In many states across the country, including Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, and Punjab, peasants have poured thousands of litres of milk and dumped rotting fruits and vegetables on the roads. This goes against the traditional conviction that “Kisan apne liye paida nahin karta aur apna paida kiya kabhi nasht nahin karta” (peasants do not produce for themselves nor ever destroy what they have produced). It shows their heightened anger at the central and state governments for not organising timely procurement of their produce during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Across Punjab, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and Bihar, the harvesting of the rabi crops of wheat, grams and mustard takes place between the middle of March and the end of April. The lockdown was announced when harvesting had just begun. Yet the Central Government made no plan to ensure that farm produce would be purchased in time. There was no announcement of any plan for the movement of the produce. This criminal neglect has resulted in enormous distress to lakhs of peasant producers across the country.
The lockdown has created acute problems not only in marketing farm produce, but also in procuring seeds and sowing the kharif (summer) crops, which include paddy, maize, pulses and groundnut.
Spokespersons of the central and state governments have made various claims of having transferring money into the bank accounts of peasants and organised procurement and transport of farm produce. However, the facts on the ground expose this lying propaganda.
On 17th April, the Union Minister for Agriculture had announced a “Kisan Rath”, or transport aggregator. This was announced as the solution to the problems being faced by the peasants in bringing their produce to the market. Two days earlier, the Minister had launched an “all-India Agri-transport Call Centre”, allegedly to facilitate inter-state movement of perishable crops during lock down. However, there are no reports of how and where these apps are working and what services they have actually provided to the peasants.
The reality on the ground is that the producers of rabi wheat, pulses, mustard, vegetables, milk and cotton have been compelled to sell their output at well below their cost of production. The situation in horticulture and floriculture is even worse. Producers of fruits and flowers have been unable to find markets for their perishable products due to restrictions in movement and fall in demand. This has resulted in mounting stocks and steep fall in prices.
Farmers in Bulandshahar District of Uttar Pradesh, which neighbours Delhi, were reported to be plucking the best pumpkins to give them away for free. They refused to send the harvest to the wholesale market in Delhi’s Ghazipur mandi because the price would not even cover the cost of harvesting and transport. Those who have taken their land on lease are facing the additional problem of having to pay for the lease as well.
The Central Government issued relaxation of restrictions in movement of agricultural, dairy and fishery products as late as 20th April. However, producers are continuing to face problems due to the lack of transport and shortage of buyers. They have experienced lengthy waiting time and exorbitant transport costs. They have had to pay Rs.70 per quintal for cartage, compared with the normal rate of Rs.20 per quintal.
The Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) has pointed out that there are 43 procurement centres in Bijnor District of Uttar Pradesh, but only five of them are functional. A BKS spokesman said, “The rest of the centres are either closed or not making purchases. The whole procurement system is merely eyewash.”
The All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) has pointed out that the procurement centres are either closed or they make purchases only from private traders and not from peasant producers. Taking advantage of the confusion and lack of reliable information about functioning procurement centres, traders have purchased wheat from peasants at well below the Minimum Support Price (MSP), and then sold it at MSP.
In Rajasthan, the Food Corporation of India and Rajasthan State Cooperative Marketing Federation normally commence rabi procurement season on 15th April. This year they postponed it until 1st May. Without adequate means for storage, peasants have been selling their produce to retail shops in their nearby areas, at well below the MSP. For instance, in Rajasthan’s Hanumangarh, mustard is being sold at Rs 3800 per quintal, gram is sold at Rs 4000 per quintal and wheat at Rs 1800 per quintal, as against the declared MSP of Rs. 4425, Rs 4875 and Rs 1925 respectively.
In Haryana, while the state government announced the public purchasing of grains from 20th April, it will not be completed till the end of June. By then, all poor peasants will have nothing left to sell as they do not have the storage capacity and cannot keep waiting. The produce has to be left lying in the field, vulnerable to rain and hail. Further, this wait will also delay the sowing of kharif paddy.
An additional problem is of delays in payment. For instance, two days after the Government of Haryana took steps to begin wheat procurement, the Chief Minister had reiterated his commitment to purchase “every single wheat grain” and deposit money in the bank accounts of farmers without any delay. However, 16 days later, the government had transferred not more than 20% payment for over 50 lakh metric tonnes procured until 5th May.
According to the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, money which was to have been deposited within 72 hours of procurement are yet to be received as on 12th May. The Kisan Sabha has decided to start protest demonstrations in Haryana if the money is not received by 16th May.
In Maharashtra, nearly one-fourth of the cotton produce, worth Rs 5500 crore, still remains unsold. Only 16 procurement centres had been opened in April. The crop was harvested by end January but most of it is yet to be sold. Whatever has been sold was at prices well below the MSP.
A similar situation prevails in all regions of the country.
The mounting anger of peasants is entirely just. So is their demand that the State must guarantee public procurement of their produce at stable and remunerative prices.
The policy of liberalisation and privatisation of agricultural trade, of systematically wrecking even the limited public procurement system, has led to unbearable indebtedness and suicides among peasants in recent years.
The Government of India has now announced its plan to use the present crisis situation to further advance the agenda of liberalisation and privatisation of agricultural trade. In the name of “turning crisis into opportunity”, the government plans to exploit the present situation of extended lockdown into an opportunity for greater penetration of monopoly capitalist corporations into the sphere of agricultural trade.
Those who till the land and feed the population have every right to secure livelihood and prosperity. The only way to guarantee this is by establishing a universal public procurement system, covering all agricultural produce and at remunerative prices, eliminating the role of private profiteers in this sphere.
Indian peasants have a long history of courageous struggle against exploitation and injustice. They now face the challenge of turning the present crisis into an opportunity to further strengthen their unity and escalate their struggle. They have the wholehearted support of the working class and all justice loving people.