Haryana: Against the grain

Farmers fear the new farm laws would divest them of the basic protection they had from the vagaries of prices and the challenges of marketing.

Published : Oct 08, 2020 06:00 IST

At Ismailabad, Kurukshetra, Haryana, farmers sitting in protest on September 25.

At Ismailabad, Kurukshetra, Haryana, farmers sitting in protest on September 25.

In May, as COVID-19 cases were surging in Haryana, farmers in Bhiwani district left quantities of tomatoes to rot in the fields after a fall in demand within the State and from traders in Delhi resulted in rates plunging to Rs.3 a kilo. A further drop in the rates was predicted as the harvest season was yet to peak. The support price that the government announced did not cover even input costs, and many farmers protested.

Today, farmers in Haryana are up in arms against the three farm laws which they feel would divest them of the basic protection they had from fluctuating prices and the challenges of marketing their produce. They have blocked national highways, squatted on train tracks and mobilised commissioning agents and agricultural workers to join their protests. Their main opposition is to the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, which allows for the opening up of trade areas outside the State government-regulated Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC).

Rattled by the protests, the Central government announced the minimum support price for the rabi crop for Punjab and Haryana two months before it normally does.

The protests also exposed the strain in the fragile coalition government of the Manohar Lal Khattar-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Dushyant Chautala-led Jannayak Janata Party (JJP). When the police lathi-charged protesting farmers led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union in Kurukshetra near the Pipli Anaj Mandi on September 10, Dharambir Singh and Brijendra Singh, two BJP Lok Sabha Members of Parliament from Haryana, spoke in favour of the farmers as did two legislators of the JJP. It is an open secret that Chief Minister Khattar, a non-Jat, is not a top favourite of the Jat legislators within his party. The BJP, which came to power for a second consecutive time with the help of a post-election alliance with the JJP, also lacked a credible and prominent farmer leader within its ranks.

The history of agricultural marketing committees in the State dates back to the pre-Independence days. In 1939 the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed the Punjab Agricultural Produce Markets Act. After Independence and the reorganisation of States in 1969, Haryana adopted this law. Pradeep Kasni, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer, in his preface of Agricultural Marketing in Haryana, says the Act itself was necessitated “to consolidate and amend the law relating to better regulation of the purchase, sale, storage and processing of agricultural produce and the establishments of markets”.

Commission agents

The Mandi Act was legislated even earlier, in September 1938, “to ensure better price for cultivators for harvests sold to the Sahukars”. The Sahukars were traders and non-agriculturists and served as moneylenders as well. The cultivators were very much at the mercy of the Sahukars in the State’s rural economy. The farmer had to pay arhat (commission charged by the commission agent, or Arhatiya or middleman), munimi (a cut to the commission agent’s scribe), palledari (dues paid to a porter), batta or karda (a deduction in weight on account of impurities in the produce), tulai (amount payable to the labourer who roughly dresses the produce as it is put on the scale pan for weighing), charahi (payable to the person who fitted the scale pan), otai (payable to the person who held the mouth of the bag during the filling of the produce), and so on.

One of the things the new farm laws promises is to do away with the Arhatiya. Little did the government realise that this agent played a crucial role in many aspects of the cultivator’s life, notwithstanding the transactional and unequal balance of power between him and the producer. For the small producer who made up the bulk of the farming community in the State, it was the commissioning agent who ensured that he did not go bankrupt. And the agent was not entirely responsible for the farmers’ woes. For instance, there have been times when farmers were arrested after defaulting on loans by banks. Significantly, the late BJP leader Sushma Swaraj who represented Haryana in Parliament during the United Progressive Alliance regime stated in the House that the Arhatiya was the ATM for the cultivator.

Leaders such as Sir Chhotu Ram, who was a Minister in the provincial government, were viewed as liberators and the precursors of the agricultural marketing committees. A former Congress member, he was the co-founder of the Unionist Party. A revered figure to date among the farming “Jat” community in Haryana and even across the border, Chhotu Ram freed the cultivator from the clutches of moneylenders by bringing a legislation that prohibited ownership of land by non-cultivators. The notorious “no weight, no rate” system also came to an end. The “no weight, no rate” system basically was one where the farmer’s produce was bought by the moneylenders and Sahukars at arbitrary rates in lieu of money owed to them by the farmers.

The APMCs, despite their limitations, soon became an integral part of the life of the cultivator in post-Independence India. It did not mean that major land reforms had been introduced or that there was a radical change in the social relations of production. The patron-client system prevalent in colonial India continued with a strong element of state regulation. Haryana and Punjab emerged as surplus grain-producing States with high-yielding varieties after the Green Revolution. The state invested in the research and development of agriculture as a result of which many agricultural universities and organisations like the Seeds Development Corporation were set up. Both States became major rice producers even though wheat was the staple diet of the people. Rice was a cash crop as far as the producer was concerned. State procurement in such circumstances was a must. If there was no MSP for paddy, there would be little incentive for the farmer to produce it.

Almost all the agricultural produce in Haryana, said Inderjit Singh, vice president of the State unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), went to the APMCs and the mandis managed by them. As 70 per cent of the peasantry were small and medium farmers, not owning more than five acres of land, the APMC mandis were their only recourse. “The farm laws might not make a difference to the landed rich as they will find some way or the other to get returns from their produce. But for the small and medium farmer, guaranteed and timely procurement by the government at MSP rates is the only option,” he said.

Perils of the market

Some 10 years ago, when a pharmaceutical company showed interest in the medicinal properties of Gowar, a crop used as fodder, farmers took to cultivating it in large swathes of land. The rates for the crop went up to Rs.40,000 a quintal and many farmers became rich overnight. But then there was a glut and prices crashed. The demand also came down. These are the kind of situations that farmer organisations anticipate if the APMCs are made redundant. The argument by some political parties such as the Congress that the farm laws would be acceptable if the MSP was legislated upon was not tenable as it was procurement that needed to be guaranteed.

On September 30, a section of farmers was seen protesting as their paddy crop had been rejected at the market because it had a high “moisture” content. In the midst of the agitation, 50 farmers from Uttar Pradesh who had landed in Haryana’s Karnal in order to sell their harvested paddy at the government-run wholesale mandis were turned back. This belied the claim by the Prime Minister that the farmer could sell anywhere he wanted. The farmers from Uttar Pradesh were told to first register on the “Mera Fasal, Mera Byora” (my crop, my details) portal and wait for their turn. “This was a kind of a distress sale. Why didn’t private traders step in and purchase this crop?” asked Inderjit Singh.

The truth is that the BJP’s schemes for farmers, including the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, have not taken off. For the insurance scheme, not only were premiums high, the procedures for making claims were cumbersome. A few weeks ago, the harvested cotton crop in Haryana was damaged due to pesticide infestation. The insurance companies hiked the premium from Rs.620 an acre to Rs.1,650 an acre. The “claims” procedure was also very complicated. “In most places, the location of the insurance companies is not known. We experienced it first hand in Jhajjar. The Deputy Commissioner did not know the insurance company’s whereabouts,” said Inderjit Singh.

Return of “no weight, no rate”

The middleman or the commission agent is hardly the villain of the piece. In this regard, farmers draw parallels between private and government telecom companies. The APMCs are like government telecom companies, they say, on whose backs the private telecom companies grew. Like government telecom services, the APMCs would also be made redundant and finally made to close shop, leaving the farmer and the consumer both at the mercy of the trader.

Farmers also fear that the “no weight, no rate” system that prevailed prior to the enactment of the APMC Act where moneylenders held sway over the cultivators would return. With an impending byelection in November in Haryana and State Assembly elections in Bihar, no political party, including the ruling BJP and JJP, wants to be seen as anti-farmer. The declaration of MSP for the rabi crop two months before schedule and the cautious handling of the farmer protests are evidence of the political establishment’s wariness of the political fall-out of the farm laws.

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