The last week too, the mainstream media published a large number of articles and opinion pieces, dismissing the farmers’ protests (2020-21). While arguments have been offered in support of the farm laws, the opposition parties have been slammed for indulging in petty politics. From attacking subsidies on agriculture and MSP (Minimum Support Price) to praising the technology, completion and the market, the newspapers have been spreading the government’s propaganda. The media has no concern for the fact that food security is too important an issue to be left to the ruthless and violent operations of the market. Nor does it have both time and space to discuss how the private contract farming in Punjab and Haryana benefit the farmers, a model that is shown to the farmers in the farm laws.
One thing common among most of the Hindi newspapers is attacking the opposition leaders. They have been blamed for misleading the farmers. In other words, the Hindi press wants us to believe that the opposition parties, by misleading the “gullible” farmers, have created “anarchy”; as if the farmers were merely an object of manipulation, and, therefore, could not be considered to have the capacity to take up the baton of politics in their own hands, thereby showing the exit doors to their own parliametary represetatives including both in government and the so-called opposition. The protest itself is demolishing such conception of those involved, that is to say, the farmers.
The editorial of Dainik Jagran (national, December 28) is representative of such propaganda. It has called the opposition leaders “opportunist” (avsarvadi), who have indulged in politics based on treachery (chhal-kapat). Repeating BJP National President J.P. Nadda’s attack on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for his alleged statement in which he (Gandhi) had supported freeing the farmers from the clutches of middle-men, the Hindi daily says that “it is surprising that the whole of Congress is now busy supporting the middlemen”.
However, what the editorial deliberately misses out is the fact that the farmers are not responsible for what Rahul Gandhi or any Congress leader might have said earlier. Their protests are autonomous. Even if Rahul Gandhi had earlier supported the farm laws, this is his or his party’s opinion, not that of the farmers.
Such mischief is also caused by daily Hindustan. In its editorial (Dec 31, 2020), the daily also saw the political use of the farmers as it writes that “the political move to show the direction to farmer movement should also be condemned”. But the daily is not willing to accept that the farm laws are themselves manifestations of the political act; and the resistance again these laws by the farmers will obviously be political too.
Unfortunately, these editorials repeat the arguments and reduce the whole issue to the ruling party versus the opposition parties. It can be reminded here that some of the newspapers still continue to publish reports to show as to how the farmers’ protests are causing inconvenience to the so-called ‘common people’. Some of their reports have even linked the whole movement to the Khalistani militants, just because several of the farmers, sitting on the protests, wear turbans as the so-called Khalistani militants once wore. Since linking farmers to Khalistani militants backfire, now the media has changed its tone. Even the Home Minister Rajnath Singh has been asked to give an interview to the media where he has been found saying something which is seemingly opposed to any move to demonize the farmers.
Another narrative peddled by the media is that the ongoing farmers’ protests around the national capital Delhi are not representative. Thus, accepting their demands would amount to giving a seal of approval to “anarchy”.
Another editorial of Dainik Jagran (Dec 30), thus, tries to discredit the protests in the following words: “There are hundreds of farmers’ organization all across India and all of them do not find any fault with the Farm Laws. Given that only 40 farmers’ organizations are protesting, their claims – to represent all the farmers and their aspirations — are meaningless”.
Out of its interests, the media is discrediting the farmer movement. Who would ask these newspapers that, if lakhs of farmers, sitting on protests, braving the cold weather and rain, are just a minuscule group and are not worthy of any legislative consideration, how, then, can a puppet of the corporate, who has created a semblance of the only leader in power to govern, be considered to be worthy of articulation of the so-called popular will of the 130 billion-plus population?
Related to the media propaganda is calling the protesting farmers as “adamant” (ziddi). An editorial of Jansatta (Dec 19) appears at first glance to be supporting a democratic discussion and solving conflicts through dialogue between the government and the farmers. But its bias against the farmers gets exposed very soon. Look at these words in Jansatta’s editorial: “The prolonging of farmer movement has caused common people to suffer a great deal”. Having said this, the Hindi daily negates everything that the farmers are doing by putting their lives at stake: “…the farmers should give up their insistence that the farm laws should be withdrawn”.
In its editorial, The Economic Times (Dec 28) also opposes farmers’ demand to repeal farm laws, showing how the changes brought out by the farm laws are beneficial to the farmers. “The farmers have been sticking to just one demand: repeal the laws. This would need to change. The farmers have to appreciate that the status quo is untenable”. It goes on to say that the government need not buy expensive grains from the farmers that are “too pricey to be sold in the export market”. Therefore, it offers a solution that such a mechanism should be abolished and the process of buying “the excess grain” should end up as it will be preventing them from “rotting in government godowns”. This is what the fears of the farmers are that the new farm laws are mechanisms to mortgage farmers to the giant corporate companies.
The Economic Times’ editorial further attacks the welfare economy. It is opposed to giving any subsidiary to the farmers: “Vast amounts of resources are additionally wasted in subsidising power and irrigation water, besides fertilisers. Punjab is in perpetual fiscal crisis because of its open-ended power subsidy for farmers. Excessive use of lift irrigation has depleted groundwater, corrupted soil chemistry and together produced a situation that calls for ever greater quantities of inputs to sustain production, raising costs and the exchequer’s subsidy burden. At the same time, India imports edible oil, lentils and fruit in large quantities”.
Articulating the interests of neo-liberal policies, another pink daily The Financial Express (Dec 28), launches an all out attack on MSP to farmers. However, it has never written anything against the government opening its coffers to the corporate players. In its editorial, The Financial Express says, “Beware of the MSP Trap…”, it wrote, “The problem lies in the fact that MSP is a historical hypocrisy since, apart from a few crops in a few states, no farmer gets MSP even today; if you include cotton and sugarcane as well, less than 10% of all farmers get their crops procured by government agencies, the rest take their chances in various mandis…. Once MSPs rise above global prices, as has happened for wheat, this means export demand will dry up completely; when procurement prices of items like cotton are raised too much, this will also hit exports of processed goods like readymade garments or textiles. Excess stocks of wheat and rice that FCI is forced to carry even today due to open-ended procurement in a few states are worth around Rs 150,000 crore today; this will rise dramatically when other crops – and other states – are to be added to the list where compulsory procurement has to be undertaken. Presumably, that is why the government is trying to avoid giving farmers an assurance on compulsory MSP-linked procurement or gap-payments. The lesson here is clear: when reforms are put off for too long, and this applies to the APMC reforms of the Modi government as well, they come back to bite you”.
In Hindu (December 29), Ramesh Chand, a member of NITI Ayog, wrote an opinion piece to support the farm laws, calling them necessary for “modernizing agriculture” and making India “a global power in agriculture”. In his argument, Chand says that “Aggregate food demand has fallen short of domestic production necessitating the export of a large quantity to prevent prices falling very low. We are already sitting on an excess stock of 60 lakh tons of sugar and nearly 72 million tons of extra buffer stock of wheat and rice which is causing a huge drain of fiscal resources… India’s agri-exports are getting difficult to push, imports are turning attractive as domestic prices are turning higher than international prices…The growth rate in agriculture is driven by heavy support through various kinds of subsidies and output price support. NET revenue receipt of the Central government is below 9% of GDP. If farmers are to be ensured remunerative prices for their produce through procurement at MSP, as per the demand put up by protesting farmers, these costs and losses and subsidies will take away most of the tax revenue of the central government”. Having attacked the welfare policies, the author then began to praise market and competition without saying a word about how the market is never a level-playing field: “The way forward then for ensuring remuneration prices to farmers is through increased competition for the sale of their produce, development of modern value chain, value addition, export and processing as a part of rural economic revitalisation”.
Moreover, the farm laws have been termed as a milestone as the farmers can now do online trading for maximizing benefit and sell their product, bypassing the middlemen. In other words, the power technology is glorified without telling who controls the technology. How far will the farmers’ interests be protected in the new settings? Just having a mobile phone without protection by the laws is not enough.
The media does not want to tell the truth about corporate farming. Nor is it telling the nightmare faced by the farmers at the hands of corporate players. Who can deny that with each passing day the multinational companies are monopolizing the goods that we need every day? But these giant companies are nowhere involved in producing these goods. Despite that, they take the lion’s share of profits while the farmers have been reduced to just a cog in their profit wheel. In short, both producers and consumers are becoming more and more vulnerable.
An opinion piece by Dr. Surjeet Singh Gandhi (Dainik Jagran, Dec 30) ignored these realities. Instead, he mischievously ends up suggesting that technology would become the solution to all the problems. As he put it, “The farm laws may become a milestone. Without going to market and auctioning their products at the warehouse, the farmers on their choice and condition can sell their crops, wherever they like in whichever market of the country. They can do it within a moment with just one click on the mobile phone. They will also get all information about crops and their prices… These laws will open a new vista for online trading and put an end to all difficulties”.
The only exception was the essay by JNU Professor of Economics Utsa Patnaik (“The global angle to the farmer protests”) published in Hindu, Dec 30. She rightly dismisses the neo-liberal logic of the new farms laws, saying that the logic of attacking the crop procurement process has an international angle. She adds that the Northern industrial countries, due to their weather, cannot produce tropical and subtropical goods, which are otherwise in great demand of the consumers there. That is why the global players have put pressure on the developing countries to shift their energy on export crops and buy food crops from them. In her own words: “Northern industrial countries, namely the United States, Canada and the European Union (EU) cannot produce the tropical and sub-tropical crops in high demand by their own consumers while they have mountains of surplus grain and dairy products, the only goods their single-crop lands are capable of producing for climatic reasons. They must find export markets for these. For over two decades, they have put relentless pressure on developing countries to give up their own public procurement systems, insisting that they should buy their food grains from advanced countries, while diverting their food-crop-producing land to contract farming of export crops that these industrial countries want but cannot themselves produce. In short, they want a recreation of the economic scenario of the colonial period”.
Dismissing the excuse that the government has no revenue to procure grains from the farmers at a “higher” price, Patnaik contends that the new farm laws would lead to “recreation of colonial times”. Arguing that a serious matter of food security cannot be left to the market, she said: “Food security for the developing world is far too important a matter to be left to the global market, but the relentless attack on their public stocking of grain for ensuring food security continues. India had barely managed to pull back from the brink a decade ago: procurement prices were raised substantially after virtually stagnating during the six years preceding the 2008 price-spike and grain output in Punjab grew again from near-stagnant levels as economic viability improved. But absorption of foodgrains did not improve as much owing to continued exclusion of many of actually poor from ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards, while unemployment caused by the 2016 demonetisation followed by the 2020 pandemic has reduced aggregate demand by now to a historic low”.
To the argument that the government should promote competition by reducing agricultural subsidy, Professor Patnaik argues that farm subsidy in the North is much higher and any trade with the North would be “unfair”. “Trade with the North is unfair, because the advanced countries in the mid-1990s, converted their own price support measures to massive subsidies given as direct cash transfers to their own farmers, transfers that in a blatantly self serving manner they wrote into the Agreement on Agriculture as ‘non subject to reduction commitments’, India along with other developing countries signed the Agreement with very little idea of the implications of small print. For the US., the direct cash transfers it gives to its 2.02 million farmers, amounting to a huge half or more of its annual farm output value, uses up only 1% of its budget. For India, over 50% of the entire central government annual Budget would be required to give even a quarter of annual farm output value to our 120 million farmers, which is an economic impossibility and an administrative nightmare”.
Moreover, she has ripped apart the logic that the market would give justice to the farmers: “Farmers have already experienced contract farming with foreign agribusinesses in Punjab and Haryana. They say clearly that they do not wish to deal with powerful, faceless private corporations that renege on price and quantity contracts when it suits them. Despite all its inefficiency and payment delays, they prefer to sell to government agents at the stipulated minimum support price. They are absolutely correct in thinking that deregulation of markets as mandated by the new laws, and the entry of business firms, which will be not only Indian but also foreign, mean a severe undermining of the entire system of public procurement and minimum support prices”.
Unfortunately, very few newspapers have given space to the arguments of Professor Patnaik and her likes. Most of them are busy with singing peas to the government and its policies, undermining their role to stand for the democratic demands of the people.
But why have the media houses kept ignoring the critical issues and have ended up stabbing the people? Perhaps, they do so because they consider journalism as a profit-making business, mere profit-making. Today, several big media houses have their business interests other than journalism. Some of them are into mining, while others are into sugar and agribusiness. That is why they cannot dare to put tough questions to the government. Why? They fear a backlash. They know that it is a give and take game. While the government would favour them in their business, the media houses, in turn, would keep the government happy. Needless to say, such trends are fatal to Indian democracy.
(Abhay Kumar is a Ph.D. from JNU. He is broadly interested in Minority and Social Justice. Earlier, he held a Post-Graduate Diploma in English Journalism from The Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and worked as a Delhi-based reporter with The Indian Express. You may write to him at email@example.com).