A Minimum Support Price for Farmers Should Be Made a Legal Right

In the absence of such a right, farmers are at the mercy of procurement officials, without any recourse or any authorities to address their grievances.

In a programme on June 23 in Lucknow, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Adityanath was extolling the virtues of his government and boasting about how much his government had done for farmers. Anil Mishra, a member of the audience and a farmer associated with Ram Manohar Lohia Kisan Sabha from neighbouring Unnao District who had been invited by the Department of Horticulture to the meeting, stood up and challenged him. His grievance pertained to mango farmers who, he claimed, were getting a price of only Rs 300 a box compared to Rs 800 last year. He demanded that the government pay at least the cost of irrigation for mango farmers who were suffering losses. He was whisked out of the meeting and then had to spend three hours at the Vibhuti Khand Police Station in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow.

This incident highlights two things – the uncertainty famers face with regard to the price of their produce, and the government’s inability to be held accountable.

On July 5, 2018, the current Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre approved a hike in the minimum support price (MSP) of some kharif crops. This announcement comes with the backdrop of the general elections which are scheduled to take place next year, as well as elections before that in some states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. The BJP hailed this move by saying that the Narendra Modi government actually delivered on the promises made by and that ‘achhe din’ are just around the corner.

But almost all major farmers’ organisations termed this move as yet another ‘jumla’ of the ruling government. The criticism was mainly centred around the method of calculating the MSP which was used by the government. By adopting a lower cost as the base, the government has given the impression of having provided an MSP which is 50% higher than the cost, while in reality it isn’t.

However, only 6% of farmers in India actually sell their crops at the MSP and prevailing market prices are often found to be lower. This defeats the very purpose of the MSP, as it is meant to ensure that farmers are not made to sell at a lower price.

Thus, for farmers it is imperative that there be a legal right to MSP, which implies that farmers will have a right to obtain at least the MSP for their produce, and if that right is not fulfilled due to any reason, they can approach the court for its enforcement. But in the absence of such a right, farmers are left at the mercy of procurement officials, without any recourse or any authorities to address their grievances. In such a scenario, the guarantee of the government to not let prices of crops drop below a predetermined limit – the MSP –  and to conduct open-ended procurement of these crops falls flat.

The procurement mechanism of the targeted public distribution system is riddled with difficulties. There is a huge shortage of procurement centres in various parts of country, due to which farmers are forced to sell their produce to traders who exploit the haplessness of farmers and procure at prices which are lower than the MSP. These traders in turn sell this produce at the MSP to the procurement centres, thereby earning a huge profit at the cost of farmers.

It is pertinent to note that in some instances, officers at procurement centres have to be bribed by farmers just to make sure their produce is purchased at the MSP. Apart from these implementation difficulties, the planning of the scheme is also equally faulty. It has been noticed that a majority of the produce is procured from states like Punjab and Haryana, where there exists a robust procurement mechanism, but the northeastern states are completely ignored.

The main body responsible for procuring produce at the MSP all over the country is the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which was established under the Food Corporation Act, 1964. One of the objectives of FCI is to implement ‘Effective price support operations for safeguarding the interests of the farmers’. According to the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act, 2006, it is a duty of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee to prevent the sale of produce at below the MSP. Along with that, the FCI is obligated to implement open ended procurement of produce at the MSP.

These provisions have placed enough obligations on government agencies to ensure that no farmer has to sell her produce at a price below the MSP. But without a simultaneous provision conferring a right to sell at MSP on farmers, there is no mechanism in place to enforce the obligations stated under the Act. Without enforcement mechanisms, the obligations are merely toothless directives.

This situation can only be compared to one: if our constitution had a whole chapter of fundamental rights, without Article 32 – which gives individuals the right to constitutional remedy if their fundamental rights are violated. Dr B.R. Ambedkar described this provision as the heart of the constitution.

The demand for the MSP to have legal backing is a longstanding one. However, no steps have been taken by any government in the past, or even the judiciary, to remedy this. This is quite surprising, considering the fact that, post-Maneka Gandhi, the court has mentioned that the right to life and liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the constitution means more than merely an animalistic existence. It includes the right to live with human dignity and bare necessities like adequate nutrition, clothing, shelter, facilities for reading and writing, etc. Also, the jurisprudence relating to Article 21 has shown that the court has not hesitated while recognising new rights under Article 21, according to changing political, social and economic situations. It has even made  provisions under the ‘Directive Principles’: under Article 39(a), the state has been directed to provide adequate means of livelihood to all its citizens, and under Article 39(b) and (c) the state is mandated to ensure equality of wealth and welfare. According to Articles 46 and 47, the state is supposed to protect the economic interests of weaker sections of society and strive to improve health and nutrition of its citizens. The state is also supposed to organise and improve the condition of agriculture and animal husbandry in India.

Amongst the Directive Principles mentioned above, the right to adequate means of livelihood and remuneration has already been read into Article 21, as early as 1986. It has also been recognised that Article 21 imposes a positive obligation on the state and not just a negative obligation, meaning that the state is also mandated to strive and protect the rights under Article 21, and not just refrain from infringing upon them.

The question of MSP is a matter of life and death for most farmers in India. The denial of MSP has been cited as a contributing factor to farmer suicides. Without legal protection from the government, the power to decide the prices of crops is transferred from the state to the open market. In this process, the local traders and middlemen earn supernatural profits at the cost of farmers. And by not providing legal protection to MSP for farmers, the state is endangering the fundamental rights of its citizens, and isn’t following the mandate given to it by the constitution.

The opportune time for making the MSP a legal right has long passed, but better late than never. The Committee for Agricultural Cost and Prices has recently in its report made a recommendation for making the MSP a right. Raju Shetty of the Swabhimani Shetkari Saghtana will table two ‘Kisan Mukti Bills’ in Lok Sabha today. One of those Bills pertains to guaranteeing farmers a remunerative MSP for all agricultural commodities. The Bills have the backing of 21 political parties. Also, a divisional bench of the Uttarkhand high court has recently in unequivocal terms recognised the need to give the MSP legal backing.

These recent developments look quite promising, and provide hope that at least now, even though it is long overdue, farmers will receive their right to a life with dignity

Rudra Deosthali is a third-year LLB student at NALSAR, Hyderabad. Sandeep Pandey is a social activist who teaches at NALSAR as visiting professor.