Will the new farm bills be detrimental only for farmers? Do the rest of the people, more than half of the country’s population, have nothing to do with them? It is an absolute mistake to think or believe this. Allowing private purchase and large-scale storage of foodgrains and [the amendments to] the Essential Commodities Act can only be called a dangerous conspiracy, as it will make the future unsafe for the majority of the population. Even now, in India, vast numbers of people go hungry because access to affordable food remains a major problem (which, in technical terms, is indicated by fluctuations in the hunger index).
Those living below the poverty line and about half of those living above the poverty line do not have food security. Antyodaya and below-poverty-line households number 2.42 crore and 6.52 crore, respectively, which effectively means 40-50 crore people. Not included here are large numbers of missing households and middle-class households to whom state-subsidised foodgrains are distributed. In such a situation, the handing over of sales, storage and transportation of foodgrains to the private sector can only be considered as a betrayal of the nation and its public.
Despite an increase in foodgrain production, the reality of food insecurity on the ground was the reason why the previous government, in its last days, passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA 2013), which assured food security to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. This issue is not an old one, but a recent one– during the lockdown, when even well-to-do households became anxious about access to wheat and rice. Then people who looked down on controlled or quota rations were also seen queueing for the same. This only tells us that despite lakhs of tonnes (more than 800 lakh tonnes at the time of writing) of foodgrains in godowns and other storage facilities in the country, universal supply of rations is not possible without the Public Distribution System (PDS or the fair-price government ration shop).
During the lockdown there was such a huge din around rations, that the state governments had to expand the PDS to include all rations (including pulses). Lakhs of people who had given up using ration cards, were holding these cards and queueing for rations at government fair-price shops. Non-ration card holders were issued new ration cards, and in some places people could buy rations with Aadhar cards or voter ID cards.
At the start of the lockdown, in April and May, the nationwide panic over rations was enough to prove that even if there is excessive foodgrain production in the country, its universal and timely supply is necessary. However, this responsibility cannot be left to the private sector. Universal supply of rations is not possible without a public distribution system. Remember how in the previous century, during the Bengal famine, despite the availability of foodgrains in the country, lakhs of people died of starvation. This was because there was no public distribution system and the whole nation was left at the mercy of private stockpilers.
If any kind of food-crisis were to happen now, how would we transport the foodgrains stored in private godowns to the hungry people who need them? Because then neither will the Food Corporation of India procure grains on behalf of the government nor will it have its own stock. It will be the private corporations owning the stock, and the foodgrains released from Adani’s silos and warehouses will be sold at their asking price. The situation today is that in the big supermarkets and malls in the cities, wheat flour that should be priced at Rs 20 per kilo is being sold at Rs 50 per kilo, which the so-called ‘elite’ corporate employees are buying with pride. But the ordinary people of India will neither be able to afford these prices but nor will they bear such slavery.
The new farm laws, by promoting buying and selling of foodgrains in the open market, ending the use of farmers’ markets [APMC or government-regulated wholesale markets] and removing the cap on stockholding of foodgrains, which will promote hoarding, are even more dangerous for ordinary consumers than for the farmers. Because then the FCI, which keeps prices under control for the ordinary people by procuring foodgrains in advance and releasing the grains in a timely manner, depending on the situation of the market, will no longer exist. (Today it might still be there, but once the big corporations have more stocks, it will completely vanish.) Then how will the prices and supply of foodgrains be regulated? This is worth considering.
In previous decades, whenever drought or excessive rainfall negatively affected rabi or kharif crops, the government restored balance in food prices by promptly ordering the release of excess foodgrains from the Food Corporation of India. Today the country has more than enough foodgrains (stocked by the Food Corporation of India), but who can guarantee that this situation will not change, that emergencies like droughts, excess rainfall and lockdowns will never happen again? Also concerning are the questions around food security in India, the National Food Security Act, the Public Distribution System, Midday Meal programme and other various food-related social security programmes, the social welfare programmes for supply of foodgrains to student [at least 2/3 students are SC/ST/OBC] hostels, for which there were provisions for government support and subsidies to the Food Corporation of India. But since some time now, the government has withdrawn state aid to the Food Corporation of India, because of which the corporation has started taking loans from various financial institutions to run these social welfare programmes (this loan has increased from 1 lakh crore to 2.5-3 lakh crores).
The increase in this loan increases the risk of closure of the Food Corporation of India, or that the government may sell it off to the corporations at a quarter of its cost — then neither will the government procure foodgrains, nor will there be a Public Distribution System or the bother of supplying the Midday Meal. [In Hindi] this is called ‘Naa rahega baans, na bajeegi bansuri’ [once the root cause of the ‘trouble’ is removed, the problem will cease to exist]. Looking at the aims of the current government, it seems as if it is bent on destroying the socialeconomic structures by ultimately withdrawing from all social welfare programmes.
The provisions in the new farm laws that will reduce the role of the Food Corporation of India will be very costly for the majority of the population, because the very objectives behind setting up the Food Corporation of India included: ensuring food security for all the nation’s citizens; efficient procurement of foodgrains at the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and their storage and distribution; maintaining buffer stocks of foodgrains so that, through appropriate policy initiatives, availability of foodgrains and sugar was ensured; using the Public Distribution System to ensure availability of foodgrains especially to the weaker and disadvantaged sections of society at reasonable prices; implementing the National Food Security Act 2013 throughout the country; efficiently procuring wheat, paddy/rice and mota anaj [millet] to regulate market prices; strengthening the targeted Public Distribution System; promoting the development of the sugar industry; modernising warehouses and other storage facilities; and making improvements in public services.
The new farm laws’ biggest impact will be on these roles of the Food Corporation of India. The government is assuring the farmers about maintaining the minimum support price but it is silent on continuing with the functions of the Food Corporation of India and the programmes for social welfare. This is why before the farmers, it is the ordinary public and social welfare organisations that need to stand up against the new farm laws. What should have happened was that the ordinary public, social welfare organisations and the mainstream media should have, before the farmers, demanded answers from the government on the hastily passed new farm laws and their plans for a food distribution system; and how were they going to ensure continued food security for the nation? For which, in 2013, the National Food Security Act was passed.
The Author of this article is Islam Hussein. This article was first published in the third edition of Trolley Times.