Why farmers' protest gets support in northwest India

Why farmers' protest receives more response in northwest India

The procurement under MSP is the driving issue of the whole agitation among farmers from Punjab, Haryana, parts of Maharashtra and MP

Farmer protest in Sonepat. Credit: PTI File Photo

Amid conflicting claims about Monday's Bharat Bandh being successful or not, a question that comes up repeatedly is why is that the farmers' agitation, including the latest agitation, gets more response from northwest India compared to other parts?

Is it because the farmers in the states of Punjab, Haryana, or western Uttar Pradesh are rich? Is it because they have large land holdings? Or there are more reasons than what meets the eyes?

Not the landholdings but it is the procurement under Minimum Support Price (MSP) that is the driving issue of the whole agitation and because farmers from Punjab, Haryana, parts of Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh benefit more from MSP, they are the most vocal, according to experts.

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"Landholdings is a misleading issue, a deliberately brought-in argument of rich or poor farmers. Official data shows that less than 0.4 per cent of farmers have land which is more than 10 hectare (Ha). This means all are small land-holding farmers. What are we fighting about?" asks Devinder Sharma, an agriculture expert.

The latest dataset of the National Statistical Survey (NSS) Organisation released earlier this month has shown that more than 70 per cent of the agricultural households in rural India possessed land less than or equal to 1.0 Ha while in the case of non-agricultural households, more than 90 per cent possessed land less than or equal to 0.40 Ha.

As many as 35.6 per cent of agricultural households possessed land between 0.40 and 1 hectares (Ha), followed by 34.2 per cent who possess 0.01-0.40 Ha, 17.7 per cent who possess between 1.01-2.0 Ha and 0.6 per cent possessing less than 0.01 Ha, the 77th round of survey by the National Statistical Office (NSO) conducted during the period between January 1, 2019, till December 31, 2019, had shown.

On the other hand, 8.6 per cent of agricultural households possessed 2.01-4.0 Ha land and 2.8 per cent held 4.01-10 Ha land. Barely 0.4 per cent agricultural households possessed land that was more than 10 Ha, it said.

The Agriculture Census of May 2015 data shows that the highest number of operational land holdings in India are in Uttar Pradesh, followed by Bihar, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh. The lowest land holdings in India are in Chandigarh. However, in terms of the operated area, the largest contribution comes from Rajasthan, followed by Maharashtra. Chandigarh constituted the lowest number of operational holdings as well as the operated area in the country in 2010-11.

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Echoing the sentiment about landholding size, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Prof S Janakrajan, said: "Almost 80 per cent are small and marginal farmers in India and so in case of Punjab. The farmers in Punjab are facing big trouble, they are under huge debt, and they are the ones who have extracted large quantities of groundwater. They have to survive."

"MSP for wheat is extremely necessary for these farmers because most of them are into subsistence farming. That makes a lot of difference for them. They have a huge fear that these three laws are going to take away the MSP, in which case, the markets, the cartels will fix the price which can be much lower than the MSP and their cost of production," Janakrajan said.

"It will not happen in this year or next year. It will happen 10 years down the line. Once the market comes in, farmers will become labourers, and entire production and marketing, everything will be determined by the market," he said.

Sharman stated that farmers from northwest India are closer to Delhi - the seat of power - can be one of the reasons, but more than that, "don't forget, only six per cent of the farmers get MSP and rest 94 per cent are dependent on the market. These large number of farmers have never had the benefit of MSP cushion. And roughly 80 per cent of this six per cent are farmers from Punjab and Haryana. Obviously, they are going to be more vocal about this issue".

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Citing Bihar as an example where the APMC Act was done away within 2006 and now in 15 years, people from that state are going to Punjab as labourers, he said: "Point is that the farmers in Bihar are not getting the right price because there is no APMC. Fifteen years is a good time to check how this has panned out."

The problem of MSP is more for wheat crop compared to any other and Punjab and Haryana are amongst the states from where the largest wheat procurement under MSP happens. And therefore, unlike other states, it is the wheat-producing states that will be affected more due to the new farm laws.

"There is 80 million tonnes of buffer stock of wheat and its prices are likely to fall (when market steps in), so the government needs to step in. This problem does not arise in case of other crops," Janakrajan said.

In case of commercial crops such as pepper and cotton, it is the market that determines everything. But in that case, the demand is more, supply is less. It is reverse in the case of wheat. "Market forces are always unfavourable to foodgrains producing farmers," he added.

The MIDS professor rubbished the "middlemen that benefitted earlier will not benefit now" argument, saying that it is a cover-up by the government. "Will middleman struggle for 300 days?"

Sharma said: "Whether you say northwest India or other parts, the message from the farmers (on Monday through the Bharat Bandh) is very clear. More than 50 per cent of the population is living in misery and these farmers are becoming the voice of these people."

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Calculating the success of Bandh by what was closed and what was functional is incorrect, he said: "We look at everything only through the lens of living in a sustainable manner. It doesn't matter if 95 out of 100 shops were closed or all of them were shut. After all, they have conveyed the message, 'listen to our voices'."

However, Swadeshi Jagran Manch's Ashwani Mahajan claimed the Bandh was not successful even in the states of Haryana or Punjab largely but was restricted to small pockets of influence of these agitating farmers.

"This whole protest has become more of a political than farmers' issue what with even the Congress and AAP and other parties joining in."

Mahajan echoed Janakrajan and Sharma's point about the larger protests from NW India owing to high procurement under MSP from these states but gave a 180-degree opposite reason. "They are worried that the MSP facility will be withdrawn under these farm laws. It is not possible. In fact, if we look at this year's data, there has been record procurement," he said.

Political parties did make contrary claims about the Bandh. Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait said the Bandh will compel the Centre to listen to the voices of India's farmers; political activist and farm leader Yogender Yadav termed it as success and said farmers have given a befitting reply to the government's falsehood while the opposition parties such as Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Left parties have claimed that the government will need to pay the price of this protest. On the other hand, the Bhartiya Janata Party has termed it as sheer political drama and said that the Bandh was ineffective.

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