So, you “Stand by #FarmerProtests”

by Raji Jayaraman

It’s official: Lilly Singh, the YouTube phenomenon, stands with Indian farmers. So do Greta Thunberg and Susan Sarandon. How could they not? Thousands of farmers—men and women, young and old—have been protesting non-violently but determinedly in the smoggy Delhi winter, for months.  If having seen their images in the news you feel no sympathy, then you may want to consider going on the same quest as the Tin Man. Rihanna thinks we should talk about #FarmerProtests. The Indian government disagrees, but let’s take Lilly Singh up on her challenge and “run with it.”

In September, 2020, the Government of India passed three farm bills, which arguably constitute the most dramatic agricultural reforms since independence. Everyone in the know will tell you that the agricultural sector, which employs roughly forty per cent of the Indian labour force, is in desperate need of reform. But why now, with little consultation and much haste, in the middle of a pandemic? The suspicions aroused are grounds enough for peaceful protest, but let’s press on.

The least controversial bill is the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020, an amendment of the 1955 Essential Commodities Act. “The Benny Hill Show” debuted in the same year. It was a wildly popular comedy sketch that regularly featured scantily clad women who were groped and (literally) chased. A lot of things that premiered in 1955 could do with a makeover and this Act is no exception.

The 1955 Act, whose goal was to reduce food insecurity, put limits on the stocking of agricultural products. But it does so in an arbitrary manner. The 2020 amendment tries to fix this by making the conditions under which stocking limits are triggered, more transparent. For example, if the retail price of onions doubles, then the government can stop people from hoarding onions. There is some discussion regarding whether price triggers are set at the right levels but, generally speaking, people don’t find this bill terribly upsetting.

A second bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, is bit of a mouthful. It allows for “contract farming”— agreements between “sponsors” (likely, companies) and farmers. For example, as a sponsor, I could stipulate a contract under which I provide seed and fertilizer to a farmer who then grows wheat and supplies me with two metric tonnes at a price of 13,000 Rupees per tonne. The trouble is, under this new bill, contracts needn’t be written down so nobody can verify when one has been breached. Even if they could, there is no obvious recourse. Protesters worry that this leaves them vulnerable to powerful business interests. Like the Gauls in Asterix & Obelix, left at the mercy of the Roman empire, except…that smell wafting from the cauldron? It isn’t the druid’s magic potion that gives Gaulish warriors superhuman strength. It’s dal makhani. Delicious, but unlikely to level the playing field.

But it’s a third bill, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, that protesters worry is the real doozy. State-specific laws require that certain agricultural commodities be traded in state-regulated markets called mandis. Buyers who wish to operate in a mandi need to get a licence issued by the state’s Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC), and pay commissions and marketing fees. In addition, India has minimum support prices (MSPs) for certain commodities.

The third bill allows for trade in designated commodities even outside these state-level APMC-regulated markets—hence its moniker, the “APMC Bypass Bill”. Supporters of this bill correctly point out that it does not explicitly eliminate either APMCs or MSPs. Protesters counter that opening the door to private markets in this manner is only the first step on the inexorable march to liberalization—that the demise of government-regulated markets and farm subsidies is the inevitable next step. And you can understand their trepidation given the close relationship between the ruling BJP party and big business.

Interestingly, most farmers don’t even sell their produce in mandis, and only six per cent receive MSPs. But, as with all things Indian, there is huge variation from state-to-state. The reason why so many of the protesters are Sikh is that farmers from Punjab and Haryana sell much of their produce in mandis, where they receive MSPs, so they stand to lose from this bill. Farmers from Tamil Nadu or Madhya Pradesh, not so much.

If deregulation is scary, leaving regulations intact is terrifying. Bihari potatoes have to run a relay race, passed from mandi to mandi, before plopping exhausted onto Marathi dinner plates. APMCs were conceived to protect farmers, but licensed agents often collude to stiff them.  Farms are too tiny to be efficient: most farmers don’t sell their produce in any market, regulated or otherwise, because they have no surplus to sell. Food loss is massive because the 1955 Act deters investment in storage facilities. MSPs may serve as a safety net for farmers who lack other forms of insurance, but they distort behaviour. Inefficiency from all these quarters translates into higher prices for end consumers, many of whom are poor. This, in a country where malnutrition is a national epidemic.

There you go. We’ve talked about it. As things stand, the Indian Supreme Court has stayed the bills. Protesters want a full repeal. What then? You may stand by the farmer protests but where do you sit? In favour of a highly regulated system that protects some and leaves others hungry? Or are you in favour of market-based solutions, which may make food more affordable but risks destroying Indian farming as we know it? Pick your poison. Otherwise, announcing that you Stand by #FarmerProtests is the moral equivalent of a selfie taken at the edge of a desert: poetic, intriguing, and empty.