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Sharad Joshi’s ‘Marshall Plan’

Sharad Joshi’s ‘Marshall Plan’

                                    - Shyam Ashtekar
The slapping of export restrictions, minimum export prices, and unfair imports as a means to target inflation have affected farmers
Today is the second death anniversary of Sharad Joshi, a legendary farmer leader who fought for remunerative prices for agricultural produce till 1992 and then for the liberalization of the farm economy. He reached great summits in farm agitation and also witnessed political debacles, but won the argument that farmers were and still are being treated adversely in the post-independence era, thanks to socialist “redistribution" and planned development.
The continued flight of capital from farms, lack of profits, fragmentation of land, rising input prices and pressure lobbies like food security and Swadeshi, have nearly made it impossible to sustain farming. The current crisis is only the tip of the iceberg. Joshi was aware of the all-round defeat of farmers, especially as suicides were the order of the day and happened even when nature was favourable. Constantly concerned with karza mukti (freedom from indebtedness) for farmers in his last years, Joshi proposed a comprehensive plan—he called it the Marshall Plan— to liberate farmers from the shackles of indebtedness, poverty and hopelessness. Based on his brief notes and emailed letters to colleagues, the Shetkari Sanghatana now argues in favour of the Bharat Utthan plan outlined here.
Joshi argued that the farmer has suffered serious blows and losses over generations, thanks to non-remunerative prices, anti-farmer socialist laws like the Land Ceiling Act (LCA) and the Essential Commodities Act (ECA), and opposition to technology and external investment in farming. The farmer has lost the battle for survival, leading to suicides and reservation movements, displacement, slums and crimes. India, in its own interest, needs a comprehensive plan for the farmer to survive and remain afloat. Here are the 10 main points of the agenda:
1. Freedom—and not a waiver—from all the arrears of banks and power companies, since all these have accumulated due to the exploitation of debt-ridden families on account of deliberate anti-farmer policies like levy, market restrictions, import-export restrictions and blockade of alternative capital investments or exit policies.
2. Doing away with all anti-farmer laws, especially the ECA and the LCA and the restoration of property rights that were abrogated through the creation of schedule IX.
3. Opening up local and national markets, allowing free competition, lifting monopoly rights and opening up futures’ markets. A major mechanism for manipulating prices of farm produce to favour the “other consumer" (the urban vote bank) is the Foreign Trade Act, 1995. The slapping of export restrictions, minimum export prices, and unfair imports as a means to target inflation have affected farmers. A calibrated approach is necessary to allow farmers to change cropping and other practices to remain competitive. Finally, best prices are obtained in freely operating markets as governments only distort and disrupt markets.
4. Infrastructure investments—in roads, rail, transport, power, labs, storage, cooling and processing, etc. The investments can be both public and private. Private investment in farming has all but dried up due to socialistic restrictions in the form of various land laws and trade restrictions.
5. Uninterrupted and good-quality power supply. Currently, power companies are offering power to farmers that cannot be used elsewhere at night. The billing should be metre-based rather than horse-power based, as this entails inefficient use and excess charge.
6. Open access to farm technologies, including genetically modified seeds, currently under siege by Swadeshi and leftist groups. Farmers cannot compete in domestic or global markets unless new technologies are available.
7. External investment in infrastructure, retail, farming, including domestic investment that is discouraged due to restrictive laws and various anti-profit mechanisms in place.
8. Dissolution of the leaky Food Corporation of India, and transfer of cash subsidies to needy families for sustenance. This will help develop the foodgrain markets and create a level playing ground for non-wheat/rice foodgrains.
9. An exit policy for farmers who want to quit farms for better prospects. The current laws prevent sale of land and easy capitalization.
10. The farm policy is far too muddled. The farmer welfare approach needs to be replaced by an agribusiness policy.Various ministries must put their heads together to liberate agribusiness. Currently, states are only implementing agencies while the Centre is playing spoilsport by enacting anti-farmer policies.
Joshi argued that the minimum support price (MSP) regime could not solve the problems of farmers any longer and was only working to throw a spanner in the works. The socialist framework works only against farmers, not for them. The farmer, due to various restrictions, is unequal before the law vis-a-vis others, and has been reduced to second-class citizen status, looking for help in every adversity because he doesn’t have the resources or reserves. The farmer is forced to till small pieces of land with no technology and deal with adverse markets and a rent-seeking bureaucracy. In simple terms, Joshi’s formula is to make farming or quitting easy, in an economic and democratic manner. Development comes only with freedoms, not shackles. This is the time to discuss Joshi’s liberty for farmers plan, rather than waivers and unworkable MSPs.
(Shyam Ashtekar is a member of the Shetkari Sanghatana. Comments are also welcome at theirview@livemint.com)