As we recall a profound event from 315 years ago, it's time for future introspection, writes Hardeep Puri

Some acts and deeds are of such a profound quality that they can have the effect of changing the course of history. Yet, these do not always resonate in our consciousness. The martyrdom of the two young sons of Guru Gobind Singh Ji is a case in point. Sahibzada Zorawar Singh and Sahibzada Fateh Singh attained martyrdom on December 26, 1705, when they were brutally murdered by Wazir Khan, the Mughal Governor of Sirhind.

The martyrdom of the Sahibzadas and the subsequent Battle of Chappar Chiri by Banda Singh Bahadur heralded the creation of the Sikh Empire. As we recall this profound event which happened 315 years ago, it is also an occasion for us to introspect with a view to seeking a more prosperous and secure future for the Sikhs.

Important decisions

At this juncture, when vested interests are trying to spread fear, anxiety and disorder through lies, misinformation and distortion of facts, it is important to note some important decisions of the Modi Government, both in respect of the Sikhs and farmers.

Right from the FCRA registration for Sri Harmandir Sahib to slashing of the “blacklist” of Sikhs, to exempting langar from taxes, ensuring access to Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib, Prime Minister Modi has taken several measures for the welfare of Sikhs. The grand celebration of the 350th Prakash Parv, wiping the tears of 1984 riot victims, establishing Chairs for Sikh studies in foreign universities, showcasing Sikh heritage to the world, upgrading the infrastructure of places such as Sultanpur Lodhi, connecting Sikh pilgrimage spots through special trains and empowering Sikh youth through scholarships have been some of the measures undertaken in the past six years.

MSP procurement up

The budget of the department of the agriculture and farmers' welfare has gone up more than six times in the past six years. Prime Minister Modi has implemented the recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee, to increase the minimum support price (MSP) to 1.5 times the cost of production. In fact, the amount spent on MSP procurement has gone up 85 per cent in 2014-19, from 2009-14. The MSP has risen in range of 40 per cent-70 per cent for all major crops in 2020-21 in comparison to 2013-14. Even this year, MSP procurement of paddy in Punjab has been 25 per cent more than last year and 20 per cent more than even the procurement target for this year. Till date, over Rs 1,10,000 crore have been transferred directly to the accounts of farmers through the PM Kisaan Yojana and Rs 87,000 crore paid as crop insurance to farmers against a premium of merely Rs 17,450 crore.

Despite such incontrovertible evidence and several assurances by senior leaders, including the Prime Minister, fear and anxiety is being spread amongst our brothers and sisters that the MSP will go away and mandis will be destroyed. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Indian agriculture sector in 1950 contributed around 52 per cent to the nation’s gross domestic product while employing nearly 70 per cent of our entire population. As of 2019, the sector still employed nearly 42 per cent of our total population but only contributed 16 per cent to the GDP, while experiencing a year-on-year growth rate of just 2 per cent.

Indebted rural households

A 2018 study by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development showed that 52.5 per cent of all agricultural households were indebted with an average debt of $1,470. This happens while 30 per cent of our agriculture production continues to be wasted for lack of a proper cold chain infrastructure. These factors make up for a quintessentially inefficient supply chain. As a result, consumers do not have a choice of products, wastage is high and prices are highly volatile. At the same time, the Indian farmer is subjected to the vagaries of climate change, markets, middlemen and lack of essential infrastructure.

The UPA government, with Sharad Pawar as Agriculture Minister, had set up three high-level committees to make recommendations on reforms in the agriculture sector. Shri Badal, then the chief minister of Punjab, was the chairman of one of the groups. The CMs of Haryana and other northern states were members. The then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, was the chairman of one of the other groups.

Para 5.13 of the report produced by the committee had mentioned:

“The market for agricultural produce must be immediately freed of all sorts of restrictions on movement, trading, stocking, finance, exports etc. No monopoly, including that of APMCs or corporate licensees, should be allowed to restrict the market. The concept of farmers’ markets, where farmers can freely sell to the consumers directly, must be promoted. The use of Essential Commodities (EC) Act should be made only in times of emergency and it must be decided in consultation with State governments.”

Leading agriculture economists have also recommended these reforms, allowing our farmers to sell their produce in the open market. Even the Congress party's several manifestoes in the past have explicitly called for these reforms. Some Indian States have also adopted and implemented these reforms on their own over the years. For example, in Bihar, the agriculture growth average is at 6 per cent, compared to the national average of just 2 per cent.

The question then arises, why is there so much opposition? Fundamental and transformational reforms are by nature disruptive. Beneficiaries of the existing inefficient systems have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, so pushback from them is natural. The resistance by the “Bombay Club” against the fundamental economic reforms introduced to unshackle the Indian economy in 1991, is an example.

Want of issues

Today, opposition parties in the country have been marginalised in electoral battles. With a paucity of substantial issues to turn their political fortunes, the vital agriculture reforms have been the targets of incessant misinformation, lies and instigation by these parties.

The government has repeatedly requested the farmers to talk and help resolve any of their concerns. States will be allowed to impose taxes on the mandis and even though the government has made time-bound dispute resolution mechanisms, we have also agreed to give access to civil courts in case of disputes. But we must not allow misinformation campaigns to derail these transformative reforms, which intend to put more money in farmer’s pockets.

Mark Twain said a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. The truth finally does, however, triumph. The cobwebs of lies and misinformation are now being removed and truth is becoming apparent to our hard-working farmers. As we remember the valour and sacrifice of Sahibzada Zorawar Singh and Sahibzada Fateh Singh on this day, we need to introspect.

The writer is a member of the Union Council of Ministers.

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