Farmers have been demanding APMC reforms for 30 years, but the Modi government’s farm laws – central laws on a state subject, rammed through without consultations with either the states or even Parliament — are not reforms to help farmers but at enabling a corporate takeover of the agrarian economy, veteran journalist and Magsaysay awardee P Sainath tells DH’s Anitha Pailoor.

Farmers have been in the news for a few months now. They were so for a while even in 2016, when the government said it would help double farmers’ income by 2022…

The first thing I recall is that they declared that they would double farmers’ incomes by 2022 without once clarifying whether they meant a doubling of nominal income or real income. If it’s nominal income, everybody’s incomes would double by 2022. If it’s real income, that is a very huge task. And it’s very clear that as of now if there is any difference, the difference in real income actually suggests to me a marginal fall, not even stagnation.

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I think that the claim of doubling farmers’ income was particularly cruel, considering what the incomes of farmers are and what the farmers are actually going through. For instance, one of the criticisms of the protesters is that all these people protesting at the borders of Delhi are rich farmers from Haryana and Punjab.

The average total monthly income of a farm household in Punjab, including income from all sources, is Rs 18,059 for a household of 5.24 persons. The average per capita monthly income of the Punjab farmer is Rs 3,450. That is lower than the lowest pay in the organised sector.

You call this a ‘civilisational crisis.’ What do you mean?

What started as an agricultural crisis became an agrarian crisis. When we talk about agriculture, we’re talking about cultivators, farmers and farm labourers. When you’re talking about the agrarian crisis, there are millions of livelihoods — of people who are not cultivators but whose occupations are dependent on agriculture. When agriculture entered a crisis, weavers started committing suicide. The first market of the traditional weaver is the farmer and the farm labourer. That is the interdependency of the agrarian sector.

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Once this begins to happen, the distress is widespread. What we used to call the agrarian crisis has gone far beyond the agrarian. It became a societal crisis, as section after section of society was affected. I would then say that in the last few years, you could call it a civilisational crisis because the largest body of small farmers in the world is struggling for survival. It’s more than an economic or political crisis. What we call the agrarian crisis is also a profoundly moral crisis, demanding that we take positions on where we stand.

The UPA government had to deal with a similar situation in 2009 when Bt Brinjal was cleared for commercial cultivation by a committee. Then it was handled differently…

The crisis in the agrarian sectors has been on since we embraced a particular path of development, which begins with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Hundreds of thousands of farmers who committed suicide did so when the UPA was in power. However, the difference that the last six years has made is that in economics, the NDA is the UPA-on-steroids.

But let’s take the case of Bt Brinjal. The states were consulted. Jairam Ramesh (then Union environment minister) sought the opinion of the states and all the states and union territories gave an opinion. Overwhelmingly, they said, don’t touch Bt Brinjal. When that kind of response came in, the UPA said, “No, we are not going ahead with this.” They withdrew from that.

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There is continuity between the two governments (in economic policies) but the political response of the State [is different]. The [farm] laws are unconstitutional because agriculture is listed as a state subject. No state was consulted before these laws were declared. Let alone the state governments being consulted, Parliament was not consulted. The only people who knew what was coming in those laws were the corporate world.

There is a general perception that the concerns are mostly about minimum support price (MSP) and the APMC system.

Farmers have been demanding APMC reforms for 30 years. It’s not that someone is coming with up reform and the farmers are resisting it. The question is, reforms for whom — for the farming community or for the corporations? What you have done is rammed through reforms for the corporations.

Now, let me look at it one more way. Government schools are very flawed, very terrible. Why don’t we shut them down? [We don’t] because for tens of millions of children, it is the only chance of having anything approaching education. For millions of Indian children, the government school is the only place in the world they get one decent meal a day for five days. The APMC is the government school of the agrarian sector. That’s why you don’t call for its shutting down.

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We have seen many rural sector boards like the Handicrafts Board and the Handloom Board being dissolved during the pandemic. Is there still hope for rural livelihoods?

There is no hope with these policies. There are many things that can happen. We should know how serious the move of shutting down these Boards is. The point was to improve the Boards. The point was to improve in a direction that serves the purpose of the handlooms and handicrafts sectors.

And one of the things very few know is that handicrafts and handlooms are the second biggest employers in India, after agriculture. Handicrafts and handlooms employ millions of more people than the IT sector employs. Despite that, we’re just destroying it.

We are creating a way for a corporate takeover of everything. There is no hope with these policies. And you will be foolish to rest your hopes on a government that pursues this. Is there hope outside of that? Oh yes, there is.

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