File photo of former agriculture minister Sompal Shastri (left) with former railway minister Suresh Prabhu | Twitter: @RailMinIndia

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New Delhi: Former agriculture minister Sompal Shastri, who held office when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, has told the Narendra Modi government that it should concede to the protesting farmer unions’ prime demand on Minimum Support Price (MSP) to end the impasse, ThePrint has learnt.

Shastri, who met Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar over the weekend, advised the government that this can be done through an independent committee appointed by the Supreme Court. 

Farmers fear that MSP will not be enforced once private mandis come up following the implementation of the new laws. 

During his meeting with Tomar, sources in the BJP said, Shastri emphasised that there is a trust deficit between the government and the farmers, which he believes is the root cause of the current protests and can be bridged by involving the Supreme Court in the negotiations. 

Speaking to ThePrint, Shastri also said there are several anomalies in the three farm laws, and that they appear to have been drafted in haste. 

“Can any law in a country be drafted in such a way that it bars appeals in the courts? How did officers draft such a clause that the jurisdiction of district magistrates (DMs) and sub-divisional magistrates (SDMs) is final?” Shastri asked. “When farmers protested, it came to the government’s notice and it has decided to rectify it. But this should have been done earlier.”

Shastri told ThePrint that he spoke to Tomar on a number of issues — from the implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations to farmer incomes, apart from the current agitation. 

Also read: SC overreach in farmers’ protest adds to troubling track record. Reforms are policy decisions

A trust deficit

Shastri, the brain behind the Kisan Credit Card scheme launched during the Vajpayee era, said the Indian economy can only be revived if the income of farmers is enhanced. 

“Their purchasing power has drastically reduced,” he said. “The government’s own committee has said that farmer income has constantly reduced by 25-30 per cent in recent years. Their input costs are rising due to increases in diesel, petrol, urea and seed prices. They are not even getting minimum support prices on their produce, then how will their incomes suddenly double?” 

The former agriculture minister said farmers have legitimate reasons in demanding MSP in the legal form. “The minimum support price has become the maximum support price for farmers. We are not correctly calculating the input costs, so there is a need for an input commission to rightly measure the input costs,” he said. “That is the reason they are demanding MSP in the legal form as then at least they will get the minimum input cost.” 

Shastri cited super basmati, which is exported, to point out that farmer incomes are dropping. He said super basmati was Rs 4,800 per quintal in 2013-14, but its price dropped to Rs 3,500 in 2014-15 and Rs 2,400 in 2017-18, and was Rs 2,200-2,400 in 2018-19. 

“How will farmers’ incomes increase?” Shastri asked. “If we implemented the Swaminathan Commission report on C2 cost (sum of paid out costs, interest on the value of owned capital assets, value of family labour, rent paid for leased-in land and the rental value of owned land), MSP should be Rs 2,800-3,000 for wheat and Rs 2,600-2,800 for rice, but it is now Rs 1,925 for wheat and Rs 1,868 for rice.”  

He added: “The government said it has implemented the Swaminathan Commission report but it has only implemented it on A2 (just the paid out cost) plus the family labour cost and not C2 plus 50 per cent input costs.”

Explaining why the protesting farmers are not budging, Shastri said: “The government is saying mandis will not end but the finance minister in her budget speech had said the mandi system was old and futile. That is why farmers are not trusting the government.” 

Also read: Need continued talks, long-term solutions — what experts say on farmers protest

‘Agriculture is highly subsidised worldwide’ 

Shastri also called on the government to disburse more money under the PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana. As part of the scheme, launched before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, farmers get Rs 6,000 annually. 

“The government says it is a great scheme but worldwide agriculture is highly subsidised,” the former agriculture minister said. “The US and Europe ensure 30-40 per cent of agriculture GDP for farmers but we give them only 3-5 per cent of agriculture GDP. It should be a minimum of 10 per cent of agriculture GDP.”  

He added: “We usually forget India’s economic story is not an investment one but a demand story.”

Shastri said around 46 per cent industrial demand is from the rural sector. “If they don’t have the purchasing power, the whole cycle will collapse. So we have to give farmers subsidies or MSP guarantee so they can survive.”

He said an MSP allows farmers the leeway to hold onto crops for better prices. “Why do farmers at times sell tomatoes and potatoes at one rupee a kilo whereas input costs are several times more? This is because as soon as crops are produced, a farmer needs money to pay out moneylenders, for marriage and to meet other expenses. If there are MSP guarantees, farmers will wait, otherwise they will sell at whatever price they get to fulfil their needs.”  

Also read: BJP, media, MHA — slander on Muslims and Sikhs have a lot in common. Outcome will be too

On farmers’ protest when Vajpayee was PM  

The 78-year-old former minister and chairman of the first farmer commission spoke of the farmers’ protests during his tenure.  

“There was a protest to raise the MSP of Rabi crop. It was back then Rs 460 per quintal for wheat,” Shastri said. “I asked officials to calculate input costs and it came to Rs 510 per quintal. The secretary recommended Rs 510 but I consulted Atalji (former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee) and announced Rs 610 per quintal. Farmers leaders came to me and told me that they never imagined that it would be hiked beyond their demand.” 

He added: “We also delicenced the sugar industry despite the entire cabinet being against it as the sugar lobby was exerting pressure.”

Heated arguments followed, Shastri recalled. 

“Atalji asked me ‘cheeni wale pressure daal rahein hein, kya karein (the sugar lobby is exerting pressure, what should we do?)’. I replied kisanon ka bhala hoga (farmers will benefit), to which Atalji said ‘kariye’.” 

It was a historic reform, he added.

“In 1997-98, private mills couldn’t match the cooperative sector in cane crushing capacity at 5-7 lakh tonnes per day. Today, the private sector’s crushing capacity has exceeded 16 lakh tonne per day, while cooperative is crushing at around 8 lakh tonnes per day,” Shastri said.

“So the bottom line is you have to understand farmers’ concerns and should be more considerate in fulfilling their genuine concerns. Nobody has enough time and resources to protest in the chilling cold for the sake of a protest. Farmers’ trust in the government has diminished, their incomes have constantly dropped and that is the reason they are protesting.”  

Also read: Library, ‘blanket langar’ & even a salon — farmers have made Singhu border a mini ‘pind’


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