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Navarasam series, A3 size using charcoal pencils

A tribute to the ongoing farmers’ protests in India, which were covered widely in mainstream media before the pandemic hit the country. When I initially chose to include this in my Navarasam series several months ago, I had envisioned this to be in ‘Roudram-Anger’ or in ‘Bhayanakam-Fear’ but I cannot begin to comprehend their plight now, fighting for their lives and livelihoods while nobody listens anymore. My imagination limits my thoughts to that of a frozen state, a state of profound calmness that engulfs this old Sikh farmer. He has lost his anger, his fear, some of his loved ones and his future. And now he is truly embracing the stillness, the peace from within- a man with frozen emotions finally at peace with the world.

Hopeless. Helpless. Shantham.

It took eight hours over several months to finish this excruciatingly painful portrait. I hope you feel the pain in his eyes too, like I did! Based on a photograph from Pinterest.

A bit of context

Three legislations were passed in the Indian parliament in 2020 that enraged farmers all over, originally introduced in June 2020 as ordinances and passed later in both houses of the Indian Parliament. Before getting to the implications of these amendments and laws brought in 2020, here are a few pointers as I understand them.

1. The Essential Commodities Amendment, 2020

First introduced in 1955 to control production, supply and distribution of ‘essential’ commodities such as food produce, drugs, fertilisers, hank yarn, petroleum, jute, seeds etc. to discourage hoarding by wholesalers and middle-persons (who could introduce an artificial surge in demand and prices of these products). The 2020 amendment to the original bill excludes certain commodities from the ‘essentials’ list such as,

  • Potatoes and onions
  • Cereals and pulses
  • Seeds and seed oils

This would mean that unless there is a war/famine/natural calamity or any other dire circumstance that cause extraordinary price fluctuations, the above commodities that form the staple of a majority of states in the country won’t be deemed ‘essential’. This also means that the union government cannot impose stock limits i.e. stop retailers from hoarding ‘non-essential’ commodities unless there is a selling price surge of 50% in non-perishable and 100% in perishable goods in the market. It does not take big brains to realise how this can lead to artificial-demand-induced price surges followed by hoarding, which is mostly going to affect those in the lower rung of the economic ladder.

How do farmers sell their produce now?

Farmers currently sell their produce mediated by their respective state governments. From previous agricultural reforms, state governments are advised to form Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) which set up several markets in the state where goods directly collated from producers are auctioned to wholesalers in a regulated fashion. The advantages of setting up APMCs or mandis are multi-fold for producers:

  • to regulate markets every 80kms in a state and end monopoly of produce
  • to cap commission, market fees, sales and other charges via licenses mandated by the APMC
  • to ensure fair price to the farmers, at least the minimum support price (MSP) in order to avoid ‘distress sales’

This brings us to the second provocative agricultural reform of 2020, where farmers are introduced to a new marketplace setting.

2. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Bill, 2020 or The Marketplace Law

Farmers currently sell their produce mediated by the State government via the above mentioned APMCs, where good are auctioned to wholesalers and ensures fair price to the farmers. The new law lets farmers sell their produce anywhere, within/outside the state as well online. Thus, it is hailed as a reform that empowers farmers to expand beyond their conventional and limited arenas, promising them ‘freedom of choice of marketplace’ i.e. the farmer get to decide where to sell their goods, not limited to state regulated markets or APMCs .

This means that APMCs will be made redundant. Now, what does this mean to a farmer who is not aware of existing government mechanisms such as APMCs? Middlemen from private sector and MNCs now are backed by law to convince farmers (who may be already blissfully unaware of the APMCs that are set up for their benefit) to trade with them, never even getting a chance to claim the benefits offered by fair-market practices . Outside the framework of the APMCs what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the framers get the MSP for their produce? Ideally in sustainable produce and supply chain practices, trade should happen above the MSP to avoid distress sales for producers. This reform that promises ‘freedom of choice of marketplace’ seems like a crutch designed for someone soon to be hit by the bus. Who is driving this bus? I dare not to name names.

But of course, this comes with a catch!

BTW, a mechanism for online regulation of produce already exists: e-NAM. Electronic National Agricultural Markets are connected to the APMCs and used for electronic display of regulated prices for online listings. Also, the Agriculture Productions and Livestock Marketing (APLM) Act of 2017 has set wider options for selling produce and setting prices, intending to double farmers income by 2022. In addition to that more than 15 states adopt model APMCs since 2003. 

Now comes the final bill of the three. Who decides the new marketplace regulations, how are prices assured and how are the farmers led to ‘freedom to choice of marketplace’?

3. The Farmers Agreement of Price Assurance and Services Bill, 2020 or The Contract Farming Law

Opening up marketplaces for farmers, this bill lets farmers enter into a legal contracts with anyone, a company for instance to sell their produce for a set period of time. These contracts shall entitle both parties to have a fixed/variable selling price (which could be set up in a way to reflect demand of the market), quality assurance and farming standards. This at first glance looks empowering, once again, for producers: they have a legally binding contract for sale with a retailer/company, selling prices are ensured and get a decent price for future produce as well. Where’s the catch? It’s the contract itself.

When I was renting out a house in the UK for a period of 6 months last year, I was confused enough with legal agreements that the renting company provided me with. I am a book editor who handles publishing contracts on a regular basis as part of my job, and I still have to get in touch with our legal team time and again, for clarity on clauses as the nature of contracts change. Now, I have had a privileged background, English education in school, did my Master’s in a top tier Indian institution and did my PhD in the UK. How are farmers in India (I am going out on a limb and say that at least about 60% of the farming community are not educated to pre-university/matriculation level) educated to know the nuances and loopholes for possible exploitation, or spot ardent, straightforward misrepresentation of terms in a legal contract? My guess is that a fair middle-person in the private sector is their best bet when it comes to negotiating price assurance, liability when it comes to quality assurance of products, farming practices etc. Good luck to that! In the absence of bodies that regulate these contracts with the private sector, it is wishful thinking to hope that all parties stay happy and play fair.

In essence, farmers are protesting all around India because these laws/amendments fail them, and open up space for private companies to exploit the already weak farming community of the country. Although they appear to be silver linings in paper, I think they are impractical and unachievable, which fail to ensure protection to India’s agrarian sector in the shadow of big words like ‘freedom of choice’ and ’empowerment’.

So, what’s the way out?

Ever since India became an independent country in 1947, government after government the country has seen plenty of agricultural reforms. Despite these intentions (good perhaps, but often motivated by political gains), we have seen heartbreaking news of suicide mounting in several parts of the country, in spite of the welfare schemes and loan waivers for farmers. Why is this happening? After all, we have seen reforms at the face of every 5 years at the very least, and several committees looking into the matter.

The answer is simple, the solution is however very complex.

The Shantha Kumar committee of 2015 (where the three bills of 2020 were initiated) found that only 14% of paddy/wheat framers sell to government procurement agencies, and only 6% farmers get MSP. Only <1/6th of rice or wheat produce was bought by the government at the floor price. How do small farmers demand for better terms when they are simply not aware of government mandated regulations?

Farmers do not know their rights and the laws that prevent exploitation. Knowledge is the biggest power they can have on their side, which makes it an even playing field in the world of corporates.

I am aware that I have overlooked a bunch of other suggestions by the Shantha Kumar committee like digitisation of sales and giving more power to local retailers associated with farming communities etc. but these are the apparent reasons for why I think the farmers’ protests should not go unnoticed by the educated public of India, within or abroad.

If you have any thoughts or comments on the article, or the artwork, kindly get in touch here.