Protesting farmers not against reforms, but western idea of top-down centralisation: Activist Kavita Kuruganti

The urban idea of the farmer has lent uniformity to the conception of the rural life and economy, owing to which the Indian farmer is imagined as a monolith. Two months after the Central government framed its farm laws that alter the mandi and MSP dynamics, farmers marched to Delhi in protest. On 4 January, after two months of protests, police clashes and some unsuccessful attempts at a truce, a neighbourhood of resistance has come up at the capital's Singhu border.

Kavita Karuganti, founder and convenor of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a pan-Indian alliance of over 400 organisations, is experiencing the protest from close quarters. One misconception she feels the need to clear is that farmers aren't anti-reform, but a central top-down reform doesn’t do justice to economic and cultural diversity of agrarian life. Over the last decade, the process of adoption of macro-economic policies at the central level has been a subject of scrutiny albeit in limited bookish circles.

Agriculture is a state subject but when the Rajya Sabha passes a resolution, the Centre can introduce a farm law. The same method was followed in the passing of the UPA's Agriculture Produce Marketing Act, 2003, which mandated that purchases of certain agricultural commodities occur through government-regulated markets (mandis) with the payment of designated commissions and marketing fees. Over the years, the Act turned out to be counterproductive, as the lack of supportive institutional mechanisms and infrastructural facilities left farmers dependent on middlemen for critical services such as finance, information and sale of commodities.

Several states adopted key areas of reforms, most of the states in fact diluted its provisions. Most APMCs devised unsustainable ways of increasing revenue, some by expanding the schedule of commodities and some by adding profitable products that weren’t grown in the state. Hence, the need for a new law arose. But now, the larger question is, will a new national law falter the same way the first one did, by ignoring the economic and cultural variations within the agrarian economy?

In an interview, Kuruganti spoke about the scope of dialogue between the farmers and the Union government, the lines of diminishing diversities and homogenisation of cultures and conditions. Edited excerpts follow:

Do you think the talks will reach a logical conclusion sometime soon?

The only logical conclusion is that the government repeals the laws. There is lack of empirical evidence to show that without these laws, farmers won’t benefit or that reform won’t happen. Reforms have been taking place on ground without Central laws. (The Karnataka Agricultural Marketing Policy of 2013 was accompanied by a new legal framework through an amendment of the APMC Rules — a crucial institutional innovation in the form a Special Purpose Vehicle — the Rashtriya e-Market Services Private Limited (ReMS) that was established in 2014 as a joint venture between the Government of Karnataka and the NCDEX e-Markets Limited. This implementing agency worked autonomously, even while being organically linked to the state government and sought to combine the decision-making of the private sector with the state government’s umbrella of accountability).

If both parties are adamant, how will a middle-ground be reached?

We have often heard that ‘farmers are adamant’. It should be remembered that the first meeting with ministers took place on 13 November last year and the farmer unions that met them, vacated railway tracks without receiving anything from the government in return. (Bharatiya Kisan Union president Balbir Singh Rajewal had then said that a decision on such an important matter cannot be taken in one just meeting and that Narendra Singh Tomar had listened to their issues). One point that needs to be made is that the talks will not break down. Even the last time, we waited for three hours for the government teams to come back to us and the farmers felt insulted after having come from miles away to converse with the government. The governments have noticed the protests after two months when the farmers landed up in Delhi.

Are the farmers against reforms? Aren’t agrarian reforms necessary in a changing socio-economic climate?

The government can project itself as a pro-reform government without Central legislation having to be ramped up. If they dip into Bharatiyata, then why import wholesale notions of reforms embedded in a macro-economic framework of liberation from the West? Reform should be ground-up, about economic viability, social equity and farmer’s household sustainability.

What solution do you imagine instead of the present ones?

The present laws are designed for the upper caste, male farmers with large land holdings with access to irrigation. Reforms must factor in the concerns of marginalised farmers who are invisible — whether Dalit farmers or women farmers. (Along with regional and demographic diversity is gender diversity. The mandis have a factor of proximity in them and offer women safety. Women wings of farmer unions in the protest have raised this issue). Even if I subscribe to your notion of growth, it’ll only come if you put purchasing power in the hands of rural India. Instead of blindly aping concepts from the West, indigenous diversity in this civilisation must be explored. (The experience of national policies are drastically different for farmers on the margins, in tribal areas untouched by modern technologies. While deep-water lands face periodic flooding, droughts go unreported in remote areas away from the media attention and political unions).

How has urban India’s reading of the protests been?

I want to repeat when Rakesh Tikait said to the media, while bringing a rural Indian idiom to the debate. He said we have patience and hope, we sow seeds and wait but we don’t stop farming. In India, farmers wait out 10 droughts for a monsoon year and that hope and patience is part of a particular approach to rural life that is now getting reflected in these protests. If we are talking about Indian agriculture and markets being diverse, we shouldn’t have a uniform paradigm. We don’t need ‘one nation, one market’ but ‘one nation, one price’.



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