Rumblings in the farm sector continue with the farmers peeved at the Central government ‘not showing any inclination’ to address issues that are in limbo after they suspended the protests at the borders of the National Capital. The farmers' protest had been suspended after the government announced withdrawal of the three controversial farm laws.

These rumblings are set to get louder as the country moves towards the next parliamentary polls in 2024. The farmers continue to air their discontent as the government has not made any move to provide a legal guarantee of minimum support price (MSP) on agriculture produce, and the implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission formula, besides a host of other key issues.

The farmers are currently engaged in a two pronged strategy, short and long term, to exert pressure on both the central and the different state governments. There have been agitations going on in various states that are state specific dealing with regional issues and at the same time there are moves underway by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the umbrella organisation of various farmer groups, to take up issues like the MSP that have a nationwide bearing.

It needs to be pointed out that the state specific movements continue to be alive in a big way and have been achieving success in certain cases that have largely gone unreported or underreported.

Adding to this prevailing scenario is the disillusionment aired by the farmers on the Union Budget presented by the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday which the farmers have termed as the “Union government abandoning its duty towards the farmers”. This is the last Budget presented by the government ahead of the 2024 polls.

In her Budget speech the FM proposed a digital public infrastructure for agriculture to be built as an open source, open standard and interoperable public good that will enable inclusiveness. The speech mentioned farmer-centric solutions through relevant information services for crop planning and health, improved access to farm inputs, credit, and insurance, help for crop estimation, market intelligence, and support for growth of agri-tech industry and start-ups.

The fiscal policy statements highlighted that the Indian agriculture sector is projected to grow by 3.5 per cent in the financial year 2022-23. The minister said that apart from meeting domestic requirements, India has also rapidly emerged as the net exporter of agricultural products in recent years with the agriculture exports touching $50.2 billion in 2022-23.

The total kharif foodgrain production in the country is estimated at 149.9 million tonnes that is higher than the average Kharif foodgrain production of the previous five years.

She said the growth in the agriculture sector is likely to remain buoyant, supported by healthy progress in Rabi sowing, with the area sown being higher than the previous year. This has led to a recovery in the rural economy.

Meanwhile, the government has announced the setting up of an agriculture accelerator fund to encourage agri-startups by young entrepreneurs in rural areas. It has announced Rs 20 lakh crore agricultural credit targeted at animal husbandry, dairy and fisheries with a new sub-scheme of Pradhan (PM) Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana with targeted investment of Rs 6,000 crore to be launched to further enable activities of fishermen, fish vendors, and micro and small enterprises, improve value chain efficiencies and expand the market.

It has announced the setting up of a massive decentralised storage capacity to help farmers store their produce and get remunerative prices through sale at appropriate times.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated that this Budget will make co-operatives a fulcrum of the development of the rural economy. In context of the world celebrating the International Year of Millets, he said that special recognition of millets is necessary when it is reaching households all over the world. “This superfood has been given a new identity of Shree-Anna,” said pointing out that the small and tribal farmers will get economic support along with a healthy life for the citizens.

But these announcements have failed to enthuse the farmers. The SKM has responded saying, “While it is universally known that farming and farmers have been economically neglected by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led union government, the SKM had expected that after the sustained and determined protest of the farmers at Delhi, the party-in-power would appreciate the importance of the farm sector and the need to secure income and future of the rural farming community, who form the bulk of India’s population. Instead, the budget is the most anti-farmer budget in the history of the nation.”

The SKM has reasoned that the allocation on agriculture and allied sectors has been reduced from 3.84% to 3.20% of the total budget along with that on rural development from 5.81% to 5.29%.

“With such massive reductions, the intent of the Government is clear - to squeeze out the lifeblood from the farming sector and thereby the farmers of India,” it said while accusing the government of hiding more than it reveals.

The farmers’ organisation has pointed out that the budget is silent on the doubling of farmers’ income. “There were no figures given but it may be recalled that according to the government it was Rs.8000 per month in 2016 (the year of the announcement) and was to be increased to Rs.21000 per month in 2022 so that the grand announcement of doubling the income becomes reality.

After three years, it was found to have been Rs.10200 and perhaps now it is a maximum of Rs.12400. Thus out of the targeted increase in income of Rs.13000 only Rs.4400 has been achieved and that is only one-third of the target. In any case, the government has dishonestly stopped giving data on this and has hoodwinked the farmers,” the SKM said.

It has also accused the budget of being silent on the all important issue of MSP on crops as per recommendation of Swaminathan Commission and what shall be done to ensure that farmers get legal guarantee of MSP.

The SKM has also rued the decline in allocation in schemes like PM Annadata Aay Sangrakshan Abhiyan (AASHA), Price Support Scheme (PSS) and MIS (Market Intervention Scheme), PM Kisan Samman Nidhi and PM Fasal Bima Yojna.

“The government is drastically hacking the allocation for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) that provides critical income support to rural workers. In 2022, the budget allocation was Rs.73000 crore but in the face of rural joblessness and restless demand, the government was forced to spend Rs.90000 crore.

“Since the general economy and especially the rural economy is still in deep crisis, it is unbelievable that the government has hacked down the allocation of MNREGS to Rs.60000 crore, a dramatic cut of Rs.30000 crore,” a SKM spokesperson said.

The farmers are also annoyed at the reduction in subsidy on fertiliser from Rs.225000 crore in 2022 to Rs.175000 crore in this budget. “The past two seasons have seen farmers die in the scramble to get fertiliser and this budget is further deepening that crisis,” the spokesperson added while pointing out that the government is grandly announcing new funds like Agriculture Accelerator Fund even as earlier announcements have been forgotten and lost.

“It may be recalled that the Agriculture Infrastructure Fund of Rs 1 lakh crore was announced with much fanfare and after three years it was found that only 10% of this fund had been actually disbursed. Similarly

new storage and marketing schemes of agri products have been announced even as earlier schemes like the one announced four years ago of converting 22,000 village haats into mandis within three years have failed,” the spokesperson added.

The farmers have asked the government to seriously focus on resolving the critical issues of farmers like legal guarantee of MSP, crop insurance, reduction of input costs and steady availability of inputs. The SKM has called upon the government to do the needful so that farmers do not have to confront and compel it to what is anyway the duty of the government.

Coming back to the developments on the ground, the farmers organised a massive Kosan Mahapanchayat on Jind in Haryana on January 26 that saw participation of farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh and some other adjoining states. This Mahapanchayat coincided with tractor marches, foot marches and conventions in several districts across 20 other states.

“One of the purposes of organising the Mahapanchayat was to counter the propaganda about the farmers not being united. The successful event not only exposed and falsified this propaganda but also conveyed loud and clear that the farmers are on a single track,” said Inderjit Singh, an All India Kisan Sabha leader from Haryana.

According to the farmers, apart from being Republic Day, January 26 has special importance for the historical farmers' movement as well. On January 26, 2021, a large number of farmers camping on the borders of Delhi while fighting heat, cold, rain and disease had taken out a tractor march around Delhi.

They say that by ‘infiltrating it and declaring the movement as anti-national’, a deep conspiracy was hatched to crush it. This conspiracy was foiled by the conscious farmers by showing understanding and they had come together with more resolve compelling the government to repeal the three agricultural laws.

At the Mahapanchayat it was conveyed that the centre has ‘betrayed the farmers on demands like legal guarantee of purchase on MSP and withdrawal of Electricity Amendment Bill 2022 which were accepted in writing by the Government of India on December 9, 2021 at the time of suspension of the movement.

The other demands aired at the event included making farmers and farm labour debt free. The farmers once again reiterated that the minister of state for home Ajay Mishra be sacked for the Lakhimpur Kheri massacre and innocent farmers arrested be released.

There was a call for withdrawal of cases registered against the farmers during the farmers’ movement. The farmers attending the event also sought that all pending compensation for crop damage be paid immediately.

Sources disclosed that the SKM is scheduled to have a meeting at Kurukshetra on February 9 to discuss the future course of action. It is expected that the farmers will be having a show of strength in the national capital in the second half of the next month. The venue for the event will either be Ramlila Grounds or Jantar Mantar.

As pointed earlier, the rumblings and movements by farmers have been ongoing in different states at different levels and around local issues. In many of these the farmers have been successful in achieving their goals. It is being pointed out that the fruit growers of Himachal Pradesh who had carried out a massive agitation ahead of the recently held assembly polls played a crucial role in ensuring a change of government in the state.

With a new Congress government in place, the Sanyukta Kisan Manch which is an umbrella organisation of various fruit growers’ and farmer associations has written to the Chief Minister Thakur Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu expressing hope that the government will work on priority to solve the problems of the farmers and horticulturists and provide relief by formulating policies for their benefit.

“You are aware that about 89 per cent of the state's population lives in villages and the main source of employment and livelihood for most of them are agriculture and horticulture. Today, due to the crisis of agriculture in the country, the crisis of the farmers of the state is also increasing. The cost of production in agriculture is increasing continuously and on the other hand the farmers and horticulturalists are not getting fair prices for their produce.

“Due to the increasing interference of corporate houses and companies in the field of agriculture and horticulture, the crops are being procured at very low prices due to which the problems of growers have increased further. Due to this, the crisis of agriculture and horticulture has deepened further. There is no other way out of this crisis without the intervention of the government,” reads the letter signed by the convener Harish Chauhan and co-convener Sanjay Chauhan.

The Manch has sought that the government provide relief to the farmers and horticulturists by formulating a solid policy to solve these problems immediately.

It has demanded that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on cartons used in packaging of apples and other fruits, flowers and vegetables be abolished and the huge increase in the prices of cartons and trays be withdrawn. Besides, the government should control their quality.

The fruit growers want that the Horticulture Produce Marketing and Processing Corporation (HPMC) and Himachal Pradesh State Co-operative Marketing and Consumers Federation Limited (HIMFED) pay the dues on apples procured from the orchardists in the past years immediately. The outstanding amount stands at around Rs 90 crore.

They also want the Market Intervention Scheme to be implemented in the state on the lines of Kashmir.

The Manch has sought that the subsidy being given on fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, fungicides and other inputs be reinstated and the government should provide proper quality inputs to the farmers and horticulturists at affordable rates through the agriculture and horticulture departments. The Manch wants a corpus fund to be constituted for the purpose.

Then there is the issue of imposing an import duty of at least 100 per cent on apples and the commodity being excluded from the Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The apple orchardists have expressed resentment over the central government failing to address the concern in the union budget.

The fruit growers further want a Horticulture Board and an Income Commission with them being represented in these bodies. Another important demand pertains to fixing and monitoring the price of apples procured for the controlled atmosphere stores owned by corporate entities.

This needs to be done after taking suggestions from experts and the horticulturists' committee. Besides, the government ensures that the provision of keeping at least 25 per cent apples in these stores of local producers be strictly implemented.

The fruit growers further want the government to provide a 90 per cent subsidy to farmer cooperatives for setting up controlled atmosphere stores at the local level.

Meanwhile, in an important development, the farmers in Punjab after a sustained agitation compelled the Punjab government to scrap a liquor manufacturing unit at Zira in Ferozepur. Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann while announcing the decision said the project was scrapped in view of its castigating effects on the environment and ecology. The farmers had laid siege to the unit and had also faced harsh police action.

Punjab Congress president Amarinder Singh Raja Warring had pointed out that the entire Malwa region was suffering from the spread of cancer caused by contamination of groundwater. “How can they allow it to happen again, unless their fears are not duly addressed by scientific examination and reasoning?” he asked.

In neighbouring Haryana there was a recent agitation seeking a hike in the price of sugarcane. The government increased the rate by Rs 10 making it Rs 372 per quintal but the farmers are not satisfied and are seeking a rate of Rs 450. The farmers say that Haryana was always at the top when granting the state advised price on sugarcane and despite the recent hike announced it is still behind Punjab.

There is an ongoing agitation of Sarpanches in the state against the e-tendering of works above Rs 2 lakh. The Sarpanches are already annoyed at the Panchayat polls being held after a delay of 20 months and say that Rs 2 lakh is too small an amount for infrastructural works to be decided at their level while anything above this gets controlled by the bureaucracy through e-tendering.

There have been lockouts at Block Development Offices and large scale demonstrations. While the Sarpanches cite the e-tendering system having hit development works besides curtailing their powers, the government has reportedly been claiming that it ensures transparency and accountability. They are also up in arms against the Right to Recall Act passed by the state assembly in 2020.