In their criticism of the farm bills cleared by Parliament in questionable manner, the political parties and frontline farmers' unions have described corporate houses as ''sharks'' who would swallow poor farmers. Corporate India, or a large part of it, is projected as a demon out to predate on farmers in cohorts with those in power.
Somehow, even the common refrain is somewhat on similar lines. Millionaires and billionaires are no more viewed with great awe and respect. Their ultra luxurious 'in -your-face' lifestyle has started offending commoners equally in Mumbai local train, Delhi Metro or farmers in Punjab or Tamil Nadu. But then, who else would you depend upon as drivers of an economy dominated by market forces which are distorted to benefit a few. The socialist structure of public enterprises is struggling to hold on the straws and the new normal is not too great either.
We were never happy with the monopoly of MTNL but are wary of the Jio phenomenon? We were not quite pleased flying Air India, but remain equally circumspect about Indigo or SpiceJet? We knew it too well that the APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee) -controlled mandis have resulted in influential cartels of the commission agents (ahartiyas) , but equally suspect the corporate trading houses.
Commoners are harassed a lot, moreso after this horrible pandemic that threatens the core of the modern age. The lurking fear makes us suspect everything that comes our way. That said, Corporate India or the big business has not earned itself a glory. Siphoning off bank money, out of depositors' cash with impunity, monopolizing the all-important sectors of health and education, dumping lakhs of home-buyers in unfinished real estate projects are not subjects of academic debates. These were real issues even before the coronavirus outbreak, which has made it worse.
However much there is an effort to divert ‘’ national attention’’ to the bad boys and girls of Bollywood , farmers of Punjab and Haryana have managed to get noticed. Their concerns are genuine and must be allayed, better be addressed. Their biggest fear from the new farm bills is that they would end up being exploited by the big corporate trading houses, who would do a 'Jio' to the Indian agriculture.
The government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi downward, has given assurances about continuation of the Minimum Support Price along with the mandi infrastructure. But the farmers, their leaders and the Opposition parties insist on both 'letter and spirit' of the law. The Shiromani Akali Dal, which has pulled out of the Modi Government at the Centre was compelled to do so, as it faced threat of further losing base amongst its core constituents of farmers. Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) may be confident about returning to power in Bihar, it too has conveyed its concerns on these bills - The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020. The unrest is palpable in states other than Punjab and Haryana.
Let's get back to the trust deficit that Corporate India is faced with. However powerful you might be, you cannot do a 'Jio ' on the farmers; to succeed you will have to do 'an Amul' on them. The Gujarat Cooperative remains involved with the dairy farmers – from cattle breed to cattle feed. Granted, you might be able to get these bills notified and start investing in building sourcing infrastructure, a prosperous farmer, not an impoverished farmer would determine your success. The farmer and his family are not only the producers but also the largest chunk of Indian consumers, inclusive of the entire rural landscape. As many as 65 per cent of Indians still live in villages and tehsils. This is why, every time there is an economic slowdown, we clamor so much about the rural demand!
Corporate India with big farm ambitions have to make farmers the most important stakeholders in the business of 'farm-to-folk'. At the same time,the rural folklore must survive the onslaught of distorted market forces. Market forces are not always distorted by the maligned middlemen but the government itself.
Take an onion example. When prices crash in Maharashtra’s Lasongaon Mandi, who comes to the rescue of poor growers? Nobody! On the contrary, when prices become seasonally attractive in the domestic and export markets, a notification is issued by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade slapping a blanket ban on exports. Who loses the most? Growers for whom the political parties shed occasional tears and promise to double their income. You cannot double their income by stopping truckloads of onions, heading for exports.
Corporate India must not take a lead from the political parties. It has to plough into the unchartered area with trust to reap a good harvest.
Rather than government being forced to re-enact laws for a guaranteed price for the produce, big boys of the trade must reach out to stakeholders, imposing a margin limit on themselves. Contracts with the farmers have to be simple, fair - not arbitrary and their involvement must be from sowing to the harvest.
One of the reasons for the APMC mandi ahartiyas being so influential is their connect with the farmers. These so-called middlemen act as the non-banking finance companies for the farmers in times of dire needs; their business models may have several exploitative models,but those can be refined. Given a huge size of our farm economy, there is an ample room for the traditional mandis and the new corporate format. These two can even join hands to serve their common cause and a greater cause of farmers.
( Views are personal)