradesh, while not as frequent as in Maharashtra, are on the rise since the Yogi Adityanath government took over. In the absence of official figures, the cases have flown largely under the radar. Only when the local media cover a particular case does it make headlines. In the last couple of years, Rakesh Sahu of Mahoba, Ranvir of Bijnor, Mahendra Verma of Hamirpur, Om Pal Singh in Muzaffarnagar and 15 farmers in Banda committed suicide. This is the tip of the iceberg. The last official data of farmer suicides in Uttar Pradesh are from 2016, when 11,458 farmers ended their lives under the burden of debt, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
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According to an article by Khurshid A. Khan and Rakesh Raman of Banaras Hindu University in the Journal of Economics and Sustainable Development (2014), the agricultural sector in Uttar Pradesh has not done well since the Tenth Plan and the growth rate in the sector has been less than 2 per cent per annum. They write: “The State’s agriculture has witnessed sliding down in the second phase of reforms. The growth rate in area, yield and production have all deteriorated significantly for food crops, non-food crops and both taken together in Uttar Pradesh recently. The situation today is worse than the pre-Green Revolution (PGR) period, e.g. in the PGR growth rate of food crops production was 2.55 per cent while in the post reform period it has been a meagre 1.78 per cent…The post reform period yield and productivity growth rate also does not compare well with the earlier period. It is clear that the yield for the state does not augur well with its reputation of an agricultural State.”
Agricultural experts warn that a low-intensity crisis is unfolding in Uttar Pradesh, from Bundelkhand to eastern Uttar Pradesh, and spreading across different districts. Unless the government takes proactive steps to stem this decay, it will spell doom for the small farmer.