The political core of the historic Farmers’ Movement was anti-corporate. Tens of thousands of farmers had camped outside Delhi, demanding the withdrawal of the three Farm Laws stating that the laws were designed to allow billionaires such as Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani to enter and control farming. Yet, in the assembly elections campaign in Punjab, all the mainstream political parties in the state are silent on this issue. Prof. Sukhpal Singh write on this complete erasure of the issue of corporate takeover of our economy, including the agricultural sector, from the elections in Punjab.
Punjab’s 117 assembly seats will go to the polls on February 20. The state heads into polling in an atmosphere of deep discontent stemming from an aggravating agrarian crisis to massive unemployment, corruption and mafia raj. The people of Punjab, it seems, are looking for a change, and in the absence of a credible political force, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has emerged as a key challenger to the Congress and Akali Dal’s traditional monopoly over power in the state. Propelled by a ‘no progress without change’ sentiment among the people, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) poses a serious threat to the incumbent Congress. While the result will be known on 10 March, many analysts and opinion polls are giving AAP a majority.
In the intense campaign in the run up to the election, the prominent leaders of the main political parties in fray, are competing with each other in announcing freebies like electricity, water, monthly allowance to women, loan interest waiver to farmers etc. The Congress High Command, sensing the people’s disillusionment with Captain Amrinder’s misrule and to stop the intense factional infighting between the Captain and Navjot Sidhu, which at one point threatened to split the Congress, appointed Charanjit Singh Channi as the CM replacing Amrinder Singh. The Congress has projected Channi, a Dalit, as its chief minister candidate. Rahul Gandhi while campaigning in the state has stressed on Channi’s humble and poor roots.
To neutralize the Dalit-face advantage of Congress, all the parties are wooing the Dalits, who comprise 32 percent of the state’s population. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) fighting the election in alliance with Mayabati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has promised to pick a person from the Dalit community as deputy chief minister if voted to power in the state. SAD is highlighting the failures of the Congress government, and being a regional party, is stressing on the issue of federalism. The BJP while raking up the bogey of nationalism, too has announced to make a Dalit the CM of the state if it is elected to power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in campaign speeches in the state, in his favorite usual style, attacked the Nehru-Gandhi family and held them responsible for all the present problems of the country. The anti-Channi or the Jat Sikh faction of the Congress are talking of the ’Sidhu Model’ of providing a corruption free clean government in the state by eradicating the sand, cable and drug mafia. The Aam Aadmi Party has made the need for a ‘change’ in Punjab, a focal point of its campaign, and is highlighting Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘Delhi Model’ of good governance. In a state already under massive debt, the parties are competing to lure the voters with further concessions, while the real economic issues of concern to the masses, the agrarian distress and creation of jobs outside the agriculture sector, have remained unaddressed.
The Assembly elections in Punjab are happening in a little over a month after the farmers’ movement at Delhi borders. The more than year-long movement led by the farmers’ organizations in the state and supported by every section of Punjabi society forced Narendra Modi to take back the three Farm Laws. The victory of the farmers was not only the first significant defeat of the Modi-regime but also a big setback for the corporates, both domestic and foriegn, eyeing to penetrate the Indian Agricultural sector and control the production, marketing and consumption of agri-products. For the first time in India’s history of mass movement, the farmers’ of Punjab made the corporates — Adani and Reliance — the direct target of their agitation. At that time all the political parties in Punjab agreed with the farmer’s stance that the three laws were meant to facilitate corporate takeover and control of agriculture. Even Rahul Gandhi, during his visit to the state, said that the Modi government is a puppet of the corporate houses and was serving their interest. But sadly, none of the parties, in their election campaign or Manifestos, have uttered a single word against the Corporates. There is no mention of combating the corporate takeover of agriculture in Punjab. The root of all the economic problems in the country lies in the neoliberal model of handing over every productive resource to the crony capitalists.
The economy is mainly divided into three sectors — agriculture, industry, and services. Corporate control is much more predominant in industries and services. Even in the agricultural sector, the inputs used are produced by the corporates. If we look at the model of the Green Revolution, we will find that the corporates increased their control over agriculture through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, hybrid seeds, modern machinery and technology. The sudden increase in agricultural production at that time had also increased the income of the farmers. As a result, a large number of people and policy makers ignored the future negative effects of this model of agriculture. Today in Punjab, the agriculture sector faces problems like debt, suicide and exit of small farmers from agriculture. In addition to this, the Green Revolution has led to alarmingly low underground water table, toxic chemical pollution of land and water bodies, loss of soil fertility etc. Even at that time neither the political parties nor the policy makers opposed the dominance of corporate over agriculture through the model of Green Revolution. Today, when we look at the three repealed laws, it is clear that while the Green Revolution model only led to corporate control of agricultural inputs (fertilizers, seeds, machinery etc.), these three agricultural laws, in addition to inputs, would also ensure corporate control of crop output.
The world economy is going through a crisis of stagnation. The rate of growth in manufacturing is declining. There is stagnation in the services sector also. The corporate world is seeing great potential for investment in the agricultural sector, both in food production and its marketing. In fact, governments are in favour of corporate farming, in which companies will farm on a large scale, introduce digitization and robotization through use of artificial intelligence in the sector. With this kind of technology intensive farming gaining ground, the farmers will be pushed out and their land will go in the hands of the companies. While small and marginal farmers will be converted into wage labourers, even the big farmers will be compelled to go for contract farming or rent their land to the companies. In fact, due to the huge pressure from the corporate world, all the political parties are preparing their election manifestos in favour of corporates in the name of bringing development to Punjab.
Punjab is an agricultural state, but surprisingly, we do not have any agriculture policy yet. Punjab State Farmers and Farm Workers Commission tried to formulate two agricultural policies. The fact that even after years these agricultural policies are still lying in the form of a draft. Similarly, Punjab does not have any industrial policy either. There is no policy of how our natural resources can be utilized; how jobs can be provided to our youths. All the political parties are silent on these pressing issues.
The biggest problem in Punjab today is unemployment. Neither agriculture, nor industrial nor service sector is providing employment. Work opportunities in agriculture are declining due to mono-culture of two-crop (wheat-paddy) cycle and mechanization. In Punjab, an average farm worker gets work for only two and a half months in a year. Industrial and services sector is also not creating sufficient jobs. Surprisingly, six industrial units are shutting down per day in the state. The public sector is being privatized. Vacant posts are not being filled up in the public sector. The present government had in 2017 promised to give a job to one person per family for fifty five lakh families. Before that, in 2012, the SAD-BJP alliance government had promised employment to ten lakh youths. Current chief minister Charanjeet Singh Channi has promised to give one lakh jobs every year. Shiromani Akali Dal has promised that they will create a 75% quota for local Punjabis in the private sector. Despite all these promises, the unemployment rate in Punjab is 7.8%, above the national average of 6.1%. In reality, our economy has been following a jobless growth model in which employment elasticity is nearly zero. This is the reason that there is a huge increase in immigration to foreign countries and drug addictions among the youths of Punjab. People won’t get employment until we are free from the claws of the corporate sector and the public sector is not developed. The promises of providing jobs by the political parties cannot be addressed unless the economy is freed from corporate control. It will need massive investment in the public sector.
Our agricultural sector is being handed to Ambani-Adani by bringing new laws in the name of farm reforms. Today, American, Chinese and European companies are buying fertile agricultural land at large scale in different parts of the world. Adani Agri Logistics Limited has already made huge investments in building massive storage (Silo) infrastructure in various states of the country. The government will definitely try to bring back the repealed laws in some form or other to protect the investments of the crony-capitalists. Many BJP leaders have already made statements to this effect.
There is a debt of Rs. 3 lakh crores on Punjab government which means a debt of Rs. 1 lakh per head. On one hand the government is in debt and on the other hand the people are also stuck in huge debt. There is an average debt of Rs. 10 lakh on each farmer family and a debt of Rs. 80 thousand on each farm workers’ family. So it is a matter to ponder upon as to where all the income of Punjab is going. This can be explained with the fact that the gap of income inequality is rapidly growing wider in the state as well as in the whole country. Most of the income and wealth generated is being concentrated in the hands of only a few rich families. With rising inequality, the chances of these rich families influencing government policies by funding the political parties during elections become high.
We are well aware that agriculture in India is heavily affected by the policies of the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The WTO agreement on agriculture forces the government to reduce subsidies on agriculture. The farmers’ movement has demanded repeal of the three new agriculture laws and also legal guarantee for getting minimum support price (MSP) for the crops. The Union government has repealed the laws but has till now maintained silence on the MSP demand. The policies of the WTO and pressure of the corporates are preventing the legal guarantee of MSP for the crops. This is why none of the political parties have made the legal guarantee of MSP for all crops an election issue.
It is also clear from the latest Union Budget that the government has withdrawn itself from investing in agriculture. The percentage of total expenditure in the budget for the agricultural sector has been reduced; as well the amount earmarked for crop procurement also has been reduced. Similarly the allocation for MNREGA scheme for the rural poor has also been reduced. But the political parties have not made these an issue in their election campaign.
The total government investment in Punjab’s economy is half of the national average. That is why there is no growth in the public sector and few new jobs are being created. In fact, the development of the economy requires a model in which the forward and backward linkages of agriculture and industry are developed under the cooperative sector. This model should be developed according to our own resources, our own skills and our own requirements. But this can be done only by a pro-people government, not by parties financed by the corporates. With the left farmer organisations opting out of electoral battle, there is little hope of things changing in Punjab, whoever among the contesting parties forms the next government after March 10 in the state.
- The author is Principal Economist, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana