There have been widespread and prolonged protests by farmers against three controversial farm laws enacted this year in a great hurry in India , the primary reason being that these are widely perceived by protesting farmers to be against their interests. This has been widely discussed, but it is necessary to look also at some of the wider implications of these laws. Among other things we need to ask—what will be the impact of these laws on hunger and on food availability for the poorest people, such as landless rural people and urban informal sector workers.
While farming and related activities have many roles, clearly the most basic role is to provide nourishing, healthy food to people and to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. This most basic role should never be neglected or given low priority. Clearly this basic role cannot be fulfilled by allowing free for all in farming and related activities like trade and marketing of farm produce.
Farm policy must be carefully regulated to ensure that the most basic human need for adequate and nourishing food is fulfilled for all people, all the more so in a country like India with such large number of economically poor people. It is in recognition of this reality that the Government of India has over the years framed several policies and schemes and enacted laws relating to food security and food rights of people. These are not adequate, as is evident from the existence of large-scale hunger and malnutrition in the country. So improvements are needed, reform is needed. Certainly.
However we need to ensure that change is in the direction of reducing problems. The problem with the three recent controversial farm laws is that these move in the direction of increasing problems.
One basic requirement is that we as a country should be able to produce enough of our staple foods, not just cereals but also all the basics of a balanced nutritious diet. But when a country moves in the direction of contract farming and contracts dictated by very powerful agribusiness interests are not just facilitated by government policy but are even pushed outside normal legal jurisdiction, then it is more likely that that our staple foods will not be prioritized but instead those crops demanded by top agribusiness companies (which increasingly dominate the world food system in a highly globalized scene) will be prioritized. Once the law on contract farming helps to spread contract farming in a wider and wider area, the farmland of the country will produce not what hungry people of country demand, it will produce what is needed for profits of big agribusiness interests, as dictated by market conditions.
Then apart from the law which facilitates contract farming, there is another law which facilitates bigger hoarding of various crop produce including staple, essential foods by big private agribusiness interests, waving aside existing restrictions, and yet another law which facilitates purchase by big business interests in tax-free, restriction-free conditions. This is likely to further aggravate the trends unleashed by contract farming and make the food system hostage to big agribusiness companies, while for food security it is very important for the government, supported by farmer cooperatives a or producer organizations ( including women-led organizations), to retain such benevolent control over the food system as may be needed to fight hunger and malnutrition effectively.
To achieve its objectives to fight hunger and malnutrition more effectively, government should increase significantly procurement of several more crops ( in addition to wheat and rice), including millets, pulses and oilseeds in particular. While paying the farmers a fair and just price for all these crops, the government should also provide these in adequate amounts in the public distribution system at a fair price so that hunger and malnutrition can be reduced significantly.
As far as more perishable farm produce is concerned, the government has to follow a somewhat different policy mix but again the aim should be to reduce hunger and malnutrition as well as ensure a fair price for farmers.
One good reform would be to have a highly decentralized system in which the government procures a mix of staple foods at a fair price from farmers of a village and then makes it available to the public distribution system and nutrition schemes of the same villages, providing the funds for this but also saving a lot of money now spent in transport, storage and handling.
Processing of food and non-food crops has been a neglected area in the entire debate but a lot of loss of nutrients as well as loss of potential income of rural households occurs at the stage of city-level, big industry and heavy machinery dominated processing. Enormous potential of increasing rural incomes and livelihoods exists along with improving the nutrition ( and taste) value of our food if only there is village-based small and cottage scale processing along Gandhian lines.
The passing of these laws will destroy the Public Distribution System (PDS) which was a life line of hungry people across India.
All this will not be possible if farm and food policy passes into the hands of big agribusiness interests, as is happening already. The three controversial farm laws are just one indication of this grip, a big step towards corporatization of farming and food system of the country, and hence should be resisted. To protect food security and to maintain our ability to reduce hunger of the poorest sections including landless rural people and urban poor , these three controversial farm laws should be resisted.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian Ideas for Our times) and Earth without Borders.