Whichever Way This Protest Ends, The Loser Will Be The Farmer Of Punjab

Whichever Way This Protest Ends, The Loser Will Be The Farmer Of PunjabA farmer in Punjab. (Graphics: Swarajya)
Snapshot
  • In whichever manner this charade ends, the farmers will find their short-term and long-term interests eroded.

The protesters (not to be confused with the farmers of India, or even all farmers of Punjab) lost a good bargain last evening. Even with a protest that was rooted in irrationality and flawed perceptions, they missed a major chance to embarrass the Narendra Modi government on the issue of farm reforms.

The government, after Home Minister Amit Shah, stepped in, offered a few amendments in the recently introduced farm laws.

The proposal from the government included a written assurance on MSP (minimum support price), allowed taxing of transactions that took place outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis, denting the apprehensions about the role of private players in demolishing the APMC structures in the long run, and authorised the state to ensure mandatory registration of private players and mandis.

The Centre also allowed legal recourse in civil courts, bending to another demand from the farmers, even though it might increase the legislation costs for the farmers. There was an assurance on electricity subsidy, and an assurance to not take stern steps against those who burn stubble.

Simply put, the government, while risking its reputation of a reformist-regime and setting a wrong precedent for the future, was willing to go the extra mile to appease the protesters. The leaders of the protesting groups, however, rejected the proposal, stating that they wanted nothing less than the repealing of the three farm laws.

Had the protesters accepted these demands, the media, opposition, and other anarchist groups would have had a field day roasting the government on farm reforms. The acceptance of the proposal would have meant that the government was indeed guilty of putting corporate (Ambani-Adani as the woke ones call it) interests first, and had rushed through the reforms.

Not only the opposition but the regulation of private traders via a transaction tax, cesses, and mandatory registration would have beefed up the state coffers in the long run, opened another avenue for state-appointed intermediaries to earn from.

The written assurance for MSP would have helped the middlemen and farmers in Punjab, at least in the short-term, as they go on depleting the groundwater levels. The state and intermediaries only stood to gain from the government proposal made yesterday (9 December).

However, the protesting groups have stuck to their rather stubborn demand of the government taking back all the three farm laws.

The government, even if it decides to be sympathetic to the protesting groups, cannot undo the farm laws for it will set a dangerous precedent for the future. Tomorrow, there shall be more blockades by people to repeal CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), against potential future laws or bills about uniform civil code (UCC), National Register of Citizens (NRC), or population control, and would validate the violence (blockades, the encroachment of fundamental rights of common citizens).

Even with the government being in a safe majority, the undoing of the laws will usher a policy paralysis of humungous proportions. It would be as good as giving anarchy a free pass.

The protesters have now threatened to block Delhi from Jaipur and Agra, thus taking their agenda to Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (anti-CAA protest nostalgia kicks in). They have also threatened to surround the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in various cities, hoping to attract attention across the entire country.

Clearly, the protesters are too optimistic about their abilities. Even though some factions of the media portrayed the 8 December ‘Bharat Bandh’ as a resounding victory, the capital of Punjab and Haryana saw most businesses and retail stores open.

Private and public life went on, with the minor exception of some sponsored goons (not farmers) trying to hinder life for others. However, for a bandh that had a hard time getting delivery boys to stop working, the mere idea that they can cause a stir on a national level is laughable.

The biggest loser in this entire process, however, are the farmers of Punjab. After the rejection of the government proposal last evening, in any manner this charade ends, the farmers of Punjab will find their short-term and long-term interests eroded.

One, the sympathy for both the protesters and the farmers eventually will erode.

The highway they have blocked currently is the one that directly connects New Delhi to Chandigarh, Punjab, most parts of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and the two new Union territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir.

This National Highway is not just a road between Noida and Delhi that can be bypassed but one on which the economic prosperity of North India largely depends. For Punjab and its people, after two-months without trains, the blocking of this critical link comes across as a major problem. Already, thousands of people are suffering each day due to the blockade.

Two, the state of Punjab needs the private sector more than the MSP to secure its long-term interests. Even though Punjab, with its pride and privilege, can claim to be the wheat and paddy basket of India, given of the 310.6 lakh tonnes of paddy procured in 2019-20, 202.5 lakh tonnes were from Punjab, and of the 389.5 lakh tonnes of wheat, around 127 lakh tonnes were from the state itself.

However, that is only one part of the story. In Punjab, groundwater extraction for irrigation alone exceeds 90 per cent, more than any other state in India. Barring Rajasthan, the most over-exploited blocks in terms of groundwater are located in Punjab. Of the 138 assessed blocks in Punjab, stated in the Dynamic Groundwater Resources Assessment of India – 2017 report, 109 are over-exploited, two as critical, five as semi-critical, and only 22 as safe.

The total annual groundwater recharge of the state was assessed as 23.93 bcm (billion cubic metres), annual extractable groundwater resource as 21.59 bcm. Still, the annual groundwater extraction was at 35.78 bcm, putting the extraction at 166 per cent, highest for any state in India. Even for Rajasthan, it’s less than 140 per cent.

A lot of this groundwater extraction has to do with the cultivation of paddy and wheat, both being water-intensive crops. Given the assured MSP procurement, free water and electricity from the state governments as a poll-promise fulfilled, the farmers opt for the safe-option of cultivating paddy and wheat.

However, if the farmers stick to their comfort and convention, the groundwater will eventually run out. This is where the private sector could have stepped in.

Given the fact that the state has greater landholding size as compared to the national average, and has a fertile terrain, the farmers in the state could have invited sweet deals from the private sector. The closeness to densely populated cities would have further inspired the private sector to invest in Punjab’s agricultural sector. For a state where industry growth has been dismal, the new farm laws would have ushered in a new beginning, both for its land and its people.

With the protests, however, the state has repelled the private sector for a while now, further depressing the potential of any job creation and necessary investments. The rich farmers will continue making money via the MSP route, the middlemen will have their cuts, but in the entire process, the future of agriculture in Punjab will be doomed. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’, and researchers put the ‘when’ to around the early 2030s.

The Centre could opt for either route now. It could allow the state of Punjab to make its own amendments to the laws, thus allowing the erosion of groundwater levels and the monopoly of the middlemen. It could also introduce the norm of making MSP procurement proportional to any state benchmark, say quality of produce, population, or whatever serves as a leveller, given the farm laws are about the farmers of India and not farmers of Punjab alone.

To make matters worse, there are anarchist interest groups that have infiltrated the protests and now want farmers to boycott cheap Internet, so that the farmers, bossed around by the middlemen, cannot unshackle the norms of the stone age and move on an agricultural future fuelled by technology where ‘more crop for more drop’ is not an exception.

There is also a call to boycott Jiomart, another platform that will be instrumental in eliminating the middlemen by procuring directly from the farmers, thus raising their incomes. The prevailing mindlessness and ignorance of the farmers in the protests are baffling.

Modi wanted to make the farmer 'atmanirbhar' in his choice, to choose between APMC, any government authorised procurement centre or the private sector. Still, the protesters in Delhi ensured that wherever the farmer goes, the middlemen stay the boss. Delhi will have its smog, the farmers will have their middlemen, at least in Punjab.

Not the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), not the BJP, not the Congress, and not even ‘farm activist’ Yogendra Yadav, but the biggest loser in this entire protest is the farmer of Punjab.

It may not be apparent today but would be quite obvious a few years from now as other states register strong agricultural growth and the farmers in Punjab watch on, hoping for Diljit Dosanjh to recharge their groundwater levels with his songs.

Tushar Gupta is a senior sub-editor at Swarajya. 

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