‘Only a cooperative system can challenge corporatisation’

Interview with Hannan Mollah, general secretary, All India Kisan Sabha.

Published : Jul 20, 2016 16:00 IST

Hannan Mollah.

Hannan Mollah.

THE crisis in agriculture became a talking point only after reports of farmer suicides began pouring in from different parts of the country. There were alarmist reports that agriculture was no longer viable as input costs had risen and farmers were not getting the right price for their produce. The role of the government, if any, was not discussed although farmers’ organisations have kept up the pressure on the government.

The opening up of the economy had serious consequences for agriculture. Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and former member of the Lok Sabha from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) gave a picture of the vast changes that have engulfed the agriculture sector. He said the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was continuing in the same path as its predecessor and reneging on the promises it made in its election manifesto.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :

What are the changes in agriculture in the 25 years of reforms?

The failure of land reforms, indebtedness and suicides have characterised these last 25 years. The trend changed from consumption to production for export. The withdrawal of the government from the agrarian sector, slashes in subsidies, decline in agricultural budgets, and the weakening of extension services. Now, multinational companies [MNCs] are monopolising production and distribution of seeds and fertilizers and providing their own extension services. Futures trading in agricultural products also increased.

After reforms were initiated, there was no expansion of area under irrigation. This is the 10th year of the appointment of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission, which had recommended supply of cheaper inputs, insurance cover for all crops and for the entire farming community [crop insurance has never gone beyond covering 10 per cent of the farmers] and finally the minimum support price for products. The cost of production for all crops is crossing all limits. The government agreed to pay the production cost plus 50 per cent of it to the farmer as per the commission’s recommendations. But now it has given an affidavit that it cannot implement it. It says it will double the income of farmers. How will this happen if none of the recommendations are implemented?

The annual income of the average middle peasant is Rs.20,000. It is one seventh of a peon’s wage. In the first phase of agricultural development, there was the Green Revolution and government procurement.

But from 1973 onwards, the shift began. Reform began much earlier—the World Bank formula of structural reform began then. The Indian government began accepting the bank’s suggestions gradually. As Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh codified it. But the process began much before that. And then we had regular advisers coming from the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund].

In 1993, the Congress government at the Centre came out with an Agricultural Policy Resolution, which was supported by the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], then in the opposition. It was said that an open market and free trade would usher in all-round development of agriculture and bring about a transformation leading to prosperity for the peasantry. Even certain farmers’ organisations were euphoric about these policies and argued that they would ensure that agriculture would be a viable and profitable venture with access to international markets. The period saw a systematic withdrawal of the state from agriculture and state-directed public sector engagement with research, extension, provision of inputs, cheap credit, support price, procurement, processing and marketing aimed at self-reliance. There was a decline in public investment in agriculture.

The contribution of the agriculture and allied sector to the GDP [gross domestic product] has been steadily declining over the years and is hovering around 14 per cent. The growth performance of agriculture is lower than other sectors.

But the NDA government is on the fast track. All along the BJP opposed FDI [foreign direct investment], but after coming to power, it is inviting FDI even more forcefully. In three areas, plantation, fisheries and agriculture, FDI has been agreed to. So, now it is a matter of time before all the big companies take over agriculture. Then, there have been compromises at the WTO [World Trade Organisation], involving food security. The WTO regime is forcing India to cut agricultural subsidies, food subsidies and scale down public stock-holding programmes. The result has been pauperisation of farmers. Lakhs of farmers have lost land; small and marginal farmers are continuously losing land. They then join the ranks of agricultural workers. Massive migration of poor people is also taking place. Tribal farmers are also suffering in a big way.

The staggering number of farmer suicides in the past few decades has been a big issue. The previous Congress government was in denial and the present government at the Centre does not take it seriously. The AIKS had organised a rally of the affected families in the national capital. Is indebtedness being taken seriously at all?

Financial liberalisation reversed the policy of social and development banking thereby contributing to the deprivation and distress of the rural poor. It has reduced access of the peasantry to institutional credit and put farmers at the mercy of moneylenders. Even as the government is claiming that the credit flow to agriculture has increased, studies have shown that the beneficiaries are the landlords, rich peasants and even agribusinesses. Indebtedness has also resulted in loss of land as the peasantry lose their main economic asset to clear their debts.

The state’s withdrawal from agriculture has been accompanied by a takeover by predatory agribusinesses. In the name of a strategic cooperation in agriculture with the United States, the India-U.S. Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture [KIA] was initiated. The U.S. monopolies in seed, food and retail trade, namely Monsanto, Archer-Daniels-Midland and Walmart, were given representation on the KIA Board in addition to the present-day incarnation of the erstwhile Imperial Tobacco Company and others such as the FICCI [Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry] and the CII [Confederation of Indian Industry] representing the interests of agribusinesses. This board has dictated the direction of agricultural policy and research in the country ever since.

There has been a lot of distress migration, too.

We forced the last government to initiate work under the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act], but very little work actually was given to people. Then there was the problem of holding up payments to the workers. The national average for the number of days of employment provided in a year is only about 36.

Every year, the marginal farmer is losing out. Farmers who have taken private loans at large interest rates are in huge debt. More than three lakh farmers have committed suicide since 1995. Do we need any more evidence? There has been a reversal of land reforms and a greater concentration and centralisation of land as well as resources. The alarming proportion of land loss can be understood if one compares percentage of landless households during the 43rd Round Survey of NSSO (1987-88) to the 68th Round (2011-12) NSSO survey. The landless households in the countryside [possessing less than 0.01 hectare of land] increased from 35 per cent to 49 per cent during this period. The BJP’s manifesto promised a “national land-use policy” for “scientific acquisition” of land. Two years have lapsed. We have not even seen the draft.

Twenty-five years of liberalisation have left the small, medium and marginal farmer destitute. Is there any indication of a shift in the policies of the NDA government?

The government is paying lip service to agriculture. It talks about insurance. Only 10 per cent are getting it. Then loans are mainly given from city banks, which are benefiting agribusiness, not agriculture.

The Land Acquisition Act was inspired by the reform process to benefit the real estate sector and the corporates. The 2013 Act was not perfect, but now State governments are not implementing the Act as the Central government has told them to draft their own laws.

They don’t have to comply with the features of the 2013 Act relating to compensation or social impact assessment. There is no package for a loan waiver for marginal and middle peasants in drought-affected States. No compensation has been given for the families of farmers who committed suicide.

The minimum support price does not reach the farming community. Only a cooperative system in agriculture can challenge the corporatisation in agriculture. We are not against GM [genetically modified] crops but we are against the GM food being pushed by multinationals who do not care about its impact. There should be research under the strict supervision of the state.

But what is happening is that it is MNCs that are pushing it. In Punjab, the entire cotton crop has been destroyed by the white fly. There is no shift in policy by this government; it is basically pursuing a more aggressive continuation of all that was implemented in the last 25 years.

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