The ongoing agitation in Punjab and Haryana’s rural domain against the two farm bills passed by voice vote in Parliament after the Union government introduced three contentious farm ordinances in June has seen the coming together of farmers and arhityas (commission agents) on a single platform.

This represents a dichotomy of sorts since arhtiyas are perceived to be exploiters of the peasants, and often there is talk of “doing away” with commission agents. But they have stayed put, firmly entrenched in the farm economy, and have proven to be a necessity.

Many farm leaders describe them as modern-day sahukars. So why are farmers standing with arhtiyas when it comes to opposing the Centre’s moves?

Experts say the survival of the arhtiya institution through decades of independence reflects the failure of successive governments to represent the small peasantry. Several studies show how farmers with small landholds (or none) are forced to seek non-institutional loans from arhityas at exorbitant interest rates.

These studies also pointed to the failure of various relief measures announced from time to time by governments to provide relief to farmers with small and marginal landholds, or landless peasants, or the rural artisans, thus pushing them towards the arhtiyas and mounting debt.

It is well known that apart from selling his produce to arhtiyas, the diesel station from where he purchases fuel for his tractor and other farm machinery also belongs to the family of the arhtiya, and so do the shops that sell seeds, fertilisers, pesticides etc.

This total interdependence between farmers and arhtiyas on the ground seems to have come to stay. And the unfortunate mistrust of the government, particularly the present regime, has worked as a force to further cement the relationship.

“We have a relationship akin to the nail and the skin. It is an arhtiya that provides relief to the farmer at any place and at any point of time. When a farmer needs instant cash even at 2 am, it is the arhtiya that gives it to him, not any bank. The arhtiya does not enter into any paperwork and above all he protects the izzat (dignity) of the farmer by not revealing anything about the deal.

“On the other hand the farmer is the arhitya’s source of income, not only paying interest on loans but also selling his produce through him. The arhtiya is sure that the farmer will come to him after every harvest and hence his money is safe,” said Sukhvinder Singh Cheema, a senior functionary at the Arhtiya Association in Ludhiana.

He added, “We have genuine apprehensions with regard to the moves of the Narendra Modi led central government. To begin with, if the whole procedure of sale of farm produce at the Mandi is bypassed, why would the arhtiya lend to the farmer at all, as he wouldn’t be sure of the farmer coming to the Mandi? Secondly, our trade would otherwise also suffer since there would be no sale through us.

“Above all, our biggest apprehension is that the government would sell off the huge properties of various Mandi Boards. Also the system of market fee presently collected at the Mandis which is spent on rural development would stop, which is not in the interest of the farmer.”

The arhtiyas give the example of sugarcane in support of their argument. “The sugar mills dictate to the farmers how much sugarcane they have to cultivate. They give them chits dictating on what date and time they have to bring their produce to the mills. And forget talk of advance payments, they do not get their dues for years, and even for that they have to launch agitations. This is not the case of procurement at Mandis,” another arhtiya leader told The Citizen.

According to eminent Patiala based agricultural economist Dr Gian Singh, who has deeply studied the plight of small farmers and rural artisans in the context of non institutional debt and distress,

“Governments have never moved towards having an alternative system in place, and the small farmer is compelled to take non institutional loans from arhtiyas. We do not have the cooperative institutions that could have been an answer to the needs of small farmers. No government has made efforts towards employing a sufficient number of people in the cooperative sector.”

Dr Kuldip Tanwar, a Kisan Sabha leader in Himachal Pradesh, corroborated the argument saying,

“The present system makes the small farmer dependent on the Mandis and the arhtiyas, because there has been reluctance to properly implement the APMC Act in states like Himachal [the Agricultural and Horticultural Produce Marketing (Development and Regulation) Act of 2005]. There has been very little effort to take farmer-friendly marketing channels forward. Instead of strengthening the cooperative sector, the government is strengthening the corporate sector. “

Farmers say their dependence on arhtiyas goes even beyond sale of produce and loans. “A small farmer is in no position to take care of transporting his harvest, arranging for labour, purchasing seeds and fertilisers or even storing his crop. Hence, he has no option but to rely on arhtiyas,” said farmer leader Gobinder Singh of the Bharatiya Kisan Union in Ugrahan.

Perhaps the relationship between farmers and arhtiyas is best illustrated through the shock of demonetisation in November 2016, on the eve of Gurpurab, and when there were numerous marriages to be solemnised.

Farmers and arhityas disclosed that the misery they faced in demonetisation’s aftermath is still fresh in their minds, when the arhtiya trade ground to a halt since the majority of their transactions are in cash, and above all the farmers could not take cash loans from the arhityas. At the time there were also instances of the arhtiyas persuading or coercing farmers to launder their unreported income by depositing huge amounts of cash into their bank accounts.

Sources say the arhtiyas’ jump on to the bandwagon with farmers also has an interesting political dimension. With the majority of protesting farmers in Punjab and Haryana affiliated with Left and other non-RSS political organisations, for the arhtiyas to join hands with them is a worry for the Bharatiya Janata Party, since a majority of them were seen as BJP voters.