Right prices critical

Farm Travails & WTO

By Shivaji Sarkar

The long night is over. The farmers call off their over year-long stir and return home as the Centre sends formal letter accepting their major demands. The farmers proved many people wrong but also gave the lesson that mere majority cannot impose even the best pro-people decisions. Farmers need the right price.
In West Bengal not long ago Marxist Left Front government had a huge majority. Yet it had to eat a humble pie when farmers in Nandigram and Singur put paid to its industrialization plans. Maybe the State government’s plans were good, but it became immaterial in the face of farmers protesting acquisition. It is nearly similar now. The Government said the three farm laws were for the benefit of farmers. A section of them, however, remained unconvinced. Despite several rounds of talks, some violence, various cases slapped including of sedition, combined media onslaught, farmers remained firm. Finally, almost one year after their sit-in, they got what they wanted.
Where does the real power lie? Not in government with its elaborate security setup. Not in Parliament where laws are made. Not in the Supreme Court which can unmake laws. Real power lies only in the people. Only people are sovereign. That is what the year-long farmer’s agitation suggests. The Samyukt Kisan Morcha, group of 40 protesting farm unions, announces as the Centre agreed to several demands, including MSP, they are going home.
This should make popular governments change their tack. The NDA government took the correct decision on junking Land Acquisition Act and now on the farm bills. Those in power anywhere have to accept that howsoever they may be, taking decisions for the welfare of the people, if the beneficiaries are not satisfied, such decisions cannot be implemented.
Now former Deputy Chairman of NITI Aayog, Arvind Panagarhia, says an important aspect that crops up is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on subsidies. India so far escaped with a peace clause for violating its subsidy rules. He indicates that the demand for MSP, which WTO does not accept, may lead to a difficult global situation apart arguing that MSP would entail extra payment of Rs 1.5 trillion. He also stresses that the proposed massive transfers under MSP would bypass not only the urban poor but also the rural poor among the 46 per cent non-agricultural households.
Any solution? Yes, either reform WTO or rethink on MSP. Or may be listen to another former NITI Aayog Deputy Chairman Raghuram Rajan on a TV discussion on December 8. He emphasised that despite some good points in farm bills, agriculture needing reforms, India is so vast that decentralisation is essential. There could not be one solution for the entire country. India cannot be like China. He says, “India’s strengths were democracy and debate. China became a manufacturing superpower following its system of authoritarian rule. “It would be difficult to emulate the Chinese path”.
Rajan gives the easy prescription. Governance should not resort to adamancy and electoral numbers are never enough to roughshod the sentiments that may not look palatable to the ruling parties. The governments in the past also had to eat a humble pie. The most glaring example was the rise of NT Rama Rao in 1980s against a despotic Indira Gandhi.
At the same time, it should not be forgotten that even rich nations give farm subsidy and WTO ignores it. In the present context, the cases went for judicial review but the court did not resolve the issue. Rightfully, the popular government has taken the required decision. The government need not be apprehensive of the WTO or international bodies. If it could keep the environmental COP26 at bay for several decades, it can do so for farm issues too.
The country should rather begin a new discussion on agriculture, crops, creating diverse food grain habits and sustaining ecology. Today’s MSP issue is complex as farmer needs higher income. All the same the companies could not be allowed to have ways that bolster their profit at the cost the people’s interests.
India has to ponder whether it can put income inequality as high as it was under British colonial away from public discussion. The top 10 per cent accounts for 57.1 per cent of the income now. The top 10 per cent earns 20 times – Rs 11,66,220 more than the bottom 50 per cent – Rs 53,630, according to the World Inequality report 2022 released on December 7, 2021. The women have a much lower share in labour income compared to their global peers. Again these are issues that have deep connection with agriculture.
Despite a pan-India sentiment, it should not be forgotten that Nandigram or Singur or various long farmers’ marches in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and other places, did not become national economic issues and need to observe whether the present MSP issue would rule the roost post-UP elections. In fact, this calls for diversification of farm products and less dependence on mono or select cropping that may have led to this difficult situation post-Green revolution.
So the debate now centres on multi-billion dollar question of how to reintroduce the diversity in food habits. In 1881, it was a nation of 220 million people eating millet and other food grains. It has changed to eating a 1.3 billion rice-and-wheat eating behemoth riding on the Green Revolution. India has not planned its strength of varied food and agriculture depended on local ecology-led consumption.
It is not easy to restore that back. But the agriculture universities can be told to start the discussion process obviating needs for creating large dams and concomitant problems as the nation faces in the post Narmada and Tehri-dam phase, including a severe water crisis. It has caused severe ecological problems. The farmers’ issues are diverse and different in each region. There cannot be one-India solution be it MSP or crop pattern.
Of late, there is too much of centralisation. It is not required. This nation has to accept that it has yet to come out of the high poverty level. The Kisan Morchas should not see it beyond the corporate. Both will survive if the economics and finances are strong.
The farmers stir now should stress on having multi-pronged approach for ushering in a new diverse and strong farm environment. The government should help create that new farmer-dominated agriculture where no outsider needs to fix the MSP. — INFA