“In our cooperative we discuss common concerns we have as farmers. It is easier to explain our troubles to each other than to the government clerk at Krishi Bhavan [state agriculture offices]. We also discuss prices and make collective decisions. So, either we all lose or gain the same amount,” said John K., 52, farmer and manager of the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council Keralam (VFPCK) centre in Malayattoor, Ernakulam district. This centre draws in farmers who bring their produce from a radius of 40 to 60 kilometres away.
John says Rs. 2-crore worth of local produce is annually brought to the cooperative at Malayattoor-Neeleswaram. As members of the cooperative, farmers can access a range of services including transportation, financial assistance, and provision of fertilisers as well as help with state aid and government schemes. The VFPCK counts more than 2 lakh farmers and 10,803 self-help groups (SHGs) on its rolls, according to the Economic Review 2020 by the Kerala State Planning Board.
John is a member of an informal Neeleswaram farmers’ group that accesses the VFPCK in Malayattoor. “It is only by word-of-mouth [in our cooperative] that we learn about different schemes, fertilisers or seeds. Only a paddy farmer will know the difficulties of rice cultivation; we [vegetable farmers] know how hard it is to get timely yields,” he said when speaking to PARI in late February, four months after the farmers’ protest movement began.
In and around Ernakulam, in Neeleswaram and Angamaly towns, local farmers’ unions have carried out demonstrations against the new laws and there are talks of travelling to join the farmers’ protests in Delhi.
John is uneasy about the new farm laws which he fears will allow large corporates to set prices that may not reflect local costs. “Laws, including the new farm laws, rarely favour the karshakamaar (farmers). I have discouraged my children from taking up farming,” says this third generation farmer.
At the VFPCK centre here today, piles of ash gourd, snake gourd, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, cluster bean, string bean, cowpea, elephant foot yam, pineapple and a variety of bananas – nendran, poovan, robusta and palayanthodan – are ready for sale. Trucks are lined up, loading and unloading large quantities of fruits and vegetables that have come in from Angamaly, Malayattoor and Manjapra, grown in these less densely-populated areas around Ernakulam district.
At the entrance to the building, a small notice board outside announces the day’s prices. An iron weighing scale is placed near it along with a stack of red plastic chairs, used by the farmers who sit here on non-auction days to discuss prices, the market and their yields.
“For nendran bananas, we get 20 rupees per kilogram,” said John. Pointing to a huge bundle of njalipoovan (a variety of banana) he said: “Just yesterday, we brought this fresh fruit to the auction. We lowered the price to 30 rupees per kilogram and there were still no takers. Njalipoovan bananas sell at more than 60 rupees per kilogram in the retail market, but we don’t get more than 32 rupees.”
Sajan, 42, is a farmer and member of this cooperative. He has a shop in Kadavanthra, Kochi where he travels to sell his own produce and that of others from the cooperative. He says he feels supported by the VPCFK and that their prices are fair, adding, “there is no way I could arrange [on my own] the transport and delivery of what I purchase from Angamaly to Kochi.” So he pools in and shares costs with other members of the cooperative.
In Kerala, where there is no mandi system or APMC Act (State Agricultural Produce Marketing Development and Regulation Act, 2003) in implementation, farmers like Sajan rely on cooperatives under the panchayats and the state MSP (minimum support price) system. Currently, Kerala provides the highest MSP to paddy farmers in the country, offering Rs. 2,800 per quintal as against Rs. 1,868 announced by the union government.
Kerala farmers are apprehensive that the new laws will lose them the support of the government in terms of guaranteed procurement and prices. On the other hand, there are farmers like Joy M. who are concerned about the dependence on state procurement. “Usually only the state government buys from us, so what happens if they suddenly lower the support price, or the quantity required?” he asks.
Joy, 44, cultivates paddy, tapioca, ash gourd and ivy gourd on three acres of land that he has leased from a group of landlords in nearby Neeleswaram, about 15 kilometers away. He worries that the VFPCK system could also be a casualty of the new laws.
In November 2020, Kerala also extended MSPs to 16 other vegetables, including tapioca, banana, pineapple and ash gourd. Dr. P.K. Viswanathan, Professor of Economics and Sustainability at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Kochi says this is to help cultivate vegetable crops that are difficult and expensive to grow. “The high cost of inputs, including seeds, agro-chemicals and other farm protection practices, make the cultivation [in Kerala] more expensive. Labour costs in Kerala vis a vis the rest of India, particularly Tamil Nadu [which provides some of the cheapest labour force among the south Indian states] are also high. On top of it, there are climate-induced risks; many crops in the MSP list of Kerala require conducive agro-climatic environments to grow,” he says.
“In Kerala, a large proportion of produce is not sold domestically. When sold within the state, the farmers may have more bargaining power. But when it goes outside, private agents become the price-makers. We require intervention from the state government to regulate these prices,” Dr. Viswanathan adds.
“Kerala is a consumer state dependent on other states’ markets, so the entry of private actors could be indirectly harmful,” agrees Dr. P. Indira Devi, Director of the Kerala State Farmers Welfare Board.
Joy says, “The market prices we get are mostly determined by the traders, especially exporters. But at least we have a chance to negotiate with them now. Will it still be the case if there is no regulatory body?”
The laws that the farmers are protesting against are The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. They were first passed as ordinances on June 5, 2020, then introduced as farm bills in Parliament on September 14 and hastened into Acts by the present government on the 20th of that month.
The farmers see these laws as devastating to their livelihoods by expanding the space for large corporations to have even greater power over farmers and farming. The laws have also been criticised as affecting every Indian as they disable the right to legal recourse of all citizens, undermining Article 32 of the Constitution of India.
Farmers here feel the cooperative model has proved its value during covid and lockdown. “The co-op helped us cope with the lockdown and provided information on travel permits and if our shops could be open or not. Even information about financial aid and ration was shared here. Overall, it has given me a lot of assurance, and I hope it will continue to do the same through whatever these laws mean for us,” said Sajan.
Vedika Pillai is a student of Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University who wanted to explore how the new farm laws would impact farmers in her home state of Kerala. She says: “My research for this story showed me that agricultural policies have a direct impact not only on the farming community but the wider economy and social structure as well. I realised there is a lack of data and studies that draw connections between these dimensions. Covering this story for PARI Education I got to speak to people on the ground to better understand social realities through personal narratives shared with me.”