Punjab Farmers Are Fighting To Protect Their Privileges; They Should Stop Pretending To Be Representatives of All Farmers

Punjab Farmers Are Fighting To Protect Their Privileges; They Should Stop Pretending To Be Representatives of All FarmersA farmer in Punjab (graphics)
Snapshot
  • Interests of Punjab’s farmers are not aligned with those of farmers in other states. So, this disinformation that this is a protest championing cause of all farmers should stop.

The current standoff between the farmers of Punjab who have laid a siege on the national capital and the government of India which has been forced to come to the negotiating table after being dismissive about the agitation has again proved Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s minority rule right: it takes a small number of stubborn people with skin in the game, or a common agenda if you will, to drive the society in the direction they want.

Perhaps the only thing that can stop them is if they are out stubborned by someone else, in this case, a strong government with solid majority in Parliament whose chief executive remains wildly popular.

It was the stubbornness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo that the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement didn’t get its way in thrusting its agenda on the country even after doing everything possible - from peaceful protests to rioting.

One hopes that this government won’t let Punjab farmers veto the long pending farm reforms from being implemented nationally, though there might be some nominal concessions here and there.

Now, stubbornness of democratic leaders in face of such massive protests is a terrible thing if the grievances of people are genuine. That wasn’t the case with the anti-CAA movement. Nor is that the case with the current farmer protests. So, when the facts are on your side, the numbers are on your side, and the reason for action is virtuous, then it becomes a moral obligation to stand up to the ones who are fighting for selfish interests.

Yes, Punjab’s farmers are fighting for their selfish interests. Let there be no two ways about it. Let’s look at the numbers.

This year, post the Rabi harvest season, the government agencies procured 382 Lakh Metric Tonnes (LMT) of wheat at Minimum Support Prices (MSP). 86 per cent of this procurement was from three states alone - Madhya Pradesh (129 LMT), Punjab (127 LMT), Haryana (74 LMT). One might assume that these states are the biggest producer of wheat in the country but that’s not the case.

Punjab’s farmers produced 175.6 LMT of wheat this year out of which they brought 127.62 LMT to mandis (keeping the rest for personal consumption) and managed to sell 127.12 LMT at MSP, i.e. 99.9 per cent.

Wheat production in MP stood at 336 LMT, over 90 per cent more than Punjab. Around 200 LMT is kept for state’s consumption while rest was brought to mandis and 129 LMT was sold at MSP.

Basically, while 72 per cent of Punjab’s total wheat produce was sold at MSP, the figure for MP was 38 per cent. Last year, it was less than 20 per cent. MP has emerged as a major wheat producer in recent years and the MSP system is being established slowly.

If it continues, then MP farmers will also start bringing most of their produce to mandis like Punjab’s farmers. The latter keeps only small amount for self-consumption because it’s profitable to buy from the market rather than keeping own produce at home which can be sold at much higher price in the mandi thanks to MSP. It’s only a matter of time that such bad incentive leads to same behaviour among MP farmers too.

And we have not even talked about the plight of farmers in Uttar Pradesh which produce almost one-third of India’s wheat but only 32 LMT of its wheat (around 10 per cent) is procured at MSP. Rajasthan farmers produce around half the wheat Punjab farmers do but their procurement at MSP is only 19 LMT - more than six times less than Punjab’s farmers.

The point is clear. Interests of Punjab’s farmers are not aligned with those of farmers in other states. So, this disinformation that this is a protest championing cause of all farmers should stop. The government spent Rs 73,500 crore for MSP procurement of wheat this year. Given that Punjab’s share out of this was over 33 per cent (while share in total India’s wheat production at around 17 per cent), Punjab’s farmers took Rs 25,000 crores when their fare share comes to half of that. We know the money doesn’t grow on trees, so the only way out is redistribution of subsidies, from Punjab’s farmers to those in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and elsewhere.

Second, Punjab’s farmers should also stop expecting Haryana’s farmers to join their protest in spirit of brotherhood. On Haryana’s side, some emotional fools still keep peddling ‘Punjab is our big brother’ nonsense when the fact is Haryana is now ahead of Punjab as far as economy is concerned.

Nonetheless, the reason why majority of Haryana’s farmers don’t have any feeling of brotherhood towards Punjab’s farmers is precisely because of selfish nature of the latter. It’s because of their vehement opposition that the Punjab government has gone back on its promise to share water with Haryana and both Prakash Singh Badal and Amarinder Singh have refused to build Satluj-Yamuna Link canal despite repeated orders from the Supreme Court.

You can’t bulldoze everyone for your selfishness and then expect others to have any sympathy for you.

Third, if anyone had an iota of doubt that Punjab farmers are protesting for their own interest, this should clear it for them: they are demanding that the ordinance promulgated by the Centre to deal with air pollution in Delhi and NCR regions is withdrawn or at-least have its provisions watered down. If Haryana can manage its stubble, why can’t Punjab? This is the tragedy of policy of giving concession and special treatment to one section of the society.

The Centre is right to bring these three laws. More than 90 per cent of the farmers don’t benefit from the MSP regime. It cannot allow a small irrational selfish minority to hold the interests of crores of farmers ransom.

But it must rethink the whole governance system which has centralised the decision making powers in hands of the union government. With great power comes greater burden of doling out subsidies on a massive scale.

While the appeal of playing messiah of gareeb kisaan is understandable, Prime Minister Modi must think seriously about making agriculture completely a state subject. Let the states decide which crops to incentivise, how to help the farmers and implement different solutions for their own unique problems. Let Punjab government allocate Rs 25,000 crore for wheat procurement (amount centre pays to Punjab’s farmers) out of its own coffers (which translates to over 16 per cent of the whole state’s annual budget). And then let’s see whether those who are becoming leaders of farmers put their money where their mouth is.

This is the best thing the government can do. It can get rid of its burden of providing food subsidy, running PDS system, procurement/storage costs, fertiliser subsidy and even MNREGA as agriculture economist Ashok Gulati has suggested. It will save itself a lot of headache and lakhs of crores in the process.

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