“A plea for Freedom. At stake is not just the future of farmers, but our future and that of India.”
Farmers’ Manifesto for Freedom
Towards Justice, Peace and Prosperity
Nyaybandi – Dhan Mukti – Dhan Vapasi
न्यायबंदी — धन मुक्ति — धन वापसी
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Seven decades after India won Independence from British colonial rule, the largest section of our population, the farmers, have remained bound by the chain of laws and regulations.
Farmers are impoverished by the sustained assault on their Property Rights, much more than any other sections of society.
It is the principal property of farmers, yet the assets have been grossly devalued. Under constant threat of acquisition, restrictions on land use, rent and lease, along with land ceiling, characterised by poor land records, limiting access to credit and investment, very inefficient land use, and high levels of corruption. Tribal communities, a significant part of the farming community are struggling for recognition of their rights over land and natural resource.
The property which is the product of farmers’ labour, have been devalued by innumerable restrictions on trade and limited access to market, thus policies and politics have colluded to deliberately depress farm income.
It has an increasing role in improving productivity and income, while lowering environmental stress, yet access to technologies are either restricted or prohibited, undermining farmers’ potential to grow crops while putting a greater stress on environment. At times, this has forced farmers to seek new technologies surreptitiously with attendant risks.
As the 17th Lok Sabha election approaches, this is the farmers call for freedom, a plea to every citizen to hear and heed. At stake is not just the future of farmers, but the future of Bharat that is India.
- Indian agriculture is the largest private sector. Keeping farmers chained to poverty by legal and regulatory restrictions has diminished freedom and prosperity for all citizens.
- Farmers are suffering due to low prices for their produce, and lack of access to market, while consumers are paying much higher prices.
- With demonetisation, every Indian got a glimpse of the scope of the government’s assault on private property. The farmers experience similar devaluation of their property on a daily basis. The latest one in the name of protecting the cow, has forced many farmers to abandon their cattle, not only have they lost a capital asset, but now have to spend sleepless nights in the field to stop herds of stray cattle from destroying the crops.
India cannot prosper by undermining the rights and curtailing freedoms of farmers in Bharat.
- An end to the abuse of eminent domain by limiting the scope of land acquisitions for truly public purposes, and only after consent of the affected community;
- Elimination of agriculture land ceiling laws, and removal of restrictions on land use, rent, lease and sale, as well as contract farming;
- Enabling trade and commerce by abolishing laws such as the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) and the Essential Commodities acts;
- Enabling futures trade in all agriculture commodities, and elimination of ad hoc and arbitrary restrictions on trade;
- Allocating property rights in water and other natural resources, enabling trade in these rights;
- Ease of access to information, technologies and strategies, by limiting the scope of the Environment Protection Act and biosafety regulations;
- Unfettered research in public institutions and private bodies, and a revival of the extension services empowering farmers with information, enabling them to make their own decisions;
- Financial support for activities that are environmentally desirable and socially beneficial, but do not bring any financial advantage to the farmers;
- Better rural infrastructure to facilitate investment in decentralised storage and processing industry creating local economic and employment opportunities;
- Recognition of rights over land and natural resources of tribal families and other traditional forest dwelling communities;
- Enabling citizens initiatives to document and record the status of land, its use and users, ownership and other claimants at the community level, in a simple and transparent way, feeding in to the land record system;
- Repeal of the Ninth Schedule in the Constitution, to ensure judicial review and protection of fundamental rights of farmers.
This call for Freedom is premised on the logic of three fundamental policy objectives. Together it integrates the agriculture reform proposals of this manifesto in to a coherent plan of action, however, these set of principles are valid across the economy and society.
Enslaved by laws, farmers are wallowing in poverty despite the amazing success of Indian agriculture in moving from starvation to surplus in fifty years. Nyaybandi calls for dismantling the maze of laws and regulations that have chained farmers to poverty, and therefore securing justice for farmers must be a national imperative.
Dhan Mukti –
Farmers are poor, because they are prevented from capitalising on whatever assets they may possess. Ensuring justice will enable the farmers to unlock the value of their land and other assets. Dhan Mukti, paves the way to capitalise on the assets, facilitates investments, improves productivity and growth, providing an environment for peace and prosperity.
Dhan Vapsi –
This climate of freedom can only be sustained when the government is restrained, limiting its scope to core functions of maintaining law and order, and delivering justice. This calls for liquidating and returning to the people the assets (Dhan Vapsi), which the government has extracted from the people over the years, in the form of land, natural resources, and the wide range of state enterprises. These resources have enabled the state to exercise undue control over the people by curtailing their property rights, curbing their freedom and perpetuating injustice.
At a time when there is little political consensus, yet there is apparently a political unanimity on repackaging old policies — higher MSP, greater subsidies, restrictions on trade, and loan waiver. The latest being income support, while less distorting to crop prices, it will distort the labour market and raise cost of farming further.
At best such measures are palliatives, helpful in mitigating an immediate crisis. At worst, these are the very regulations that are perpetuating the farm distress, by enhancing the stranglehold of the state on the farmers.
Late Shri Sharad Joshi, the visionary farmers’ leader, had pointed out that farmers were groaning under the burden of misguided interventions that have distorted the market, raised costs, denied remunerative prices and depressed farmers’ income. He had called for Karja Mukti, as a recognition of these regulatory burden placed on the farmers. Therefore, repackaging failed policies cannot be a substitute for the fundamental reforms needed in agriculture, which calls for more radical yet equitable solutions towards progress, profit and prosperity for our farmers.
POVERTY AMIDST PLENTY
Between 1950 and now, India’s population increased four times, while the food grain production increased nearly six fold. Over the past 15 years, India has emerged as a major agriculture exporter, with US$ 36 billion worth of produce exported last year.
From famines five decades ago, today, India is among the top five most obese nations in the world. Yet, hunger still haunts, nearly 15% of the population are malnourished, including 40% of children under-5 years. While the Government holds the world’s largest stock of food grain, poor infrastructure leads to huge wastage of grains, regulatory bottlenecks have stifled investment in storage and processing of fruits and vegetables, adding to the waste pile. Further, misguided delivery is missing many who need these food items the most.
Yields of many crops – particularly, oilseeds and legumes are stagnating making these crops less remunerative for the farmers. The money spent of importing edible oils, around Rs. 70,000 crore every year, could be earned by our farmers, only if productivity could be enhanced. Productivity of livestock fruit and vegetable crops remains low in comparison to the developed countries of the world. There are problems in controlling pests and pathogens.
DIVIDE AND RULE
India is projected to become the third largest economy in the world by 2030, with GDP doubling in size from US$ 2.4 trillion today. But the contribution of agriculture to the GDP has fallen to around 15% and will continue to shrink, yet almost 50% of the population continues to be dependent on agriculture.
While farmers are routinely hailed as heroes, as annadata, yet, 40% of farmers want to quit agriculture, and around two-thirds wouldn’t like their children to engage in farming. Suicide by farmers are the extreme manifestations of the permanent distress in agriculture.
Despite tall claims of huge subsidies, late Shri Sharad Joshi had pointed out in the early 1990s that there was actually a “negative subsidy” on agriculture, in effect agriculture was being taxed. Last year an international report noted that the effect of all the subsidies had been negated by the lower prices the farmers received for their produce induced by government policies. They estimated a negative producer support in agriculture, averaging minus fourteen percent (-14%), between 2000 and 2016.
Nevertheless, this narrative of “subsidised” farmers has been used to divide rural Bharat and urban India. Every form of control and restraint has been justified to restrain the farmers in the name of protecting the consumers. The “untaxed” and impoverished farmers are blamed for the woes of the taxpayers, although the consumers have not reaped much of the promised benefits either.
Despite all claims of economic reforms since 1991, agriculture the largest private sector in India has remained shackled.
All aspects of farming, from land to seeds, from various inputs to outputs, are controlled by a maze of laws and regulations. Likewise, farmers’ access to credit, infrastructure, markets and technologies are all limited, restricted or even prohibited.
Farmers can neither quit agriculture, nor can they find alternative means of livelihood, given the poor quality of education and health services, and lack of economic opportunities in the non-farm sectors. Farmers have nowhere else to go, most are not just distressed, they are gasping for survival and desperately looking for any opportunity to turn the tide and prosper.
Indian agriculture has become synonymous with poverty, not because the farmers are incapable, but because they are being prevented from unlocking the wealth of their assets and unleashing their spirit of independence and enterprise.
UNLOCKING THE LAND
Land is the principal asset for a farmer. While every other section of the economy seeks to grow their assets, invests to make those assets more productive and therefore valuable, the farmers are prohibited and penalised when they try to do the same. There is the ubiquitous threat of land acquisition with the sword of the state permanently hanging over farmers. Most farmers can’t legally rent or lease land. He can sell his land only to another farmer. But being in perpetual distress, few farmers can afford to buy farm land, that too without falling foul of land ceiling laws.
Since farming is not seen as a business enterprise but more as a life-style, farmers are prohibited from changing their land use pattern.
Instead of deregulating land laws, that have restricted normal economic transactions such as rent, lease or sale of land, new layers of regulations in the form of model land leasing, contract farming laws, and others are being introduced. Plethora of laws cannot substitute Rule of Law, rather this approach has only trapped most farmers in the ever-growing regulatory quagmire. Surfeit of such laws have choked the judicial system with litigations, making the simple task of enforcement of contract a challenge, imposing huge cost on the economy.
FREEDOM TO TRADE
Open and competitive markets, based on recognition and respect for property rights, facilitate freedom to trade and are prerequisites for any vibrant and growing economy. Yet, farmers are restricted in terms of where, how and at what price they can sell their produce. All these restrictions are forms of violation of their property rights.
The Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) which were supposed to ensure fair price to the farmers and save them from exploitation by middlemen, have instead created legal monopoly power for select set of licensed traders who now have a stranglehold on farmers and other traders.
Price control under the Essential Commodities Act have, instead of stabilising prices, contribute to frequent and wild fluctuations in prices of many farm produce. These laws have increased risk for farmers, making them wary of investment, increasing uncertainty for traders, disrupting supply and causing avoidable scarcity for consumers.
In such an uncertain environment, with the permanent threat of arbitrary application of such laws, there is little interest and capacity to invest. The lack of investment in post harvest facilities is reflected in high levels of wastage, inefficient trade and distribution networks, and extreme price differential and volatility, between the farm gate and the consumer end prices.
Farmers plant crops based on the prices in the recent past, rather than future expectations. This approach fuels sharp rise in prices when there is a shortfall in production, and then collapse in prices as farmers respond by planting more in the hope of profiting from high prices in the past. This boom and doom cycle triggers extreme uncertainty for farmers and consumers alike.
Futures trading in agriculture commodities has had a roller coaster ride, with frequent changes in government policy, and ad hoc interventions in the market. These disrupt the market functions, breed uncertainty and therefore mistrust, while fuelling cronies who seek political patronage.
Unhindered futures trading will facilitate price discovery, moderate price volatility and mitigate risks, introducing stability and predictability in the market, benefitting farmers, traders and consumers.
SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY
Technology plays a crucial role in improving productivity and lowering the impact on the environment. While the rest of the economy enjoy greater access to latest products, services, and newer technologies, the farmers are deemed incompetent to access the best products and incapable of deciding on the new technologies.
With the widespread adoption of genetically modified cotton over the past decade, India has emerged as the largest producer and second largest exporter of cotton in the world. Rather than celebrating this achievement, government’s indecision on biotechnology has meant that Indian farmers are now stuck with a second-generation technology, which is losing efficacy by the day. At the same time, cotton farmers in other countries are already harvesting the benefits of fourth and fifth generation GM cotton.
Across the world, so far, genetic modifications have been approved in 12 crops and one fish. Technology has been used to either improve their resistance to pest and diseases, or tolerance to herbicide and drought, or boost yield and improve quality.
The government is restricting access to GM technology, imposing price control on seed, and undermining IPR, denying farmers the benefit of new knowledge. Farmers are risking everything to buy unauthorised seeds at at much higher price, in the desperate search for ways to improve their lot.
As a result of such regulatory distortions, private companies are scaling down their investment in research and withdrawing new products. At the same time pioneering Indian scientists working on agriculture biotechnology in the public sector research facilities have experienced prolonged delays over approval for GM mustard and GM brinjal. Young scientists are hesitating to enter agriculture biotechnology in India, while Indian scientists working abroad are continuously breaking new grounds.
Almost forty years ago, the information technology revolution almost bypassed India due to short sighted government policies, now the same mistakes are being repeated to stifle agriculture biotechnology.
Ultimately, the farmers should have the freedom to choose particular farming practices that they find suitable in their own context. Then there will be no conflict between modern science and various other alternative schools of agriculture.
Water stress and environmental degradation are real challenges facing agriculture. A misguided government policy on rice, procuring from non-traditional growing areas by people who don’t consume rice, is among the critical factors contributing to water stress in Punjab and Haryana, for instance. This is also fuelling the need to burn the paddy stock at the end of the Kharif season, in order to quickly prepare the field for the Rabi crop, which is then adding to the burden of air pollution in north India during winter months.
Allocating property rights in water, and facilitating trade in these rights between farmers and non-farmers, will lead to the development of water markets. The price of water will then provide the incentive to ensure that it is used most efficiently.
TRANSPARENCY IN TAXATION
The myth that ‘agriculture is not taxed’ is perpetuated to mask the endless exploitation of farmers. On the other hand, agriculture has become an avenue for some of the rich and powerful people to claim agriculture income, just to launder their ill-gotten wealth.
The complex system of regressive indirect taxes, and the alphabet soup of schemes and subsidies are all measures intended to disguise the injustice heaped on farmers.
A simple and equitable direct tax system that is applicable to all would be much more transparent, and most importantly enable citizens, including the farmers, to hold the state accountable for its many acts of commission and omission.
The cost of keeping farmers in chain is reflected in the price the non-farmers are paying for the prolonged struggle to meet their own aspirations. While farmers have been robbed of basic dignity and justice, the society and polity have been denied the potentially huge support base for economic liberalisation, placing the non-farm sectors in straightjacket too.
India can prosper only when Bharat enjoys freedom. India lives in her villages, said Gandhi ji, and reached out to the teeming millions who helped to secure Independence. Yet, the farmers have not enjoyed the fruits of freedom.
On the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth in 2019, this manifesto pleads for freedom and justice for farmers in Bharat today, so that peace and prosperity may flourish in whole of India tomorrow.
Read the Farmers’ Manifesto in Hindi.