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FDI debate, globalization and Gujarat farmers

By Rajiv Shah
Globalization always excited me even when I was a student. I never supported it, though there was no particular reason to oppose it either. It was a hot topic especially among student wings of Left parties in Delhi University, with whom I was associated in early 1970s. "Anti-imperialism" was the buzzword among our Left "mentors", and globalization naturally was considered an evil, propped up by the multinational companies (MNCs). At Students' Federation of India (SFI) study circles, taken by those whom we thought were CPI(M)'s future theoreticians - Ved Gupta, Sunit Chopra, Rajendra Prasad, Sudhish Pachauri - we were told how India's "bourgeois-landlord government led by big bourgeoisie" was an ally of imperialism, and its "globalization efforts" undermined India's independence. 
We were persuaded to believe that India's independent in 1947 was just in namesake and that Indira Gandhi's anti-imperialist rhetoric during and after the Indo-Pak war, too, was an eyewash. In fact, Ved Gupta, looking through his "Marxian" glasses, once called the war a "fight between Indian and Pakistani bourgeois-landlord classes".
Anything global was "imperialist", it seemed. Later, I happened to simultaneously attend study circles of All-India Students' Federation (AISF), which was CPI's student wing. Here, though the tone was different, tenor was the same. We were told that "national bourgeoisie in alliance with big bourgeoisie" ruled the nation, and that this national bourgeoisie, which had come to power after Independence, had its own contradictions with imperialism. Hence, it was suggested, we must "support the national bourgeoisie" - which ruled through Indira Gandhi - as and when it took "anti-imperialist" stance, such as during the war with Pakistan, with whom the US had allied. We were also taught that MNCs, the economic carriers of imperialism, were the "worst exploiters", as they attempted to enslave the nation in the same way as the East India Company did, and their attempts to "globalize" the nation through various methods to lure us was "detrimental to the national interest".
Nearly four decades later the globalization debate hasn't ended. Resonance of what we were taught could be found, in some form, in the recent foreign direct investment (FDI) debate in the national Parliament. The Left and the Right are together in declaring that, through FDI, attempts are being made to "sell" the country. So goes the argument, that farmers need to be "protected" from the influence of the MNCs which seek to subjugate them, making them totally dependent on requirements of the global market. Amazingly, in Gujarat, my karmabhoomi for last nearly two decades, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's most dependable political supporters declare that FDI would make farmers "highly dependent on the West and the MNCs". These were the persons who till yesterday talked of "Global Village" and "Global Gujarat"! In fact, Modi calls his Vibrant Gujarat summits "global", and the chief aim is to attract FDI in Gujarat as much as possible through tie-ups and concessions.
As a matter of curiosity, I decided to talk with a representative of MNC, which is deeply involved in the farm sector in Gujarat. He tried telling me that opposition to FDI is "not going down well with Gujarat's progressive farmers." He said, either farmers are "ignorant" of FDI or are supporting it, because they think that with FDI in retail they will get a better price of their produce and close to their farm. Not convinced, I rang up BJP's farmers' wing Bharatiya Kisan Sangh leader in Gujarat, Maganbhai Patel, who declared - without mincing words - that FDI would mean "death knell" to Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs), and local traders who buy up farm produce on auction would be "rendered jobless." I talked with heads of two powerful APMCs - of Unza in North Gujarat and of Ahmedabad. Gaurang Patel of Unza APMC, claimed to Asia's richest agricultural marketing yard, opposed "direct purchase" of farm produce, which he said would become a reality after "FDI intrusion". Ahmedadad APMC's BJ Patel, who has lately turned into a top real estate dealer, repeated the argument. Both Guarang Patel and BJ Patel have been with the BJP for long.
Interesting though it may seem, Gujarat government passed APMC amendment Act in 2007, which had sought to undermine APMCs' monopoly over agricultural produce and allowed contract farming. The law was based on recommendations of the Government of India's model APMC Act, prepared following a report submitted by a committee headed by Shankarlal Guru a decade ago. Wondering the status of the law which had sought to create private parallel agricultural markets, I was surprised to find that it had not been implemented even five years after it was enacted. A state official told me, "The file with detailed rules to implement the law is currently lying with the state legal department for scrutiny." Insiders added, state agriculture minister Dilip Sanghani, known to be close to Modi, wanted to "go slow" on implementing the law, as it would mean ending APMCs' stronghold on farmers. After all, most APMCs are directly controlled by BJP. The added, "In case the law had been implemented, we would have seen several MNCs directly doing contract farming with Gujarat. Right now, those wanting to do contract farming must do it in a limited way after getting permission on a case to case basis, whatever it may mean, at the highest level. Those who have got 'limited' permission are McDonald, McCain, Balaji and Pepsico." The official also added, "The agricultural commodities exchange is feeble in Gujarat failing to come up in a big way as the Act has not been implemented, awaiting finalization of rules."
Things became even clearer after talking with half-a-dozen farmers across Gujarat. Maganbhai Boraniya, a farmer in from Rajkot district's Naranka village, told me that one of the biggest problems he faces is of transporting his commodities to the APMCs and storing unsold produce. "In case FDI is allowed, contract farming will help us solve both the problems. We will produce in accordance with market needs", he said, adding, "This apart, we will get a better price for our produce." Another farmer, Chhaganbhai Patel, who must take his produce to Unza APMC, whether he likes it or not, said his main "problem" concerned selling tomatoes and other vegetables, which he produces apart from cash crops. "These are perishable commodities. While I do manage to get a reasonable price at APMC for jeera (cumin), for about 500 kg of tomatoes, I am always at a loss, as I must sell it off at a very cheap rate", he said, adding, "In case FDI helps us overcome this problem, what's wrong? Let contract farming flourish, at least in perishable commodities." Views of other farmers, more or less, were similar, though there were a few who thought that one should "study FDI" before supporting it. However, as for APMC dominance, everyone thought, it didn't "help" farmers in any way, and time was to get out of the current mechanism.



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