Corona virus or COVID-19 has gripped the world , cities big and small live in fear of death. This virus does not discriminate between rich and poor, big and small, educated and illiterate, young and old or even borders. People are forced to live in isolation with no one to greet or shake a hand. Industries have ground to a halt, commerce between people, villages, cities, States and countries is non-existent. Governments all over the world have come out with various policies and steps to save their citizenry including with lockdowns.
However, a common thread can be noticed all over the world and that is Governments have exempted farming and agriculture from the rigours of lockdown or social distancing. More so in the poorer and developing nations of the world including India. The reason being that if the farmers stop working, the standing crops will be destroyed, farmers would be left in debt and unable to repay loans and hence not in a position to obtain loans to resume farming. The arrivals of various crops in the mandis have drastically dropped recently not to speak of prices of various crops. Peoples of the world will die of starvation in the not too distant future once the effects of the virus ultimately end or taper down and the stocks/reserves of food grains are exhausted. It is estimated that nearly 300 million people will die of starvation worldwide in the aftermath of this pandemic, which is nearly a quarter of India’s population.
The only gainer from this pandemic is nature which has slowly started rejuvenating itself with pollution down to levels not seen in more than half a century, rivers, lakes, seas and oceans replenishing the fish and mammal stocks, forests and reserves abounding with wild life and the air all around the world becoming cleaner and fresher.
As soon as the seriousness of the pandemic was realized, the Govt. of India initiated steps to enforce a lockdown all over the country. Unfortunately, little or no thought was given to the likely plight of millions of workers like us from all over the country including farmers who had migrated to various cities and towns to work as painters, carpenters, masons, mazdoors, workers in construction sites, factories, helpers in shops, restaurants, dhabas, gardeners, security staff, maids etc. We were after all only tiny cogs in the system and hence broadly painted under one canvas as “migrants.” Little did the powers that be realize or acknowledge, that we are the nuts and bolts of society and without us society has no survival. In spite of the dangers, initially neither the Centre nor most State Governments barring a few like Kerala, took steps to look after the welfare of us “migrants” leading to a lot of privations, hardships, suffering and deaths. Situation seems to be improving in States now going by “ the news ” put out.
Knowing fully well that no one will come to our succour in these times of need, we farmers in the rural areas of India are still braving the outside world for our survival. We have always depended on and believed in nature and worshipped the Gods to help us.
Some of us have fought or sired children who have fought the outside enemy. Now we are fighting two viruses which has spread among us, Corona which is of very recent origin and corruption which is decades old and which has now reached gigantic proportions.
I am reminded of a quote attributed to the Noble Laureate Desmond Tutu who said that “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us close our eyes and pray’ and when we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”
We farmers are facing the same situation as in Africa.
The Holy Book of We, the people of India, “ The Constitution of India” was framed in its then pristine form as a result of the incisive, critical and healthy Constituent Assembly Debates amongst our great and noble leaders of the time, Chaired by Hon Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, where many renowned and learned people spoke. Having fought hard for their tryst with destiny at the stroke of midnight on 14th August, 1947, they anticipated with much foresight and forethought, that the leaders of the future may not be driven by the same passion and consideration for the masses ( and correctly so as history upto the present times have shown ) as they would have wished.
The erudite and brilliant leaders of the Constituent Assembly largely had genuine concern for the then approximately 330 million people of India, 87- 90% of whom were in the villages. Since the literacy rate in India in 1947 was about 12% and realizing the total vulnerability of the rural population, a lot of speakers wanted the basis or source of power to be with the villages or Panchayats. The Hon’ble Dr.Ambedkar however opined that it was too early to give such power to the Panchayat. He felt that the Panchayats as they then existed, were not only woefully ill informed but also ill equipped to tackle development, modernization, industry, globalization, defence, diplomacy etc to take India forward in the comity of nations. Due to the disagreements of the speakers on the issue, the matter was deferred with the broad agreement to provide requisite safeguards for the rural citizenry.
With a view to shorten the narrative, I will get straight to the facts as I understand them.
PANCHAYAT RAJ AND AGRICULTURE
Balwant Rai Mehta
He is best known as the second Chief Minister of Gujarat. Balwant Rai Mehta was a parliamentarian when a committee was established. He is credited for pioneering the concept of the Panchayati Raj in India and also known as Father of Panchayati Raj in India.
Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao was a lawyer and politician who served as the 9th Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1996. His ascendancy to the prime ministership was politically significant in that he was the second holder of this office from a non-Hindi-speaking region and the 1st belonging to the southern part of India. He led an important administration, overseeing a major economic transformation and several incidents affecting the national security of India. Rao, who held the Industries portfolio, was personally responsible for the dismantling of the Licence Raj, as this came under the purview of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. He is often referred to as the “Father of Indian Economic Reforms”.
Under his able guidance, in 1993, Parliament by the 72nd and 73rd amendments to the Constitution, brought Panchayats into the main stream of India. ( Chapter IX, starting with Article 243 to 243 – O ) As the villages of India where 80-85% of the population resided essentially relied on agriculture, we farmers along with our other brethren became empowered to decide our fates through the elected representatives of the Panchayat.
Thereafter, during Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh’s tenure, a massive Agricultural Policy was launched in 2007 known as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, which sought to comprehensively cover all aspects of agriculture including Animal Husbandry, Fisheries, Horticulture, Forestry etc. This was aimed at achieving a 4% annual growth rate in agriculture. This in my opinion, gave a boost to the Cooperative movement in our country.
Here, I may add that all departments of the States and Ministries at the Centre connected with agriculture, were directly getting their information from RKVY authorities who were appointed in every State and at the Centre to oversee the system.
OUR RIGHTS AND THE CANNIBALS OF SOCIETY
COVID or no COVID, lives of us farmers revolve around farming and cultivation, growing or rearing better quality produce, increasing production and hoping to not only lead a debt free life one day but to be able to put aside a little for our old age. Here I extract the speech by Prof.K.T. Shah during the Constituent Assembly debates when he cautioned as early as 22nd November 1948 that:
“The civilised cannibal of our times, the blood-sucker, is the exploiter who is highly honoured, who is often titled, who is very fully represented in this House also, and is therefore able to dictate to you, and inspire you in innumerable ways, as to how you shall provide for his safety in the Constitution itself, so that he could get a new lease of life and go on in a variety of ways, multiplying, diversifying, increasing and intensifying his monopoly to the prejudice of the common people, to the prejudice of the country’s defence, to the prejudice of all those who have been looking forward to this age as an age in which real power is supposed to be vested in the representatives of the people in this House, to be able at least to obtain the immediate necessaries of life without paying the toll of the profiteer, and as such to be able to lead a life a little above the level of the beasts.” (The speech was during the Panchayat empowerment discussions.)
MINIMUM SUPPORT PRICE
We all want to lead a peaceful life and MONEY is one of our main concerns. In fact, ironically a great concern for the Rich and no doubt the Poor.
Minimum Support Price Scheme. The Minimum Support Prices were announced by the Government of India for the first time in 1966-67 for wheat in the wake of the Green Revolution and extended harvest, to save the farmers from depleting profits. Since then, the MSP regime has been expanded to cover many crops.
In order to understand and construct a proper price policy framework, the Government of India appointed a committee under the Chairmanship of Late Shri L K Jha to suggest the required steps towards organising the agricultural price policy of the country. Following the Jha Committee report, a series of measures were taken and as a result the Agricultural Prices Commission came into being in January 1965. The first report was submitted in August 1965 covering the Kharif season.
Since March 1985, the “Commission has been known as Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices”(CACP). Assurance of a remunerative and stable price environment is considered very important for increasing agricultural production and productivity since the market place for agricultural produce tends to be inherently unstable, which often inflicts undue losses on the growers, even when they adopt the best available technology package and produce efficiently. Towards this end, minimum support prices (MSP) for major agricultural products are fixed by the government, each year, after taking into account the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) which is directed to provide insurance to agricultural producers against sharp fall in farm prices. The minimum guaranteed prices are fixed to set a floor below which market price cannot fall.
Government of India has been announcing Minimum Support Price (MSP) keeping in view the interests of the farmers presently for 24 major crops (subject to correction). Commission on Agricultural Cost and Prices (CACP) recommends MSP for these agricultural products. Farmers are free to sell their products in the open market or to the government at the MSP depending on what is more profitable to them. This price support policy of the government is to provide insurance to agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm price. This MSP is announced each year after taking into account the recommendations of CACP , which in turn while recommending takes into account all important factors viz; cost of production, changes in input prices, input/output price parity, trends in market prices, inter crop price parity, demand and supply situation and parity between price paid to price received by farmers etc. In spite of such steps, there were numerous instances when the produce was not lifted by the authorities and of farmers not getting their just dues leading to unbearable debts and resultant farmer suicides.
It took ten long years after the coming into force of the Panchayat Raj Act, 1993 for the Govt. to come out with the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act, 2003 in order to enable trade in agricultural or horticultural or livestock products, which would ensure remunerative prices to the farmers and the independence to sell at his convenience.
Initially, the APMCs carried out their business on a physical basis till Information Technology and IT enabled services were introduced in APMCs, with the State of Karnataka taking the lead in the move in 2009-10. A State of Karnataka undertaking and their MOU partners began computerizing various APMCs as pilot projects under the RKVY initiative of the Govt. of India which became immensely successful, earning the State the Web Ratna award not to speak of the huge increase in cess collected by the State based on the volume of transactions conducted. All information regarding the crops from all over the State was stored in a central server of the Department of Agriculture and the said undertaking also could not access the same for any purpose or misuse, if at all.
Seeing the huge success of the computerization of about 48 APMCs, many ‘civilized cannibals / blood suckers’ as propounded by Prof. K.T. Shah, manipulated / corrupted the system and the powers that be, to ensure that all the 518 odd APMCs in Karnataka were handed over to them in stages after throwing out the State Govt. undertaking. If the crime was only one of handing over all APMCs to a single entity, it could probably be forgiven. But no, the APMCs were handed over to a “purely for profit” entity solely engaged in commodities trading, who charged 10 times the fees that was being charged by the undertaking and was given a free hand to access all the extremely confidential information in regard to the output, source, price, location etc of the more than 110 agricultural products and their various grades in the State of Karnataka. To avoid detection and scrutiny, the entity has subsequently changed its name and character many times and has even associated with Govt. departments to lend it legitimacy. They have spread their tentacles to most parts of India.
To add insult to the injury caused to the farmers and the State exchequer, these “blood suckers” backed by big industrial houses engaged in e-commerce and brick and mortar outlets pan India, ensured that the commodities trade in APMCs literally all over the country were handed over to them on a platter. As a result, us farmers are again raped for prices of the commodities brought to the APMCs / Mandis, under the guise of grading, assaying, low quality, low prices, lack of demand etc. The citizens of this country are entitled to food security, and if the powers that be continue to deny the farmers their dues and don’t bring back transparency to the system of APMCs, only God can save the citizens and this country.
In fact, when a Writ Petition by way of a Public Interest Litigation was filed in the Bombay High Court ( NCDEX V/s Forward Markets Commission of India ) in a similar situation in 2009, the Division Bench while allowing the Writ Petition observed that “The decision of the Petitioner is not a mere commercial decision in regard to internal management but is likely to have large ramifications on the economy and the circular will lead to excessive speculation of agricultural commodities.” In short, meaning that handing over the entire information of the State’s production of various food grains and other commodities to a private entity could lead to speculation and would not be in the interests of the public. One of the Learned Judges on that Bench is presently a Judge of the Supreme Court.
India has entered into various Trade Agreements with various countries and blocs to promote trade and commerce, all very noble. But when the “blood suckers” prostitute these trade agreements by importing low grade / quality commodities at dirt cheap prices and flood the Indian market, where do us farmers with superior quality produce go to sell them ? The Constitution of India guarantees all its citizens “equality before law” and “equal protection of the law”. Is that just a pipe dream for us ordinary citizens of India ?
Professedly, in order to establish a national e-market platform for transparent sale transactions and price discovery of agricultural products in regulated markets, the Govt. of India with an investment through the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, has created an electronic trading portal called eNAM. One among the many requirements is to liberalise licensing of traders / buyers and commission agents by State authorities without any pre-conditions of physical presence, or possession of shop / premises in the market yard and with a single license to be valid across the State. For this venture to succeed, the support of the States is essential, agriculture being a State subject under the Seventh Schedule. However, there is nothing to prevent commodity speculators from playing the portal purely for profit at the expense of the farmers. There is nothing in the portal that makes provision for penal action against violators of the professed purpose of the portal nor are the other constituents / investors in the portal named or described except to state that the Small Farmers Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC) is appointed as the lead implementing agency. Is this a route to absolve oneself from liability in case of misuse ? That remains to be seen.
I see one very strong silver lining on the horizon for us farmers in India and that is that post the pandemic, life as we know it today would have disappeared. Nations will start looking inward, become paranoid about security in terms of food, medicines, resources both natural and human and like the US of A, profess that our nation comes first and then the rest of the world. We farmers can then hope for “acche din” or good times.
Governments and political systems as we know it will lose their relevance what with select conglomerates all over the world controlling all aspects of human life, ruthless in their approach to mankind and nature in their single minded quest for the power they wield and will continue to wield.
Its Covid time. I leave you all to introspect in your isolation.
Codanda Ganapathy Mandanna
( I must acknowledge the information gleaned from various articles on line)
About the Author
The author is an agriculturist. Formerly ran intiatives at Coffee Board of India and Computerized the Kodagu District Credit Cooperative Bank and 24 -APMCs in Karnataka.