Demand for MSP Guarantee Ignores Agricultural Labourers and Widening Class Divide

The public procurement infrastructure must be overhauled. Expansion must be even and penetrate deeper into the stratified rural economy.

The notoriously brief 11th round of talks between the Union government and the protesting farmers’ unions ended without offering any solution to issue of the three farm laws and a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price.

In the earlier rounds, aapsi razamandi, as Union Agricultural Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has dubbed it, was reached on two of the four issues discussed. The two issues were: decriminalisation of stubble burning and dropping the relevant provisions of the draft Electricity Amendment Bill, 2020.

The demands for the repeal of the three laws and a legal guarantee of MSP are still under contention with the 11th round, signalling hardened attitudes on the government’s side. The government’s proposal to halt the implementation of the controversial laws for 18 months – after Supreme Court intervention – found few buyers among the farmers’ unions, as the track-record of the NDA government is not trustworthy and the farmers want full repeal of the laws.

The Union government, on its part, has responded in cold manner to the latest developments and has indicated that repealing the laws is out of the question. When asked about a possible resolution, Tomar was quoted saying “no resolution is possible when the sanctity of an agitation is lost,” echoing the rumour doing rounds on social media about the agitation being hijacked by vested interests.

The government is under fire for not dealing with the protests effectively in the initial period itself, and dissatisfied noises can be heard from the BJP and RSS quarters. Meanwhile, the protests are expected to continue with the farmers’ unions preparing for massive showdown in the national capital in the form of a tractor rally with nearly 1.50 lakh tractors participating, to attract the attention of national and international opinion towards the plight of Indian farmers.

Farmers during their ongoing agitation over the new farm laws, at Singhu border in New Delhi, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Photo: PTI

The protests have received widespread support. Still, their scope has remained narrow, failing to envelop the entire agricultural ecosystem. The fact that the cardinal demand is a legal assurance of the MSP has made the protests increasingly about the interests of one class of farmers – the prosperous ones of the core Green Revolution zone.

Apart from the limited reach of the MSP, there are other issues with the MSP regime which have received little or no attention from the contending sides. They include the impact of MSP on the small and marginal farmers and more significantly on landless agricultural labourers. Before getting at the issue at hand, let’s first consider its gravity.

The average land holding of the country has been declining. Currently, it stands 1.08 hectares (ha), according to the 2015-16 agricultural census. The average farm size is unviable and bars the possibility of a surplus production. From 1990-91 to 2015-16, the total area under cultivation has diminished by about 9 million ha.

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This indicates a substantial change in land use and consequentially, an increase in the incidence of landlessness.

The 2011 census gave statistical expression to this change in land use. The number of cultivators fell by 85 lakh and the number of landless labourers increased by 3.75 crores. According to the Committee on Doubling on Farmer’s Income, out of the total 263.1 million strong agricultural workforce, 144.3 million or nearly 55% are agricultural labourers, most of them landless, and the rest while cultivating their own land are forced to seek employment on bigger farms.

They are out of the ambit of the various schemes made for the agricultural sector – including the provisions of minimum wages. The NSSO 70th round survey suggests that only 0.4% of agricultural households are large farmers. The rest are middle, small or marginal farmers.

A farmer uses cattle to till his land. Photo: Ananth BS/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Households owning less than 2 ha of land constitute around 86% of the total cultivating class. Considering that the major source of income from farming is a function of area under cultivation, these small landowners do not produce a big surplus and farm for subsistence or grow cash crops which they have to sell immediately after harvest for the need of liquidity and lack of storage. Both ways, the small and marginal farmers are net buyers of food grain, along with the landless labourers.

Any legal guarantee of MSP, coupled with fixing the MSP according to the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations will push the prices of food grains upwards and subject this large section of the agricultural workforce to increased misery and destitution.

Out of the total female workforce of the country, 65.1% is working in the agricultural sector. Of them, 41.1% of the total female workforce is engaged as agricultural labourers. The incidence of landlessness is higher in the Scheduled Castes communities at almost 50%.

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These labourers face a variety of vagaries from the turbulence of the global agricultural market to caste discrimination and gendered insults. The consumption expenditure of these households is greater than their income from agricultural activities. One-third of their income comes from non-agricultural activities like working as construction workers or in similar low-paying jobs, with the rural unemployment rate being high at 7.3% in February 2020, pre-pandemic times.

The monoculture centric Green Revolution has snatched away the nutrition available to the poorer sections. Rice and wheat have replaced nutritious coarse grains and lentils, making them totally dependent on the market for their food. The abysmal state of nutrition in rural India and India’s downward slide on the Global Hunger Index is reflective of this. Add to this the lack of livestock with the landless.

In this context, it is evident that the interests of the well-to-do farmers with storage facilities and some cushion against the turbulences of agricultural markets diverge from other agricultural classes.

Azadpur mandi, deserted during the farmers protest. Photo: PTI

It should be examined as to what extent interests converge and where they begin to diverge. Taking the agricultural workforce of the country as one homogenous category would be detrimental for the majority.

The guarantee of MSP with no public procurement and distribution is bound to be disastrous. As of now, the farmer unions have not made any demand on the government about providing a minimum floor wage for agricultural labourers—because of the diverging class interests. The MSP for major crops like paddy and wheat increased by Rs 53 and Rs 85 per quintal in the last year but the average wages for male and female agricultural labourers have increased only by Rs 47 and Rs 40 per day during 2014-15 to 2017-18.

The Directorate of Economics and Statistics (DES) maintains that “like any other commodity, wages of labour are also determined by market forces of supply and demand”. This reflects the government’s ideological reliance on free market mechanisms and its consequent failure to aid agricultural labourers on lines of a support system like MSP. 

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The Left-led Kisan Sabha movement also failed to address this class-divide.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet, addressing the 1982 All India Kisan Sabha session, had emphasised that “without raising the demands of the peasantry as whole, including the rich and middle peasants, and without merging the different currents into one, we can neither advance towards the agrarian revolution, nor will we be able to raise the movement to the level of land occupation.”

However, how to combine the struggles of the landed class and that of the landless has become a Gordian knot, especially because the peasant movement has not yet taken up the demands of the agricultural labourers. It must be underlined that the way to a larger rural unity lies in the farmers standing with their dispossessed compatriots. But since increased wages would increase the production costs, farmer groups led by big farmers are loath to do so. 

Bhavjit Singh, 38, a computer professional, poses on a tractor at the site of a protest against new farm laws at Singhu border near Delhi, India, December 14, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Devjyot Ghoshal

The solution to this crisis is not in the timeless elongation of the MSP regime but in strengthening it in the short-term with a concurrent rise in the wages of agricultural labourers. The solution to the agrarian crisis lies in bringing land reforms back to the policy agenda no matter how anathematic they may sound for the (in)glorious free marketeers.

The public procurement infrastructure must be overhauled. Expansion must be even and penetrate deeper into the stratified rural economy. Without attempting all of this at once, the success of the current farmers’ movement would come at the cost of hurting the material interests of a large chunk of the village economy.

More importantly, it will preclude a progressive kisan-mazdoor unity against the machinations of an (un)free market.

Vivek Sharma is a student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.