Vidhan Soudha Chalo! This is the war-cry of Kannadigas across the state right now. A joint coalition of farmer-worker-Dalit groups, student organizations and women organizations with people from across Karnataka are set to storm Bengaluru on March 22, Monday. National farm leaders including Rakesh Tikait, Dr Darshan Pal Singh and Yaduveer Singh of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha have already arrived in Karnataka, to protest.
While the farmers' protests in the Delhi borders gathered national attention, it must be noted that Karnataka itself saw wide protests right from September with a statewide bandh being organised on September 28. That day's morning saw multi-coloured flags outside the Town Hall - the farmers' green flag, the blood-red flag of the workers' unions, the blue flag of Dalit groups, the Indian flag, the Red and Yellow Karnataka flag brought by the pro-Kannada organizations. It was one of the very few occasions where all these organizations had come together to protest.
But why did the protests start in Karnataka way back in September? Were the protests only against the central farm bills?
Farmers in Karnataka are definitely protesting against the central farm laws. The central farm laws encourage the entry of corporate giants into agriculture, which will lead to the collapse of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) and do nothing much to address the main problems of farmers – lack of a fair price. Much has been written about the central farm laws. This article focuses on why the farmers in Karnataka have also been protesting the farm law amendments in the state.
Agrarian crisis in Karnataka
Before we get into exploring this, let's just understand the context of agriculture here. Karnataka has the second-highest number of farmer suicides after Maharashtra. Like it is across India, in Karnataka too, more than 75% of the farmers are small and medium farmers (meaning they cultivate land less than 2 acres), with the number of large farmers being less than 1%.
The average landholding which was around 7 acres in the 1970s has come down to around 3.7 acres in 2017-18. And while land distribution in Karnataka improved post the passage of the Karnataka Land Reforms Act in the 1960s and 70s, there is still a large extent of landlessness. As per the socio-economic and caste census report of 2011, landlessness in rural areas of Karnataka stood at 46%. Using data from the National Sample Survey and Unemployment, researcher Vikas Rawal showed that landlessness in rural Karnataka increased from 40% in 1987-88 to 47% in 2011.
Another aspect to be noted is that in Karnataka, land under cultivation has been declining for more than a decade. As per a 2018 report from the Karnataka Agriculture Prices Commission(KAPC), other than Bengal gram and soya bean, the area under production for all other crops has drastically come down. The area under paddy and chilli cultivation in Karnataka came down by 36% for instance. What all this indicates is a crisis in Agriculture in Karnataka. And this is something people on all sides of the political spectrum agree with. But what there is disagreement on is the solutions.
The main problem faced by farmers is that farming is becoming unviable. Today, the cost of cultivation is high (thanks to exorbitant rates of seeds, pesticides, fertilisers etc) while the price at which farmers sell is volatile, and many times, farmers face losses. When they sow tomato seeds, tomato may be ₹60 per kilogram, but by the time they harvest it may have crashed to ₹10 per kilogram.
Thus farmers often are forced to sell their produce at a price less than what they invested in the cultivation. As per the KAPC report, if we consider the cost of cultivation through the C2 method (one of the comprehensive methods of calculating the cost of cultivation as suggested by the Central Agriculture Prices Commission), the farmers in Karnataka faced losses of 30%.
These losses force the farmers to borrow loans and as loans through banks and other formal sources are difficult to get, they take it from money-lenders at high-interest rates. They then get into a vicious loan cycle. If this was not a problem enough, what has been compounding the problem is climate change. Karnataka is largely rain-fed and therefore with variations in rains, farmers lose crops due to lack of water or unseasonal rains destroying ready-to-harvest crops.
You might ask, doesn't MSP (Minimum Support Price)? MSP, of course, can solve this problem, but while government fixes MSP for 23 crops, it purchases only paddy and wheat from farmers at MSP.
Solution demanded by farmers to resolve the crisis
It is because of this that the farmers are asking for MSP to be made legally mandated. They are essentially saying that irrespective of who purchases the crops – private or government, they should be paid a price that covers their cultivation cost and gives them a profit. This is a fair ask.
In 2018, more than 150 farmer organizations came under the banner of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Committee and drafted two bills - The Farmers' (Right to Assured Price for Agricultural Produce) Bill, 2017 and the Farmers Freedom from Indebtedness bill. Even before the central farm bills or the Karnataka state farm bills were proposed, the farmers have been demanding a fair and remunerative price for their produce but none of the governments did act on this.
The KAPC report on 2018 also recommended that MSP be made legally mandated; it also gave several suggestions on how this could be done. The report for instance suggested that since the government supplied mid-day meals for children in schools, foods in all the government hostels etc, the vegetables and grains for this can be directly purchased from farmers at MSP. It also suggested that the government need not buy all the crops at MSP but only those crops for which the farmers got less than MSP in the market, while the government could pay the balance amount.
However, the state government ignored all these suggestions. The Karnataka government instead brought in four laws which we fear will sound the death-knell for agriculture in Karnataka and create a food crisis very soon. What are these four laws?
Karnataka's farm law amendments
In a state where landlessness is already high and the land under cultivation is decreasing, the Karnataka government brought in two laws that will worsen the situation. Firstly, the government amended the Karnataka Land Reforms Act to allow non-farmers including companies to buy land. This amendment also puts an end to cases pertaining to the illegal sale of agricultural lands all these years. But why is this a worry? As we all know, land prices in urban Karnataka have been shooting up the past few years because of speculation and now the poor find it hard to purchase any land.
This speculation has so far not happened in agricultural land, a key reason being that this land could only be sold to farmers. With the amendment now being brought in to sell the land to anyone including companies, it is feared that the agricultural land prices will go up, as has happened in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
Secondly, this will lead to more farmland being used for industry. In fact, along with this amendment, the State government amended the Karnataka Industries (Facilitation) (Amendment) Act, 2020 to say that agricultural land which can now be purchased by companies can be used to set-up industries without any prior permissions! It says that you can first set-up the industry and then take permission anytime after three years. As mentioned earlier, agriculture is in distress and farmers are facing losses and they needed support from the government. Instead, the government gave them this amendment.
Experts and farm leaders fear that this will bring in the entry of land-sharks and real estate mafia into the rural land market. These buyers, they feel, may pressure farmers to sell their land and the farmers who are already facing losses and not getting proper prices for their products might sell the land. The sale may give them immediate money to clear their loans but what next then for the farmers? Farmers will then become landless labourers and land under cultivation will also go down thus triggering a food crisis.
Thirdly, in the middle of the pandemic, a central government official wrote to the state government asking it to, through an ordinance, amend the Karnataka APMC act which the state government did, that too, through an ordinance. Principles of federalism were thrown to the winds. This move has also really angered Karnataka's farmers.
Like there are stock exchanges which are a market place to buy and sell stocks, farmers have APMCs which are public markets set up by the government where the farmers and traders can trade. An auction happens every day which decides the price of various agriculture products and farmers can choose whether to sell or not. All trades are recorded and the system is designed for transparency. APMCs collect the surcharge from the traders in order to run themselves.
When the government purchases crops at MSP, they do so from the APMCs. The APMC act stipulated that traders must purchase from the APMCs only. This was done so that the trade can be regulated and to ensure farmers aren't cheated.
But there are problems for sure at APMCs today – some traders form cartels and do cheat farmers. There are very few APMCs and small farmers find it difficult to travel large distances with their produce. Instead of fixing these existing problems, the government amended the act in a manner that will lead to their closure. The government simply removed the restriction that traders have to purchase only at APMCs. They can buy from farmers anywhere. So now the situation is traders can either go to APMCs for purchase, where they will be charged a surcharge, or they can trade outside the APMCs where there is no surcharge, no regulation.
Obviously, traders have stopped buying at APMCs across Karnataka. Newspapers have reported how the surcharge collected at APMCs has come down by 70%-90%. When traders purchase from farmers outside, no one knows at what price it was sold. If the trader cheats on the farmer, there is no place for the farmer to go. How does this help farmers? It's a trader friendly law, not farmer-friendly. In fact, the MS Swaminathan Committee has recommended that the government build more APMCs, the state government instead is helping shut them down.
The fourth law which the government has brought in which will affect farmers across Karnataka is the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle, Act 2020. Through this act, the government has effectively banned the sale of all cows, bulls, male buffaloes for slaughter. Only female buffaloes above the age of 13 will be allowed for slaughter. How does this affect farmers you ask? Animal husbandry – rearing cattle, goats etc are an important part of a farmer's income.
When crops fail, it's the animal husbandry that comes to farmers' rescue- the sale of milk from the cows for example. The issue with animal husbandry is that – cows provide milk but bulls are not of much use. So farmers always sell the male calves for slaughter. Additionally, once the cows become very old also they are sold for slaughter as farmers cannot maintain them. Now if they are not allowed to sell them farmers cannot maintain them and they simply abandon them as we have seen it happen in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. If you cannot sell cattle, it's unviable to practice animal husbandry so this will be a huge blow to farmers income security.
Thus, farmers of Karnataka are enraged. Their problem is just that they are not getting a fair price for their produce. The solution they wanted was to be given a fair price by making MSP legally mandated and better APMCs, removal of debt, and more state investments in agriculture. The government did nothing to address this – instead, it has forced farmers to abandon their cattle, it has brought laws that will increase speculation in land prices and make more farmers landless. None of these improves farmers' income in any way.
In fact, with fewer cattle, the milk supply will be hit including the supply of beef-an an important source of low-cost protein. With the land reforms act and industrial facilitation act, more farmland will go to industries – reducing land under cultivation further and increasing pollution in villages. With APMCs collapsing, the one market where the government purchased crops at MSP will also now be abandoned and this may, in turn, affect the supply of food to the ration-shops as well.
Thus the Karnataka state farm laws do nothing to solve the problems of farmers but will worsen the agrarian crisis and create a possible food crisis. This can be averted only if the state government listens to the farmers and withdraws these amendments and instead bring in a law that will guarantee them a fair price for their produce.
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