BHARAT DOGRA | 22 DECEMBER, 2020
They threaten livelihoods, health, ecology, food security
The repeal of three controversial farm laws has been the key demand of the ongoing farmers’ movement supported by several other sections of society that has dominated public attention in India for several weeks.
It is a demand the Union government should accept immediately, giving up its prejudice and false sense of pride and prestige, as these three laws are very harmful for the entire farming and food system of our country.
The laws are harmful for farmers and farming of course, but they are harmful also for agricultural workers without land, and others from the least wealthy, most indebted families, whether in cities or villages.
In many parts of the world including India the costs of farming have increased greatly, largely due to wrong policy choices being made. Farmers with small landholds in particular are also facing the pressures of what is called globalization.
Hence most states have adopted policies to protect these farmers. In India the need for this is all the greater due to three factors:
– We have a much higher share of people whose lives and livelihood are linked to farming and related activities.
– Most of these are farming families with the smallest landholds, or none at all, and the lowest capital and other resources.
– With our large population and relatively a very small share of world farmland, our food security system must be protected very carefully to ensure the adequate production of staple foods in the country.
Hence from the point of view of livelihoods and food security, the role of public institutions in the food and farming system must remain more prominent and consistent in India than in several other countries of the world.
Despite this, there have been indications for some time that Indian governments want to reduce their own role and advance that of big agribusiness and trade interests, causing unease among farmer organizations and all those concerned with food security.
Related to this are some looming pressures of international organizations like the WTO, the possibility of new trade treaties that may harm food security and farmer interests, as well as the growing pressures of agribusiness giants of the globalized food and farming system (as also the capitalist cronies of the ruling regime) eager for a bigger slice of the retail, food and farming business.
Against this background come the three new farm laws hurriedly passed by Parliament this year. As a farmer told me, “In our village we judge any newcomer by the way he arrives and acts. These laws arrived in such a way as to evoke suspicion, and so we were keen to know more about them.”
Indeed the laws were first introduced as executive ordinances, then pushed through Parliament with such undue hurry and pressure, violating well established procedures for important legislation, as to arouse suspicion.
The high-cost technology imposed on Green Revolution areas like Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh gained the acceptance and support of farmers only on condition of government support and guarantees (more or less) of procurement.
But in the new laws farmers see a strong confirmation of their suspicion that the Union government is paving the way for big trader and agribusiness interests to assume a much bigger role, free of taxes or restrictions, pushing the publicly protected price guarantees or MSP-based purchases in special assigned market areas, that are subject to taxation, into a smaller role.
The laws also remove other restrictions on big trade and agribusiness interests, to permit them to hoard huge amounts of food and farm products, including staples and essentials, providing them an iron grip on India’s farm and food system.
They would also have farm contracts favourable to them, and the laws explicitly render these contracts as well as many other aspects outside the framework of normal civil courts.
Several aspects of the new laws were framed loosely, and interpretation could be further to the advantage of the stronger party, the big business interests, and to the detriment of the much weaker party, the smallhold farmer.
If farmers were alarmed at these prospects, so were those monitoring food security and sustainability. Farm contracts dominated by big agribusiness could shift cropping patterns and rotations in favour of the crops needed by the big agribusinesses dominating the globalized food and farming system. Hence the cropping pattern will not be in tune with staple food needs, or the need for protecting soil, health and ecology.
Big agribusiness dominated systems are notorious for loot and scoot tendencies: imposing highly extractive systems on soil and the environment in order to meet their crop requirements, and then moving to some other place in their global system, leaving ravaged land behind.
The bigger hoarding capacity the laws provide, even for essential foods, would lead to increasing speculative and profiteering tendencies in the food sector.
Farming would be separated from the food and nutrition needs of the country, and pushed towards the very different priorities of globalized agribusiness. As there is lower production of staple foods and as public procurement declines, the state’s ability to readily provide heavily subsidized or free food through the public distribution system, and various nutrition schemes will decline, as will its ability to rush relief supplies in emergencies and to control food inflation.
Hence, hunger and malnutrition among poorest sections including landless or dispossessed rural families will increase further.
It is due to these many-sided adverse impacts of the three new farm laws that not only farmers but several other sections of society are opposing them, including several eminent experts and campaigns for food security and sustainable farming.
This is not to say that change and reform are not needed. Change for the better is certainly needed, as the existing food and farming system also coexists with a lot of hunger and malnutrition, as well as a lot of ecological ruin.
But instead of reducing these problems the three farm laws will increase them. Hence there is a clear and compelling need to repeal them.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements