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Farmers have blocked major highways leading to Delhi for more than 10 days with a demand to repeal farm laws passed by the Parliament in September. Several rounds of negotiations have taken place with the Centre, but farmer unions have remained steadfast in their demand, and rejected amendments proposed by the central government. The current agitation stems from a deep distrust of private markets. Farmers fear that they will have little or no bargaining power with large corporations and that the new laws will weaken existing state support systems, says Kavitha Kuruganti, a member of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), who is part of the ongoing negotiations with the government. Edited excerpts of an interview:

So far, five rounds of discussions have taken place between farmers’ groups and the government. The government has offered to make some amendments. Is there hope for a resolution?

The discussions took place in a cordial setting. Both sides are patient with each other and they are listening to each other. However, there is a huge gap between what the farmers are demanding and what the government is ready to offer. The government should not look at the demands as a matter of prestige. What farmers are asking for is legitimate, a full repeal by way of an immediate ordinance and later, through Parliament. Amendments are not acceptable. A bad law that has gone wrong in its objective will only become worse by changing it here and there. Farmers say they never asked for these laws and there is no evidence that without these laws, their lives and livelihoods will not improve.

Farmers from Punjab and Haryana are at the forefront of these protests. However, we haven’t seen such intense protests in other parts of India. Why is that?

The relationship of farmers in Punjab and Haryana with their mandis (regulated wholesale markets) is quite different from farmers in other states where the regulated markets are not well-developed.

Farm unions had also given up their differences, if any, and started organising farmers early on in a coordinated manner on the issue of reforms that the government undertook. Having said that, it is clear that ensuring that regulated markets are protected is very important for other states. Mandis provide some price signals and mandis in turn take their price signals from the minimum support prices (MSPs) that are announced. We can aim to improve these regulated markets but not weaken them.

You have been an observer and participated in various farm movements across the country. What is the difference between this round of protests and the earlier ones? Is the current situation unprecedented?

First, it’s about the unity among farmers and their unions, despite some points of tension and friction every now and then about some decision or the other. Those differences are being ironed out. The other thing that differentiates this movement from others is the kind of unprecedented obstacles that various Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments put up in a coordinated fashion to ensure that the protests don’t happen. I don’t think something like this was witnessed before.

Third, the kind of peaceful resolve to stay put until the demands are met, along with their preparedness. That is because the farmers have come prepared with food rations and their own way of accommodation, turning tractor trolleys into spacious rooms. The pressure to end an agitation also comes from farming operations back home.

Here, protesting farmers have the support of fellow farmers back home who are ensuring that the wheat and other crops are tended to while the protestors are at Delhi’s borders. Fourth, is the kind of support that is pouring in from other sections of society. I found individuals in the security forces deployed to control the protests quite sympathetic to the farmers’ cause. This is about a whole society joining a movement.

The movement has also been planned in a manner that it cannot be painted as sectarian, party politics or otherwise, in any way. You also saw how the union leaders reflected the culture of peace, patience, honour, and self-dignity, ideals that are dear to the farmers of this country. A woman like me being included in the talks with the government, where farmer unions are mainly male-dominated, is also worth noting and I am saying this not to boast but from the perspective of women farmers.

What is the reason behind the deep insecurity of farmers when it comes to private markets, especially as support prices benefit only a minority of farmers in India?

It is true that the MSPs announced by the government directly benefit only some farmers of some commodities in India, where procurement from government agencies takes place.

However, these MSPs give price signals to trade that happens in mandis and in turn to transactions outside mandis. In the new set-up created through the new farm Acts, the meagre protection that existed for farmers in the form of MSP and procurement regime with all its shortcomings, as well as the mandi system with its deficiencies has been dismantled in various ways. Farmers have been asked to fend for themselves in their interfaces with markets, where both the traditional trader cartels and contemporary big capital now exist as buyers.

The government is simply saying that it will not invest in infrastructure and will not take up regulation and oversight roles on behalf of farmers.

In the law, it also presented a very narrow understanding of how farmers are exploited on the market front. Private markets, when it comes to traditional local traders, exhibit interlocking of inputs, credit and trade. Here, the farmer is helpless in an entangled set-up.

In the new markets of big corporate players, which the government is claiming will buy directly from farmers now without intermediaries, farmers will be denied credit services that the traditional system offers.

In neither of these markets are prices assured. Though there is no legal basis right now, government procurement and intervention in the market has been at MSPs. In several states where the procurement system is decentralized and is at the farm-gate level, it benefits even the most marginalized such as women farmers. That is why farmers are afraid of their lack of negotiation power in the new private markets.

Is it possible for Centre to guarantee MSP support to all farmers?

We, at All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, created a robust statutory framework, introduced as a private member bill in Parliament, for guaranteeing remunerative MSP to all farmers. Here, such a remunerative MSP (C2+50% formula) is made into an entitlement of all farmers and an obligation placed on the government to fulfil the same, whatever might be the channel of marketing by a farmer. This basically requires a basket of measures, led by expanded procurement, more commodities from more farmers that allows for crop diversification, smart and timely market intervention, making MSP the floor price for all transactions, setting up village level infrastructure to help farmers store their harvest, investments in farmer collectives, and in the end, provision of compensation to farmers if MSP is not realized. This is very doable and does not entail a great financial burden.

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