Interview: Ashok Dhawale

Ashok Dhawale: 'Freedom to be exploited"

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Ashok Dhawale. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Interview with Dr Ashok Dhawale, national president, All India Kisan Sabha.

In March 2018, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) mobilised 50,000 peasants to march a distance of 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai in order to make their voice heard on several issues plaguing the agriculture sector. Spearheading the peaceful movement was Dr Ashok Dhawale, national president of the AIKS. Dhawale, who has been campaigning for farmers’ rights for decades, says nothing happened after the long march, which confirms his opinion that the present regime has never been pro-farmer. The recent Bills vindicate his theory. Dhawale spoke to Frontline about the Bills, their impact and how the movement will keep up their resistance.

In every protest, you have spoken about the undemocratic manner in which the three farm Bills were passed in Parliament. Can you elaborate?

Before these farm Bills came to Parliament, the lone Shiromani Akali Dal minister resigned from the Union Cabinet, charging, correctly, that they were anti-farmer. The Akali Dal was one of the oldest allies of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. In the Rajya Sabha discussion, MPs of three other BJP allies—the TRS [Telangana Rashtra Samithi], the BJD [Biju Janata Dal] and the AIADMK [All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]—also demanded that the Bills should be referred to a select committee. Realising that the ruling party did not have a majority and hence the Bills would be defeated, the Deputy Chairman stifled all opposition and rushed the Bills through. Several opposition MPs had demanded that the Bills be withdrawn, or be referred to a select committee. K.K. Ragesh of the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India-Marxist], apart from moving statutory resolutions to this effect, had also moved 11 amendments. The demand for a division [of votes], which is the right of every MP, was callously ignored. The Bills were hurriedly pushed through by voice vote, which is an outrageous assault on all established parliamentary procedures. It was the murder of parliamentary democracy itself.

Under the guise of COVID, so many pieces of legislation are being passed without due process. Your comments.

Yes, very true. The BJP Central government is using the COVID pandemic as an excuse to steamroll legislation in Parliament without allowing any discussion. It is also taking wanton recourse to the ordinance route. All this is an integral part of the widespread assault on democracy in the recent period − branding political opponents as anti-national, seditious, urban Naxals, and so on, and falsely jailing them under draconian laws. The government is afraid of criticism, since much of the legislation that is being pushed through is blatantly anti-farmer, anti-worker and pro-corporate. It also thinks that there won’t be resistance on the streets because of the COVID scare. That has been proved dead wrong.

The AIKS is at the forefront of the agitation against the farm Bills. Could you tell us what the form of protest will be under these unusual circumstances?

A massive nationwide protest denouncing these Bills took place on September 25 at the call of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC). Over 20 million farmers and agricultural workers, supported by the working class led by central trade unions [CTUs], came out on the streets in a historic action. Punjab, Haryana and some other States observed a complete bandh. There were massive road and rail blockades all over the country. This was undoubtedly the most massive countrywide mass action in the last six months of the COVID lockdown.

The Akali Dal in Punjab has just announced that it has broken ties with the NDA [National Democratic Alliance]. The farmers’ uproar will, sooner or later, force other NDA allies of the BJP to do the same. The forthcoming Bihar Assembly elections will be crucial. Even the mainstream media, despite the notorious servility of some sections, were forced to take cognisance of the farmers’ upsurge on September 25. We are using social media, the parallel media, and all other avenues of communication in a big way to make our voice heard. The essence of it all is intensifying mass resistance on the streets.

The problems of the agriculture sector need addressing, especially now when more than ever the rural economy needs help. The AIKS and farmers’ movements recognised this some time ago and called for changes during the massive 2018 protest. Did any of the demands lead to any action?

Under the [Narendra] Modi-led BJP regime, none of the changes that the farmers demanded saw fruition. In fact, all the changes so far have been retrograde. The latest instance is these farm bills. To combat unprecedented agrarian distress and cascading farmer suicides, the AIKS has for long demanded a one-time loan waiver by the Central government for all farmers and agricultural workers; implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendation of declaring MSP [minimum support price] at one and a half times the cost of production (C2 + 50 per cent) and setting up a universal machinery for government procurement at this MSP; revamping of the PM Fasal Bima Yojana to help farmers reeling under floods, droughts and other natural calamities, not corporate insurance companies, as is the case now; massive expansion of the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] with increase in the number of days and wages and its extension to urban areas to combat burgeoning unemployment everywhere; stringent implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to vest land in the names of Adivasi farmers; and so on.

None of this has been done by the present BJP regime, which has only parroted empty “jumlebaj” slogans like doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022. At the rate that they are going, they will only double farmers’ suicides. That will be a stark tragedy which must be stopped.

The obvious question is whether the current Bills address the agrarian economy and its ailments. In reality, what will be the impact?

These Bills will greatly aggravate the ailments of the agrarian economy. To put it in one sentence, these three Bills will only further enrich the corporates and multinationals; they will ride roughshod over the interests of farmers and consumers. That is why, regardless of the long and clumsy names of these Bills, they can be renamed as follows to convey their impact. The first is “Encouragement to Hoarding and Black Marketeering Bill”. The second is “Promotion of Farmers Slavery through Contract Farming Bill”. And the third is “Replace APMC [agricultural produce market committee] Trading with Corporate Trading Bill”.

The first Bill will legalise hoarding, black marketing and futures trading by corporates and big traders, who have been allowed to stock unlimited quantities of agricultural produce. Consumers will, therefore, end up paying higher prices while farmers will get lower prices. It will endanger the food security of the country.

The second Bill aims to boost contract farming, without insisting on purchase at the minimum support price, proposing an extremely weak bureaucrat-based system for the redress of farmers’ grievance, and preventing recourse to civil courts, except the High Court. It will turn farmers into bonded labour for corporates.

The third Bill seeks to bypass the APMCs. The entire agricultural market is sought to be handed over to corporates.

The Prime Minister has been declaring that the farm Bills will “free” farmers. They will free farmers from the clutches of the dalal, or middleman, says the man at the helm.

The farmer always had freedom. They [farmers] could sell at the farm gate or directly to procurers, whenever they wanted. So, they are not getting a new freedom. The only freedom they are getting under the new Bills is the freedom to be exploited; the freedom to become slaves of corporates and the freedom to commit suicide. On middleman, the Modi government is the biggest dalal of them all. How else can we explain the complete privatisation of the public sector?

Can you speak about the State vs Centre issue? Even if the Bills are passed, are the States compelled to implement them?

These Bills are a clear violation of the Constitution of India, the Seventh Schedule of which places agriculture squarely in the State list. Without any of the State governments being consulted, these Bills relating to agriculture have been pushed through by the Central government. The Kerala and Punjab governments have already declared their intention to move the Supreme Court against these Bills. The Bills are thus an onslaught on the principle of federalism. By refusing to pay the statutory GST [Goods and Services Tax] dues to States in the difficult time of this COVID pandemic, the Centre has already made clear its contempt for federalism.

Apart from [the issue of the Centre’s] trampling over the rights of the States to enact the legislation related to agriculture, the provisions of the Bills take away the rights of the State to regulate agricultural marketing or contract farming, to intervene in the interest of the State’s farmers in cases of dispute and malpractices by companies, or to impose taxes and levies.

Given that every socio-economic sector is in a shambles—health care, education and labour—how do we know that the government is committed to helping the rural economy?

The answer is simple. They [the government] are not committed to helping the rural economy, or even the economy as a whole. They are committed to helping only the fat-cat corporate lobby. That is evident in the sharp 24 per cent drop in our GDP [gross domestic product] in the first quarter, which is a world record. It is also evident in 15 crore people being thrown out of jobs during the COVID lockdown, plus two crore salaried employees. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the country was sliding into a recession and unemployment was the highest in the last 45 years. During this very same lockdown period, Mukesh Ambani has risen to become the fourth richest man in the world. Gautam Adani and other crony capitalists have prospered as never before. Loans worth Rs.68,000 crore to their crony corporates who fleeced our banks and fled the country, like Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya, were written off during the lockdown. But loan waivers to farmers have never been on their agenda. Ironically, the Union Rural Development Ministry has issued orders to the State Rural Livelihood Missions to collect the minuscule “NPAs” [non-performing assets] from lakhs of poor women in self-help groups, or SHGs.

Social sectors like health care, education and labour are in a shambles precisely because of the neoliberal policies pursued by successive governments since 1991, which are being pursued with even greater vengeance by this government after 2014. Just after the farm Bills, this regime pushed through the equally disastrous Labour Codes against the working class.

A safety net for rural and agrarian distress is critical in India. Could we discuss this?

Yes, a rural safety net is critical. Apart from the fundamental elements of this net, which I have enumerated above, we have been stressing from day one of this COVID lockdown that considering the massive rural and urban distress, Rs.7,500 a month for every non-income tax paying family in the country and 10 kg of grain, one kilogram each of dal, sugar and cooking oil per head a month must be given gratis by the Central government till the pandemic ends. What else is this private and completely non-transparent PM-Cares Fund for?

Instead, the Modi regime is bent on spending Rs.20,000 crore on the Central Vista Project in Delhi, to build a new Parliament House and a palatial bungalow for the Prime Minister. The same regime is bent on pushing through a Rs.1.10 lakh crore elitist Bullet Train Project from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, uprooting thousands of farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat and also threatening the environment.

The MSP has been a contentious issue for some time. For instance, the State governments often start the procurement process too late, and farmers are anyway left fending for themselves just to make ends meet, relying on ruthless middlemen.

Those are very real issues that plague farmers. The government starts procurement too late and ends it too early. The result is that farmers are mercilessly exploited by traders and middlemen. Fundamentally, there are two more cardinal issues. First, the MSP declared must adhere to the Swaminathan Commission formula of one and a half times the cost of production, that is, 2 plus 50 per cent. No Central government has done this, and the Modi regime is the worst in this regard. Second, the government has not set up any machinery for procurement, except in four or five States, where it procures mostly only rice and wheat. Without universal government procurement, MSP has no meaning since traders always buy at prices much lower than the MSP.

The Shanta Kumar Committee, which was set up by the Modi regime, and which submitted its report in 2015, made several retrograde recommendations limiting government procurement, limiting beneficiaries of the public distribution system and encouraging corporates in the agricultural sector. There is a real fear among farmers and consumers that the Central government is moving in the direction of winding up the MSP, government procurement of food grains and the public distribution system altogether.

Farmers want stability and security, which should be the intention of amending legislature regarding agriculture. Farmers distrust governments, as you know better than anyone else. Your comments.

The deep distrust of farmers stems from the betrayal by the Modi regime of all its assurances made to farmers since 2014. The BJP and Modi himself had promised both loan waiver and remunerative prices as per the Swaminathan Commission in the 2014 election campaign. Nothing to that effect has happened in the last six years. On the contrary, every step that it has taken as regards agriculture has been loaded against farmers and in favour of corporates. That list is interminable. These three retrograde Bills are like the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back.

With regard to stability, we know this will only lead to more instability.

Your thoughts on contract farming, which has also been a contentious issue.

Contract farming essentially involves a contract between big corporate and multinational companies on the one hand and individual farmers on the other. Since most of our farmers are small and marginal, the scales are inevitably and heavily weighted in favour of the companies. Their bargaining capacity vis-a-vis the big corporates is almost non-existent. There have been several instances of loot of farmers under the contract farming system in States like Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and elsewhere. In short, it is a recipe for encouraging a new type of corporate farming. The alternative that must be pursued is that of cooperative farming, as is being attempted by the LDF [Left Democratic Front] government of Kerala.

The APMC model has been reasonably successful, yet there are fundamental flaws.

The positive lesson to draw from the Navi Mumbai APMC is that modernisation of agricultural supply chains is very much possible within the system of publicly regulated markets. That said, we also have to recognise that there are long-standing problems in the system of agricultural marketing. At the root of these is the lack of democratisation in the mandis. This results in problems such as cartelisation and non-transparent functioning and corruption.

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