While the union government inexplicably finds it so difficult to agree to the simple, straightforward and well-justified demand of repeal of three controversial farm laws, social movements as well as public spirited intellectuals have been quickly reaching near consensus on supporting this most emphasized demand of the farmers’ movement.
One point of consensus is that these three laws will make the existing systems much worse instead of improving them. There is wide agreement that existing systems have serious problems which have caused so much distress to farmers and so improvements are needed, but instead of moving in the direction of improvements the three laws take us in the reverse direction, leading to worsening of problems and the resulting crisis.
Hence despite the irrational and obstinate refusal of the union government so far to repeal the three farm laws, there is increasing understanding among people regarding the need to repeal the three farm laws.
However on the other question of MSP or minimum support price the situation is less clear. To seek greater clarity let us examine, at the risk of some oversimplification, two very different situations of farming.
In the first situation farmers try their very best to reduce economic, ecological and social costs of farming by making best use of local free resources and possibilities ( more and better composting, mixed farming, selection of proper rotations, water conservation, protection of pastures and forests, protection of traditional seeds etc.), while minimizing or avoiding use of polluting chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Apart from producing healthy food, they protect soil and conserve water, in the process also contribute to checking climate change. In this situation farmers are also very caring about the needs and aspirations of landless farm workers.
In this situation very high priority can certainly be given to providing a government legal guarantee that a very remunerative and satisfactory price will be paid for all farm produce obtained in this way. Even if there is surplus the government should try its best to buy and pay this fair price as it will not be difficult to find a big export market for this healthy produce, once domestic needs have been met. If the government has to spare a high part of its budget for this, it is well-justified expenditure. The government should facilitate this further by making big allocations also for water and soil conservation, protection of forests and pastures, as well as providing a lot of off-season employment to landless workers, marginal farmers and women in such work. Overall conditions for this can be improved further by banning GM crops entirely and supporting research and extension of social agro-ecology in participative ways, in particular involving women and more elderly farmers, on a large scale.
In the second situation, farmers indiscriminately use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, over-exploit water resources recklessly, exhaust soil fertility by inflicting too intensive farming, destroy organic content and micro-organisms of soil rapidly, quickly embrace hazardous technologies like GM crops, do not give much attention to protecting village-greenery and are exploitative towards landless farm workers, tenants and sharecroppers. In the process of such farming they also contribute to accentuating the risks of climate change in more than one way.
Now it is not at all clear why the wider society or the government should encourage any system of such farming by a regime of assured price guarantee. In fact, in the case of such farming, highly remunerative price guarantees for farm produce obtained in such a way will be socially harmful.
In practical life such extreme situations may be less visible and a mixed situation may be more likely, but still we can see whether an actual situation is close to the first model or the second model. Even in the second model, the conclusion is not that farmers are to blame. What they are practicing is more likely to be the result of wrong policies of the government which lured them away from traditional farming, plus the even worse record of big business and their local dealers and representatives.
The more basic point here is that in the second situation the main issue is not MSP, but rather the need for moving to a more sustainable system of ecologically protective and justice based farming. The role of the government here is to facilitate this change in various ways, undoing its previous mistakes, and one important way forward may be to make financial grants to all those farmers who make this change, and once they make this change then immediately also give them the guarantee of a very remunerative price as well.
Food is the most basic need and producing safe, healthy food in sustainable, protective ways is the most noble work, and so spending huge parts of the government budget for this is fully justified, but asking the government to spend in a big way for supporting ecologically destructive, unsustainable systems which produce food whose safety and health benefits are doubtful is not justified at all.
However these more complex issues are often forgotten as at various levels there is an inclination for more populist approach. So those supporting the farmers’ movement often find it more convenient to extend total support instead of carefully channelizing the upsurge towards the more desirable directions. But then they should not forget the big risk that if ecologically harmful, highly extractive systems are supported by big subsidies and budgets, then these ecologically harmful systems get more strengthened and prolonged. It is very important for the farmers’ movement, and its supporters, to be very careful and avoid going in this direction.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Planet in Peril.