Prime Minister Narendra Modi endowed the farmers with a big bang of agricultural reforms by unshackling the age-old APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee). It restricted the farmers to sell their products borderless at a remunerative prices. It also deregulated the mandatory provision of MSP (Minimum Support Price)
While the left parties and West Bengal Pradesh Congress parties hit the streets of Punjab against the new farm bills, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refrained from joining the protest. Criticizing her delay, senior CPI(M) leader, Mr Sujan Chakravarty, said “Trinamool’s stand is dubious. It spoke out for the first time after seven days of the protest.” Even though Mamata Banerjee called for an united stand by the political parties against the farm bills, the day after the bills were pushed to Rajya Sabha on September 20, 2020, the left and Congress maintained that she was soft on her stand against the bills. They alleged that her response was tepid.
Mamata has always been staunch opposer to Modi’s welfare schemes and reforms. She is known for her ethnocentric chauvinism. She sparked stir against CAA Bill to appease Muslim. She did not implement Ayushman Bharat and Pradhan Mantri Kissan Samman Nidhi schemes. Why is it then Mamata delayed in showing her solidarity with the Punjab farmers’ agitation?
There could be two reasons for her soft stand to the agitation, while she has always been the frontrunner to make vehement protests against Modi’s schemes. One reason is the better economic health of Bengal farmers, albeit industrial development deceleration. Second, the slender impact of new farm bills.
West Bengal is the biggest producer of rice and vegetables in the country. It is the fourth largest producer of food grains, after Punjab and Madhya Pradesh. These paved the way for better earnings for the Bengal farmers. According to Finance Minister Amit Mitra, farmers income in West Bengal trebled during seven years. He said, “over the past seven years, the net income of per farmer family of West Bengal has increased more than three times, from Rs 91,000 in 2010-11 to Rs. 2,90,000 ( excluding the cost of cultivation as per NSDP) in 2017-18.” This shows the rise of annual average income of a farmer family in West Bengal grew by around 219 percent in seven years at an average rate of 31 percent per annum. Asserting the growth, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee unleashed that Credit Cards tripled in eight years from 27 lakh in 2011 to 69 lakhs in 2019.
The protests against the new farm bills evoked a thin impact on Bengal farmers. This is because one of the important abuses against farm bills is the fear of discontinuation of MSP (Minimum Support Price). Paradoxically, MSP is not the important remuneration for Bengal farmers. According to Prof. Arvind Panagarya, only 6 percent of the farmers in the country use the benefit of MSP. The larger concentration of MSP usages is in Punjab, according to him. Given this, Mamata might have used her delay tactics to insulate the Bengal farmers from engaging in the stir, which means waste of time and loss of farm income .
Instead, the farm bills will produce windfalls for the Bengal farmers, according to observers. Given the biggest producer of rice and vegetables, Bengal farmers will benefit blissfully from the borderless marketing rights. This will ultimately pave the way for corporatization of Bengal agricultural, which means larger private investment. This will open new opportunities for better warehousing facilities and marketing channels in pan-India for the Bengal agricultural products, which hitherto were restricted within the Bengal boundary. Mamata might have failed to bring investment in industry, but the farm bills will open a new gate to attract investment in the agriculture sector in the State.
The strong foundation of agricultural development in West Bengal was set up at the end of seventies under the Communist regime. The Communist Party of India and its allies initiated a major agrarian and land reforms by launching the Barga Operation in West Bengal. It enacted the Bengal Land Revenue Act 1979 and the Revenue Rules 1980 to provide legal protection to the small and marginal farmers from the clutches of rich farmers. Bargadar in Bengali means a sharecropper. Under the new law, even if the farmer, who tills the land, but not the owner, has the right to share the crops produced along with the owner of the land. In other words, under the law, sharecroppers or the tillers are engaged in a legal agreement with the farmer -cum-landowner for sharing the proportion of crops. In other states, the agreements are verbal and there is no regulatory protection to the tillers and sharecroppers.
Sharecroppers or the tillers in West Bengal are registered under the new Act. They have three rights. First, the sharecroppers have perpetual rights to till the land. In other words, the sharecroppers and their descendants have the right to till the land forever. Second, the sharecroppers and their descendants cannot be evicted. Third, a landlord cannot sell the land without the consent of sharecroppers. In other words, the sharecroppers became the de-facto landowners, even though not on paper.
The Barga operation created a long-term bondage between the landowners and cultivators. Given the new law empowering sharecroppers with equivalent power, the sharecroppers or the tillers became eligible for agricultural subsidies and soft-loans from the banks. In other states, sharecroppers are not eligible for subsidies and soft loans, since they were not registered farmers, unlike West Bengal
Empirical evidences show that windfall was the end of stagnation in agricultural growth in West Bengal. During 1999-2000 to 2004-2005, West Bengal pitched higher growth in food grain production at 2.06 percent per annum, as compared to negative growth by 0.23 percent at all India level.
Against these backdrops, her tactful aberration from rich farmers’ protests is an act of intelligent far-sightedness to protect the Bengal farmers from the siege of political turmoil, which means loss of time and money.