The three farm laws passed by the central government threaten the food procurement and distribution system of India, said Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Professors Prabhat Patnaik and Utsa Patnaik on January 9, 2021 during a virtual conference on Farm Laws, Food Security and PDS.
Prabhat talked about the importance of Minimum Support Price (MSP) procurement operations and Public Distribution System (PDS) in preventing severe famines and the introduction of such schemes in India.
He said that peasants are often left to the mercy of open markets due to huge price fluctuations in agriculture. This means that when prices of agriculture produce crash, the general effect passes on to farmers while when prices increase, farmers do not enjoy the corresponding profit.
He referred to the large masses of peasants who suffered serious debt during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
“Once you get into debt, peasants become unviable. They have to service the debt and in the process, they lose the land. Debt is a means of destitution,” he said.
To address this plight of the peasantry, the post-Independence Indian government resolved to always provide some kind price support even for cash crops. These remunerative prices helped launch the Green Revolution in the 1960s, explained Prabhat.
Accordingly, the Indian government continued to provide support prices despite imperialist pressure and kept the country in good stead by protecting farmers from price fluctuations and huge debts.
“The BJP government is deciding to give up this previous arrangement. It has a kind of inconsiderateness which is unmatched in terms of post-independence Indian history. It’s reminiscent of colonial times,” he said.
Talking specifically about MSP, he agreed that it has not been adequate in the past. During the time that MSP remained stagnant, peasants struggled to meet higher input costs because of subsidy withdrawal as well as privatisation of education and health that made life expensive further pushing them into debt. Nonetheless, he insisted that MSP performance helped the country stand its ground over the years.
Regarding the on-going struggle, Prabhat said that farmers are playing an important role for the economy and food security of the country.
“From every point of view of food security, of ensuring farmers’ livelihood, dispersion of economic power, it is essential that we actually maintain the arrangement that has brought us so far and prevented famines,” he said.
He argued that a country of India’s size should remain completely independent in terms of food security and suggested change in agronomic practices to consider the ecological aspect of agriculture.
He also said that India must grow its own food to be food secure and as such the laws do not benefit any part of the food system.
Professor Utsa Patnaik voiced the same sentiment while talking about the international dimension of the three farm laws. She said that the three laws aim to free trade of agriculture products outside mandis welcoming not only domestic private companies but foreign businesses as well.
She reminded the audience that advanced countries such as the EU, Canada and other advanced industrial countries are limited to producing a small range of crops. They have a surplus production of these limited products and so have to find export markets. Meanwhile, their population demands a range of tropical and sub-tropical goods such as tea, coffee, cocoa and a whole range of vegetable foods.
Utsa said that the demand for perishable products has gone up due to better transport of produce in recent years and so the demand for Indian land has increased. Accordingly, foreign companies pressure India to give up the system of public procurement and distribution of food grains.
“They say that our comparative advantage lies in growing tropical and sub-tropical plants. Buy your food grain requirements from us. This argument about comparative advantage is complete nonsense. It necessarily assumes you can define cost of production. In the developed industrial world you cannot even define the cost of production of tropical products because the output there due to climatic reasons is zero,” she said.
Utsa argued that foreign countries are looking for the recreation of colonial division of labour. During the colonial period, more land was diverted accordingly resulting in lesser food supply in the domestic market. Accordingly, peasants would be heavily taxed to decrease their income while dealing with measures that changed cropping patterns away from locally-consumed food grains.
The professor also talked about the mid-1990s when the US, Canada and the EU launched a fresh drive to pressure developing countries to wind up food procurement and distribution systems such as PDS.
“Indian PDS is heavily dependent on Punjab, Haryana, western UP – the granary of our country. So, if we do not ensure viability of farmers in Punjab and other areas then we simply cannot maintain viability of PDS. It will collapse,” she said arguing in favour of the farmers’ struggle.
She said the new attack in the form of the three laws allows an entry point for agri-business corporations and absolutely undermines public procurement from farmers. She warned that once you let agri-activities take place outside regulated mandis then no check at all.
“Foreign firms will begin contracting with farmers. Powerful agri-businesses will come in who won’t follow the contract if it suits them. They might not procure from farmers or give lesser prices. Our farmers have made it clear that they do not want contract farming,” she said.
January 20 marks Day 57 of the nationwide farmers’ struggle against the three farm laws – the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance & Farm Services Act, the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act – forcibly passed by the central government.