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NEW DELHI : As the ongoing protest by farmers, who have blocked roads leading to the national capital, is expected to further intensify, Himanshu, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, in an interview to Mint, said there is no reason why this reform was needed at this point of time when farmers were getting lower prices, while dilution of APMCs was definitely unwarranted. Edited excerpts:

This is the biggest farmer agitation to affect parts of north India since 1988 when farmers had laid seige to the national capital. What has led to the anger of famers this time?

Anger among farmers has been building for some time now. Since 2016, there has been a series of famer protests in various parts of the country. There was long march in Maharashtra, then again in 2018 farmers from Uttar Pradesh had protested near Delhi border. There was protest in Madhya Pradesh where police firing took place, farmer protests happened in Rajasthan. Anger has been building for quite some time now and the primary reason for all these protests has been fall in income of farmers and it has been declining consistently since 2012. As a result, farmers are in debt and that is why many political parties had promised loan waiver. Rural distress is now an accepted phenomena, even the government accepts that there is distress in rural areas.

Covid-19 disrupted agriculture supply chains, and both direct and indirect demand which led to collapse of prices. If the government takes away the little support it used to provide to support their prices and corporate sector has to be allowed free hand, then obviously anger of farmers will increase and it would be justified anger. There was no reason why this reform was needed at this point when farmers are getting lower prices and dilution of APMCs was definitely unwarranted.

These changes were made without any consultation with farmers... also the way it was pushed in Parliament and there was no discussion, opposition members were suspended. It created distrust and farmers are convinced that the intention of the government is to destroy whatever little support the state provides to the farming sector.

The stand-off continues despite the union government offering significant changes to the farm acts. Why are farmers not open to amending the laws?

We have to understand the amendments being brought by the government, and I completely sympathise with the farmers. Farmers had 2-3 main objections, the first objection was that the government was creating a dual system where the corporate sector can go and buy without any registration, without any recording of prices they are paying and without paying any taxes.

While on the other hand, APMCs will be costly because they have to pay taxes... Now the government has accepted that same rules will be applied outside of APMCs also. Another point of contention was the famers could not go to court, it is unprecedented. The Constitution allows every citizen to go to the court, it is a unique phenomena and no other law has this provision. Now the government has allowed them to go to the court.

Farmers are now saying if you are doing all of this, then why have the law? Farmers are logically right. If the whole purpose was to create a parallel structure and now the government says it will amend it, then why not repeal the Acts? There is a huge trust deficit between the government and farmers. If the amendments are serious then there is no need of the Act. The government should explain why have the law?

What is the way out for the National Democratic Alliance? Do you think repealing of laws would affect the credibility of the union government?

Absolutely not. Government is dealing with farmers who are part of the agricultural sector which is still providing sustenance to 40-50% people of the country. These are all marginal farmers, and they are integral part of the food security which is as good as national security. Government has described farmers as Annadata, then listening to their demands cannot be a climb-down. I do not think this is about climb-down, in any democratic setup it should be about taking into account the views of the people who are affected by it. This should not be a matter of ego for the government.

Even after assurances by home minister Amit Shah, who is virtually the second in command of the union government, the farmers are not relenting. How do you think the government should address issues raised by the farmers? What are the options before the union government?

I think withdrawing the three contentious acts is the first step. I do not think if the government decides to withdraw the acts, heaven would fall. We should not forget that we are facing a pandemic and the economy is in a serious crisis. At this point of time, withdrawing the Acts and building consensus would be beneficial for the purpose of agricultural marketing. Any reform will succeed if all stakeholders are willing to take part in it.

Is the demand to legalise minimum support price (MSP) procurement practically possible?

It is impossible. You cannot legalise MSP. In fact the idea of the MSP is not to be leaglised. It is supposed to work as a minimum price or floor price, it should be activated when market price is lower than the MSP. In normal times, market prices should actually be higher than MSP. Legalising MSP is not theoretically correct and it is not desirable.

We should not look at the letter of the demand but focus should be on the spirit of the demand. The spirit of the demand is very clear. The farmers are asking for some kind of support from the government to raise prices. Government has to work out the mechanism. Government is far more sensitive when prices go up, government tries to bring down the prices. If the government can intervene to protect the middle class when prices go up, why cannot government do the same thing for farmers when prices go down.

Why are farmers afraid of trying out the new regime proposed in these laws? Do you think the allegations of opposition parties of allowing corporate to enter in agriculture sector is the right approach?

It is a question of trust. Farmers’ impressions are based on certain facts and those facts are very clear. The Bihar example is a very good learning experience. For the last 15 years, the promise made to farmers from Bihar was that APMCs would be repealed, private structure will come, and they would create infrastructure. None of that has happened. Corporate sector has not invested a single rupee in Bihar in agriculture sector. It is well-known and documented that farmers are getting 40-50% lower than the MSP for maize, wheat and rice. Farmers are witness to these experiences and probably believe that they will have the same fate. The good part is that farmers have more trust in state than private sector. All over the world, agriculture is supported by the state.

At least 7 states elections are scheduled to take place in the next two years and BJP is in power in Uttar Pradesh and Assam while it wants to make inroads in states like Tamil Nadu and Punjab. How will the farm protest impact electoral prospects of BJP-NDA?

Farmer protests in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu since 2016 did hurt BJP electorally. BJP lost three state polls of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan although the party was in power in MP and Chhattisgarh for 15 years. The impact will work out in different ways in different states. My understanding is that if 40% of the electorate comes from agriculture and rural economy, ignoring them would be political hara-kiri.

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