It’s now been over a 100 days since farmers across India began protesting the three farm laws. Despite 11 rounds of talks, the government and farmers’ unions are still at a stalemate, with the latter holding onto their demand that the laws be repealed entirely or Minimum Support Price (MSP) be brought in for all crops. While farmers are now fretting over the new legislation, their occupation has been fraught with tension over generations. They have always been exposed to exploitation due to rampant corruption at mandis and by middlemen.
Rajesh Madnawat, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh, recalls having faced one such corrupt trader back in 2016. In the summer of that year, he was mighty pleased with his harvest of urad dal, expecting it to fetch him a good price in the market — the crop was going for as much as Rs9,400 per quintal in the state at the time.
While the government has specified a MSP for 23 crops, including urad dal, the absence of any legal protection means that the actual prices at which they are sold are determined by market forces. The lack of any buyback commitment for crops other than rice and wheat leads farmers to often take the risk of growing other crops, such as lentils and vegetables. The ever-fluctuating prices, however, leaves them with the hope of earning more when the market supply drops.
Madnawat refers to newspaper columns, market indices as well as DD Kisan TV to figure out the right crop type to sow and its price. Back in 2016, he had all reason to be happy about his investment in urad dal.
“Fortune was in my favour,” the 55-year-old farmer believed, after harvesting 10 quintals of quality grain from his 3.5 acres in Shekhupur Madan village. He had estimated his produce to earn him some Rs94,000, which he planned to invest in his next crop. But things didn’t go his way — inadvertent reasons delayed his trip to the mandi by three days, and when he finally made it to Navin Galla Mandi in Hathras, 9 km from his field, a trader named Umesh Kumar claimed that the price had fallen to Rs7,200 per quintal.
Lack of cold storage facilities — a testament to India’s inadequate agricultural infrastructure — and the fear of a further drop in prices forced him to sell his crop then and there and return disappointed. And in loss.
A relative later informed Madnawat that lentil prices were still as high as Rs9,500 per quintal at a nearby mandi. The same trader who cheated him told him the next day that urad dal was currently priced at no less than Rs12,500. Madnawat presented the recorded conversation to the mandi sachiv (secretary), who then sent a notice to the trader to summon him.
“The trader’s license could have been taken away for what he did but after he visited me at my farm with a group of people — and due to pressure from society — I settled for compensation,” Madnawat says. “Farmers are vulnerable to such traders and are also very busy. It's not possible for us to waste time following dates and hearings or challenge traders,” he adds.Complex relationship
While mandis are very convenient for farmers, they are also where they get exploited due to several hidden charges and commissions, explains Ramesh Veluru, who works at the Meghalaya Secretariat as an Agricultural Livelihoods and Rural Development Consultant. “The farmer-middleman relationship is very complex. Arhatiyas (middlemen) help farmers in times of need. Banks are not always the feasible option for availing quick loans but we can always turn to arhatiyas”, tells Veluru.
Such malpractices are commonplace in Indian markets, leaving destitute farmers with measly income. More than 80% of Indian farmers are small- and medium-scale producers; their monthly income from farm and non-farm activities stands at Rs 6,426. Moreover, the 2016 census found that small and marginal farmers receive lower prices than relatively larger farmers due to a number of issues such as bargaining capacity and social strata, among others. Such is their financial insecurity that it drives them to suicide — a 2019 report by the National Crime Records Bureau found that of the 1.39 lakh suicides that year, 10,281 (7.4%) were by farmers.Fear of licence-less middlemen
Before the advent of the much-contested farm laws, every trader at a mandi had to have a licence to be able to purchase produce from farmers. But the farm laws have made these licences redundant. Today, anyone with a PAN card can buy a farmer’s crop anywhere.
Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emphasised numerous times that “MSP will continue, mandis
will continue, and private and public mandis
can co-exist”, Dr Darshan Pal of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha worries that Agricultural Produce Market Committees — better known as APMCs — will bypass the Acts and “ultimately try to end government mandis
and bring in private sector monopoly". Pal explains this concern in the context of the healthcare system in India: "Aren't there government hospitals in India? Don’t AIIMS and Fortis hospitals run parallel? What should the government do? They should open more AIIMS.”
VM Singh, convenor of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, says, "Opening the agriculture sector to the free market could prove detrimental for a majority of farmers because of undue pressure from competition and quality of produce that the private sector might seek.”
Now, the reason Madnawat chose to narrate this incident: the new farm legislation doesn’t make the situation any better for farmers. "I don’t know how we can benefit from the new laws since there’s still no price assurance and we are still vulnerable in the market," he says.
And his case isn’t exclusive either; there are other such victims in his own village. One Ram Babu Singh complains of not receiving the entire payment while selling his produce. “I often have to wait for a month or two before receiving the full payment," he says. During this period, the interest on his Kisan Credit Card rises, which puts him in debt.
Brajesh Kumar, another farmer in Uttar Pradesh, owns 20 bighas. “Two years ago, the MSP of wheat was at Rs1,840. ITC was buying the crop at Rs1,750 but my cousin cheated me by quoting Rs1,550," he recalls. When asked why he didn't lodge a complaint about the fraud, he explains, “Neither does anyone listen to us nor do we really know where to go to complain."
In the absence of adequate farmer organisations and clout of strong trader groups, a conciliation board under a Sub-Divisional Magistrate is an impractical dispute resolution mechanism. “I tried to investigate my case and found a remedy for my troubles but I know other farmers who could never do the same,” says Madnawat, referring to how the trader compensated him fairly after he complained to the mandi sachiv.
The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act now allows cultivators to sell their produce at larger mandis
in nearby markets like those of Aligarh, Agra and Mathura. But there’s still valid concern over the prices that the new licence-less traders will set. Lack of awareness and means to check the quality of the produce make the sale of the produce susceptible to insecurity. Though Madnawat believes that the functioning of mandis can be improved by bringing in strict regulations and price assurance.