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'The farmer is not looking for a free lunch'

March 17, 2008 09:45 IST

Sharad Joshi, president of the newly formed Swatantra Bharat Paksha, tells Business Standard that all the Indian farmer wants is a free access to the market.

With your experience of the agricultural sector, how do you see the latest waiver of agricultural loans announced by the government in the Budget?

Well, my problem with the waiver is not that it has been given but why (it has been given). Some money has been given on account of debt relief but is it well-intentioned? I firmly believe that agricultural indebtedness is created by government measures, what I call negative subsidies, that is, you prevent farmers from accessing the market and get market prices for their products and create other hurdles in the name of protectionism.

The agricultural crisis in India is an integral whole and one cannot say that one measure or a cash bailout will end the crisis. The structure of the waiver also betrays a lack of understanding of the crisis. A small farmer in this country is in a special situation vis-a-vis his family as land is held as community property.

Thus, a small farmer actually gets accounted as a big farmer. Then there are areas like Bundelkhand where not a blade of grass grows and yet it gets less help as the size of the holdings is bigger. The Indian farmer also does not distinguish between long-term and short-term loans. Loans are loans, whether for seeds, fertilisers or tractors.

Also, on the one hand, the government gave a loan waiver, while on the other, it levied a tax on commodity exchanges. Transactions which were taxed at Rs 3 will now be taxed at Rs 19.50. With this, many farmers have lost hope of any access to the exchanges where they will get a market-driven price for their product.
You speak a lot about farmers. Why is it that movements like your Shetkari Sanghatana or even Charan Singh's party have not been able to evolve into effective pressure groups for farmers?

All movements are different in terms of the way they play out. The problem with Charan Singh was that he equated the Jat farmer with all farmers, which we scrupulously avoid. I feel that the Shetkari Sanghatana and now the Swatantra Bharat Paksha will be able to articulate the various positions properly.

In India, in the name of agricultural economics, we have the Kolkata school, which talks of protectionism and a huge role for the government in all economic spheres, and the Bombay school of DALDA or Dakwala, Alagh, Lakdawala and Dandekar who, without ever having lived the life of a farmer, feel they can formulate policies for them. In contrast, I have lived a part of my life as a farmer and my party maintains that the farmer is not looking for a free lunch but equal access to the market.

If you are ever in a position to influence policy, what are the first few things you are going to look at?

We firmly believe in the dissolution of the state, we dislike the idea of a powerful central government. Frankly, the only good poverty alleviation scheme I have seen till now is the langar at gurdwaras. To this effect, we want all government intervention in agriculture to end. By this, I mean end to government procurement, end to Food Corporation of India, and no Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.

What is the need for a CACP? Why can't farmers input costs and his prices be determined by the market? Also, I would like to see an end to the public distribution system (PDS). Instead, I would like to see food stamps being issued. That should take care of the problem of quality of food right away.

In your party's manifesto, you have called Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein economic fundamentalists and that they are able to operate in various countries because of NGOs and other pressure groups, who you call economic fundamentalists.

By fundamentalist, I mean anybody who believes in one man, one prophet or that one book will have solutions to every problem. I feel this violates Francis Bacon's tenets of scientific enquiry. No book is perfect. All terrorists belong to this category.

The only reason NGOs or other pressure groups or even religious leaders establish big organisations or empires is to get territories free of police control. That is also a kind of fundamentalism. Many of these organisations have little knowledge but attract great crowds, allowing them to operate in the system.

You call yourself secular but have allied with the NDA.

I'm secular with reservations. I believe that the origin of all liberal thought is Vedanta, which firmly puts itself on the side of pluralism and tolerance. Vedanta believes there should be no intermediary between the infinite and the infinitesimal. Carrying this further, the government has no business coming between the businessman and the market.

You were an IAS officer. What prompted you to give that up to become a farmer?

I've always believed in degrees of freedom. When I was posted in Switzerland, I thought a lot about my future. I asked myself about how far I could go if I continued my present work. At the most, I could have become deputy secretary general of the organisation I was working for. I have always believed that one would be asked to give an accounting for one's life at the end and if I continued, it would be a poor accounting indeed. That's why I decided to become a farmer.

Nistula Hebbar in New Delhi