Though everybody, including the government, are patient enough to address the issues of farmers and their concerns about recent farm laws, there have been questions all along. Why are these protests Punjab-centric, as farmers from other parts of the country have met the Union Minister for Agriculture and expressed their support for these laws?
It is obvious that, beyond farmers, there is politics to be played to corner the Modi government, considering that the opposition once committed to abolish the APMC system is now singing a different tune. There are other angles too which are emerging and make it clear that it has no longer remained as farmers’ issue. To touch upon another important angle that explains why protests have intensified from a particular state, you should read this recent news report from the Indian Express – Arhtiyas slam I-T searches, to shut Punjab mandis this week in protest.
Who Are Arhtiyas?
Arhtiyas are the commission agents at mandis. More than that, they are the local moneylenders. So, their fears are obvious. Though the government has assured time and again that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the local mandi system will continue, if the farmers in large number decide to sell for private players in the near-future, the Arhtiyas will lose grip over farmers. Their monopoly will end and farmers will get choice with new laws.
How these Arhtiyas have control over the lives of farmers? Let’s explore it with two instances in recent years.
Instance 1: Arhtiyas Opposed Digital Payment for Farmers
Back in April 2020, a hurdle in wheat procurement was reported from Punjab. The strong network of Arhtiyas held back from procuring wheat and they also opposed e-procurement. It finally brought stress on farmers as their produce remained unattended in the mandis.
But what was the reason for Arhtiyas to delay the procurement for government agencies? The payment of wheat procurement is made to farmers through Arhtiyas if the food grains are procured for government agencies. The government decided that they will pay farmers by cheque this time, saying that it will bring transparency to the process. But Arhtiyas opposed it, saying that they had already loaned money to farmers and the money should reach o farmers via them only in cash mode, so that they can deduct their loan amount and interests before the amount reaches to farmers.
All those who are arguing on the flimsy ground that farmers will be exploited by private companies should take note of how the same farmers are already in the clutches of moneylenders. In contrast, when the companies enter into agreement with farmers under the new farm laws, there are specific rules that prevent farmers from the exploitation. In the current set up of moneylenders, it is difficult for farmers to seek judicial intervention.
Instance 2: Arhtiyas Had Opposed the Settlement of Agri Debts
Back in March 2016, Punjab legislative assembly passed a bill to settle non-institutional farm debt. A section of Arhtiyas had agitated then as well.
The bill stipulated that if a farmer has paid double the principal amount, the loan can be discharged. It also paved the way for establishment of district-level forums for debt settlement and state-level agricultural debt settlement tribunal. It gave the state government an authority to fix the maximum rate to be charged by Arhtiyas from farmers per annum.
At that time, rural debt in Punjab was estimated at over ₹35,000 crore and this was cited as the main reason behind farmers’ suicides in the state. No wonder the Arhtiyas opposed this move by the state government back then.
Thus, the ongoing protests are not just about farmers. There are groups that want to safeguard their monopoly putting the farmers at the front. If they were the saviours of farmers, Punjab farmers should not be having such a burden of debts on their lives.