December 6, 2020

Saroj served in the Indian Army as a technical officer for 23 years and opted for premature retirement in 1991.

The Farm Bill protestors and the government do not seem to be arriving at any mutually accepted solution. Any major dilution in provisions of farm bills will render the bills useless and ineffective. Given the hard stance of the protestors and the threats being heard at the protest site point towards the agitation being much more than just a protest against the farm bills. It may be prudent for the government to step back, reassess and come back stronger on another day. The government should take the bills back and let the existing system continue.

Agriculture is a state subject and so the BJP should look to implement these bills, duly passed by the state legislature, in a few of the states where they are in power and where there is no or minimal opposition to these bills. The party should ensure a fair and efficient implementation of the bills in such states and let the results speak for themselves. If farmers in Punjab and elsewhere want to continue to fill the pockets of local politicians, middlemen and thrive in a corrupt and inefficient system, then so be it. If they do not want their future generations to benefit from the new progressive structure being offered by the farm laws and prosper, then so be it.

However, the government must work on a few other aspects in the meanwhile.

It should put a cap to the purchase of cereals, grains and pulses that have to be stocked by the central government as buffers based on past experience and optimum reserves needed. Next it should ensure that there is an equitable share of purchases of such commodities at MSP (Minimum Support Price) from all states in the country. It does not stand to logic why the government should buy over 65% from Punjab alone. Why should other major agricultural states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh among others not benefit from central government purchases? This lopsidedness, over reliance and partiality to two states of Punjab and Haryana needs to be corrected and the purchases spread across the nation.

Next it is time the government examines as to why do farmers continue to cry and complain despite getting nearly all inputs for farming either free or at heavily subsidized? On top of all this there is no income tax on agricultural income. Everyone knows that this is a very misused provision and yet no government has ever addressed this issue. What should the nation, the governments at center and state level do to minimise and reduce these subsidies? What kind of tax structure can be put in place so that at least the rich farmers contribute to the central kitty?

It may be more prudent to let the market arrive at a price for agricultural commodities that includes the impact of income tax and reduction in subsidies. Chances are that over a period of time this will result in greater efficiency in production, logistics and sales related expenses to ensure a price that is acceptable to the end consumer. It is time to find solutions to these issues to make farming a competitive business.

The state governments in particular must assess the needs of the cold storage chains that their states need based on the commodities produced. If these are available extensively, chances are that farmers will be able to spread their sales as per market needs and realise better prices instead of selling at low rates in bulk immediately after production. Today, what ever limited cold storage facilities are available are mostly controlled by middle men who make money at the cost of the farmers.

The government has to work on war footing to ensure better agricultural production techniques are available to all farmers, particularly farmers with small holdings. This is where government needs to spend money instead of subsidizing other inputs across the board for all farmers. Small farmers have to be encouraged to form cooperatives for better results and management. Such a move will certainly translate into more prosperity for them.

Lastly it is also time for the government to take a serious note of why there are so many suicides among farmers despite the freebies and subsidies. Surely there is something more sinister in the system that is either not known or if known then is not being addressed because of vested interests. Given the free and heavily subsidized inputs, why do so many farmers remain in debt and fail to prosper? It is time some serious thought is given to this issue.

The first green revolution catapulted the farmers from Punjab, Haryana and parts of UP into another league. It is time for another similar revolution to help farmers from other states that have the capacity to produce food grains and pulses to feed the nation. The lessons learnt from the first revolution must be kept in mind to ensure that some of the follies like over reliance on pesticides or excessive use of ground water are not repeated.

It is time for the government to think seriously about either withdrawing or keeping the new Farm Bills in abeyance for the time being. Instead it must address some of the other issues as discussed above. It will be prudent to remember that India and Indian agriculture is not limited to Punjab and Haryana. The nation has another twenty-six states and eight Union Territories that also need to be factored in any move to better the lot of the farmer.

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