Legal status of MSP has lot of implications

Anjan Roy
The continuing standoff between the union Government, on the one hand, and prosperous farmers, over their demand for legal status of the minimum support price scheme shows the contradictions of Indian farm policy and reality.
The concept and policy of minimum support price was framed in the context of massive food shortages immediately after attaining Independence which continued right upto early ‘sixties. The country was obliged to import rice and wheat to feed the people.
Financial incentives and some technical inputs had brought about a revolution in food production so much so that the former shortages of two staple grains is a thing of the past now. However, the incentive schemes and structures which were put in place to encourage famers to cultivate these essential food grains cannot be dismantled now.
No. These cannot only be dismantled; but farmers are demanding their extension and further demanding for a legal status so that they are assured of their incomes from their farm products year after year. Additionally, the MSP system, which effectively provided support operations for rice and wheat cultivators, is now demanded to be extended to all 23 crops which were to come under MSP.
Sections of the farmers have rejected a Government offer of support operations for three types of pulses, maize and cotton, apart from rice and wheat, for the next five years. None of that is acceptable. Farmers want legal status.
Some sections of famers are further extending their demands. They want loan waivers, no hikes in electricity tariffs, and some other demands like withdrawal of cases against farmers who had earlier clashed with security personnel.
As it is, famers, and all those who pose as farmers owning farm houses in and near big cities, do not have to pay any tax on farm incomes. With the additional sops on call, the pay-out could become a huge dent on the public exchequer.
The policy framework of the days of food shortages could not be changed and adapted to the reality when the current food production is more than the country’s requirements. Hence the demand for minimum support prices, which ordinarily should have been useless if there were unmet demand for these food grains.
The crux of the issue is that farmers in Punjab, Haryana, primarily, and some in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and adjoining areas have got used to a comfortable set up, from annual MSP operations, assuring a steady flow of income.
In a similar framework, sugar cane growers in Uttar Pradesh, enjoy similar bonanza year after year. Upwards of Rs 20,000 crore flow into the coffers of these sugar cane growers in UP. Even casual visitors to these cane growing areas cannot fail to notice the apparent affluence, where the village schools are all air-conditioned, to mention one example of new comfort.
Not that anyone decries farmers’ good fortunes. But the system for ensuring minimum support prices have hurt Indian agriculture in major ways.
First of all, cultivations of crops should be dynamic and in response to the trends in demand and supplies. When we have attained self-sufficiency in food grains, the farm sector should re-adapt itself to alternative crops and achieve a new balance in demand and supplies.
Secondly, absence of these market mechanisms have stopped such dynamic adaptations to market conditions; and, crops being grown are often not adapted to local agro-climatic zones. Rice cultivations in Punjab, consuming huge quantities of water, is leaving some environmental footprint.
Thirdly, because of these crops now being cultivated, Punjab is said to be facing desertification of the land. These areas have witnessed severe drops in ground water levels and exhaustion of groundwater resources to the point of damaging the underwater reservoirs irreparably.
The Government sops now being offered could have helped some of these issues, including crop diversification. These have been roundly spurned by sections of the famers lobby now. Maybe, there is need for some rethink by both sides.
The irony, though, is that the rich farmers and the politicians have got into a twisted dance with each other. Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, is now promising to make MSP system a legal obligation if Congress is put into power. Forgetting conveniently, that during the last UPA regime, the Congress did not think it worthwhile to give legal MSP when the idea was first broached in early 2000s.
On the other hand, BJP is now caught with its pants down, so to say. The party had apparently promised to do exactly this – legalisation of MSP – in its election manifesto in 2014. At that time, it had possibly thought of never coming into power to get haunted by its promises. Now it is seeing how impractical any such system could be. Legal MSP could fast lead to either disaster for the Government or for the farmers, depending on whose shoulder the ultimate burden falls. (IPA)