26th November 2018
Farmers: A Liberal Agenda – Extract from “Why I am a Liberal” by Sagarika Ghose
As you probably know, Sagarika Ghose has recently written a book, “Why I am a Liberal”. I came in touch with her relatively recently but she has mentioned my work and Swarna Bharat Party briefly also in that book. I’ve ordered the book and will read when I reach Delhi in late January, then provide my views on that book.
But her section on agriculture is very important for 70 per cent of the Indian population. It is an excellent summary of Sharad Joshi’s ideas. Also see my TOI article here.
Are we aware of who some of the most liberal sections of Indian society are? Those who have been campaigning long and hard for their individual freedom? No, these are not feminists or JNU students, writers, journalists or activists, The are instead certain
communities of fanners, the humble kisana. In March 2018, the Kisan Coordination Committee released in eight-point charter of demands calling for open markers and just prices.
The charter was released by followers of the late farm sector leader and liberal Sharad Anantrao Joshi. Joshi spent most of his lift exposing the injustices heaped on farmers by caging them in all manner of laws and restrictions. The charter calls for the liberalization of agriculture, the end of government intervention in the farm economy, scrapping of the National Food Security Act, direct benefit transfers to the poor, free trade in farm products and the removal of restrictions in creating rural land markets.
Joshi was one of India’s pioneering liberals. He was an urbane, brilliant Syndenham College and Switzerland-educated United Nations diplomat, returned to India to become the most vocal economic liberal of the farm sector. He founded the farmers’ union, the Shetkari Sangathana, in 1979. Joshi had always advocated free enterprise in the rural economy and while in Parliament famously tabled a private member legislation demanding that the ideology [SOME TYPO HERE] Don’t the people of India have a right to choose whether they want to be ruled by a socialist party, capitalist party or liberal party? Joshi believed this clause effectively bars liberal parties from contesting elections. Interestingly, the Janata Party was Indira Gandhi’s sworn enemy but was ideologically almost exactly on the same page as her uber-socialism. While Indira’s Congress had moved to dilute property rights to actively intervene in the private sector. the Janata Party in 1976 deleted the fundamental right to property altogether. The socialism clause in the Representation of the People Act is yet another illiberal aberration inserted by the Rajiv Gandhi government and needs to be debated. It effectively bars all those who do not want to swear allegiance to socialism, from contesting elections.
Joshi set up the Shetkari Sangathana to oppose farm subsidies, demand remunerative prices for farm produce and gain access to markets and technology. Why is it, Joshi asked, that while finance and industry were deemed worthy of liberalization, agriculture was not? Agriculture is the largest private sector in India. Yet, it is completely ignored when it comes to economic liberalization and ease of doing business!
For too long, the kisan has been trapped in a time warp of the statist politicians’ imagination, He is seen as a figure seated calmly and wisely next to fields of waving paddy, wearing colourful clothes and uttering profound and simple phrases—the constant ‘Other’ of city folk. The ‘kisan’ is seen as a representative of an unchanging rural idyll which must be cossetted and protected by successive governments, preserved in a glass case like a museum piece. The ideal underlying ‘Jai jawan, jai kisan’ has degenerated in the hands of successive generations of politicians who pay lip-service to both groups, only to keep them dependent on state handouts, robbing them of their basic dignity.
Liberals, on the other Hand, argue that the farmer must be set free. The farmer must be freed from land ceiling laws and land conversion laws. The absence of clear titles and deeds means that there can be no free buying and selling of land and there is still no proper market for land. Thus, a farmer cannot maximise his holdings or farm his fields productively as he cannot freely buy and sell. If he builds his own ponds and check dams he could violate drainage laws as per the Northern India Canal and Drainage Art of 1873. If he takes his produce across state boundaries he could be in violation of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act (APMC) or Mandl Act enacted almost fifty years ago, which states the requirement of separate trading licences for every mandi. Farmers can therefore sell to traders only with a licence for a particular market.
While the fruits of liberalizing industry are clear, no thought is given to liberalizing agriculture. An arsenal or legislation prevents farmers from realizing their productive potential because statist policymakers cannot set them free and instead only make them the
target of populist hand-outs.
Why is it crucial to recognize farmers’ individual rights? Joshi campaigned for politicians to respect the farmers’ right to trade, sell and make a profit. Joshi wanted FTI in the farm sector, along with the latest seeds and technology. He also wanted to give farmers the option of exiting the farm sector if they want to. Joshi’s key realization was that the woes of fanners were the result of a gross misperception that farming was an ancient lifestyle rather than a
serious modern profession. This mindset has led to the desire on the park of the Big State to ‘protect’ farmers. Endless red tape has been offered as a lifeline, but it has only bound their hands and legs.
Instead of individual freedom, farmers have been trapped in government policy and are always subservient to the government. The Modi government promised to double farm income in five years by 2022. Yet there have been a spate of farmer suicicles. In April 2017, fanners from Tamil Nadu stripped naked in front of Prime Minister Modi’s office and even consumed their own faeces. A mammoth protest march poured into Mumbai in March 2018, in which 35,000 farmers across Maharashtra covered 180 kin on foot over five days.
A range of controls bears down on the Indian farmer. Not only is he unable to freely buy and sell land, but the prices of his crops are fixed by the government. His wherewithal to farm (such as water, fertilizers and seeds) is either unavailable or of poor quality, and he is thus perpetually tethered to poverty. Writes columnist Swaminathan Aiyar, ‘Farmers should be treated as producers with internationally competitive potential, not as objects of charity… a national strategy on agriculture should include, creating good land records, financial infrastructure and moves to give cash grants per acre per year”
Joshi’s cry was always to set the farmer free from all the controls he labours under, as if to argue, don’t keep us trapped in a home like a bride. Let us come into the world and see what we can do. He said: ‘We don’t want alms, we want the price of our sweat and toil.’ To reiterate a quote from a policy paper written for a Round Table Conference held by a group of Indian liberals in Deolali in lune 2018:
“The economic reforms. which began in the 1990s focused only on non-farm sectors. Indian agriculture was overlooked once more. Indian agriculture is the largest private sector in the country. Yet nearly three decades after the initiation of economic reforms, almost every aspect of agriculture, from land, to crops, inputs, credit, prices, access to market, logistics, value addition, to domestic and international trade, remain captive in a regulatory maze. Consequently, the largest sections of people have experienced little benefit from so-called reform policies, and not surprisingly there is little popular appreciation or support for economic liberalization. Therefore, each small step can only be taken stealthily or surreptitiously, often by sugar coating through subsidies and handouts, which ends up opening new doors for corruption and cronyism, deepening the popular disenchantment with the political process. The farmer is.chained to poverty and then offered charity from the government.”