Interview: Major Singh Punnawale, AIKS (Punjab)

Major Singh Punnawale: ‘We never asked for these laws’

Print edition : January 15, 2021

Major Singh Punnawale, general secretary, All India Kisan Sabha (Punjab). Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Interview with Major Singh Punnawale, general secretary, All India Kisan Sabha (Punjab).

Major Singh Punnawale, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (Punjab), is a farmer himself and also part of the 32-member delegation from Punjab representing the Samyukta Kisan Morcha in the talks with the government. He said that the claims of the government were hollow and that the farm laws would leave the debt-ridden small and medium farmer at the mercy of the market. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

The government claims that the new farm laws have no connection with the minimum support price (MSP).

The farm laws are against farmers all over the country, not just Punjab and Haryana. The Centre has no business making such laws without consulting State governments and the stakeholders because agriculture is a State subject. In Punjab alone, the government earns Rs.4,000 crore from the mandis when farmers sell their grain. The tax is levied not on farmers but on wholesale traders. These taxes are used to build rural infrastructure. Every third village in Punjab has a mandi.

When there is a private mandi next to a sarkari [government] mandi, and it won’t be taxable on the private trader, all that money would be foregone. It will be cheaper for the trader to buy outside the mandi. When the farmer begins to go to the private mandi, the sarkari mandi will become redundant. When sarkari mandis stop getting grain, they will shut down. The government will not be obliged to declare MSP.

Today the trader from Bihar buys paddy at a lower amount from the farmer and sells it in Punjab at a higher rate. This was a big scandal that was exposed. We were at the toll points when we saw this happening in front of our eyes. We saw trolleys of paddy coming to Punjab. They were not farmers but traders who had bought it from the farmers in Bihar.

We feel the government will stop buying altogether. Only two crops are bought at MSP in Punjab. In other States, not even this is done. For instance, there is no MSP for maize. In Punjab, maize sold at Rs.900 a quintal. Traders told us to take it or leave it.

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They say that competition will get farmers better prices. Our own experience says otherwise. In 1991-92, we were told to sow tomato, potato and chilli. This was on contract. When there was a glut in production, the private traders refused to buy, raising questions of quality.

Another example is that of the sugar mills. The sugar mill owners assure the farmers they will provide inputs like seeds, pesticides and even interest-free loans. But when there is overproduction, they don’t buy. Around Rs.800 crore is due to farmers from sugar mills all over the country. In Punjab, the amount owed was Rs.500 crore; now it has come down to some Rs.200 crore. There is a sugar mill in Sangrur district owned by powerful politicians, some of whom were alliance partners of the Central government. We protested in front of the mill for 25 days but did not get our dues. They did not even respond to the Deputy Commissioner’s calls.

The farm laws are related to the MSP. The MSP does not even cover our production costs. We risk losing even this once the farmer is compelled to enter into agreements under the new laws.

The government says that under the new farm laws, the farmer is free to sell anywhere. Is that your assessment as well?

The government says that India got freedom for the second time in 2020 with the farm laws. The government should know that 82 per cent of farmers all over the country and 35 per cent farmers in Punjab own less than five acres of land. The farmer has to borrow money even to transport his produce to a nearby village. Under the new farm laws, the small and marginal farmer will have no bargaining power whatsoever.

Loot will get a legal framework. The consumer also will be looted, legally. As farmers we want the consumer to get flour (wheat flour) at less than Rs.30 a kilogram. The farmer gets less than half that rate.

The government says it is open to talks. As someone who has been part of the farmers’ delegation, what do you feel about the talks so far?

There have been five rounds of talks. When farmers pointed out that the clauses are against the federal system of the Constitution, they agreed. The Home Minister said that he was helpless. I don’t know what he meant by that. Actually, if these laws are taken back, it is possible the government feels that the spotlight will turn to the other problematic provisions such as goods and services tax (GST), Article 370 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

If these laws are implemented, farmers will be reduced to working as agricultural labour. There are many agriculture-related activities that give people employment. All that will be affected with these new farm laws. The talks so far have not made any headway as the government is not concerned about our future. Their intentions are very different from what they say.

The government says that there is nothing new in the laws. For instance, contract farming is not new.

A factory was put up at Channo village, situated on the route from Patiala to Singrur. Farmers entered into a contract with a chips and soup manufacturing company and were asked to sow two acres of potato and tomato each. Farmers did that. But the company rejected the produce on the grounds of quality. The same thing happened in the case of sugarcane farmers. The sugar mill owners said they would give us loans, free seed, pesticide and we could sow in as much land as we wanted. They paid us for one year. The same sugarcane seed sowed once can last for three to four years. So in the following year when the harvest was good, we had difficulty selling it.

The present contract will be even more dangerous. We won’t be able to sow anything other than what the contract specifies, and the contract would be such that the farmer will not be able to get out of it without mortgaging his land. The government has said categorically that the laws are for trade and commerce and not for farmers. So we said that the farmers are producers, not traders. The government doesn’t invest in agriculture and the farmer doesn’t have money. At least three reputed universities in Punjab—Punjabi University in Patiala, Panjab University in Chandigarh, and Shri Guru Nanakdev University at Amritsar—conducted studies and concluded that agriculture had become unviable for farmers as they were unable to get rid of their debts. In many places, farmers have been reduced to being farm labourers.

Modiji went to Jigraon village in Ludhiana in 2014. He was campaigning for elections as the Bharatiya Janata Party had an alliance with the Akalis. He said if he became Prime Minister, he would waive farmers’ loans and implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations on MSP. He never did that.

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We asked for appropriate rates for our produce. We never asked for these laws. But we have been told to accept them. The Punjab farmer wants the government to help in crop diversification. We import pulses. That can be stopped if farmers were encouraged to grow pulses. Rate ki guarantee ho aur khareed ki guarantee ho [Guarantee us both the rate and the procurement for the produce]. We can grow anything, but support is required from the government.

We have suffered a lot after the Green Revolution. Our research institutes should be supported with funds so that they can research on seeds and soil conservation techniques. But the government does not want to invest. There is pressure to reduce subsidies under international agreements. The government wants to import cheap grains and subsidise the rich nations rather than pay us.

How have government schemes like the Kisan Samman Nidhi helped farmers?

It is possible that some of it may have helped the really poor farmers, but what is the value of Rs.6,000 annually in the face of such inflation. For a farmer with five acres, who has a debt of Rs.20 lakh, the amount has no meaning. Ever since the Modi government was sworn in, suicides among farmers have risen. The number of children from farmer families in higher education has gone down.

The plan is to divert farm labour to industry. Industry needs hands. Diesel accounts for 35 per cent expenditure of total inputs. It costs Rs.80 a litre, which works out to be very expensive for the farmer. One sack of fertilizer which cost us Rs.400 is now close to Rs.800. There is no reduction in its cost. Ek haath se paanch rupaye deti hai, doosre haath se bees rupaye leti hai [With one hand they give us Rs.5 and with the other they take Rs.20].

The example of Bihar is cited to show that the farmers have gained by the abolition of the APMC mandis. But a lot of them still migrate to Punjab for work, do they not?

It is a fact that they come to Punjab every year. But during the lockdown, many of them went back, so we got labourers from places near Agra. We sent buses to get labour. All of those people had some land. They said that they would stay until June but they would have to go back to their villages to sow paddy. It is because they do not get the full rates for their produce that they have to work as farm labour as well. We received Rs.1,880 for one quintal of paddy; in Bihar, it sold for Rs.900. There was a time when the government needed farmers to feed the nation; today they don’t.

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