In a land as vast and densely populated as India there are, no doubt, many aspects that are unseen and unheard.
Woven into the fabric of the economy there are numerous voiceless figures struggling to stand out. As part of our online series Open Up we are casting the spotlight on rural farmers. Owing to the sheer size and population of the country very often farmers in the rural parts of India are unable to gain access to a labour union – an important means of upholding labour laws in the country. Today we will be exploring the options available to them in the absence of labour unions to lend them a voice.
Despite the fact that agriculture contributes to approximately one fifth of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of India and many people are dependent on farming to earn a living, many farmers are still being exploited in the agriculture sector in the country.
Often farmers’ wages are low and their working and living conditions rather dismal. Most of the plantations are located in remote and isolated areas and therefore hardly come under the scope of rural development and anti-poverty programmes, designed to help people in the rural areas. This situation is then intensified without proper representation provided by unions.
In these situations contract farming is emerging as a preferred mechanism through which agri-businesses can directly engage with farmers. Usually, a business will sign a contract with farmers to grow specific crops or seed varieties and guarantees the buy-back of the produce at an agreed price. Here, in the absence of trade union representation they have a guarantee on the income they receive for their harvests.
PepsiCo was one of the earliest promoters of the contract-farming model in India. In 1997, it set up a tomato processing plant in Punjab, not a traditional tomato growing area. They started by teaming up with local farmers to grow tomato varieties needed for ketchup.
The contract requires the farmer to provide his land and labour while PepsiCo officials provide the seeds. They also supervise the cultivation and give advice to farmers from time to time. After receiving the yield PepsiCo takes the produce to their storage.
The advantage for the farmers, in an ideal case, is that through this system they are aware of the price of their produce at the time of sowing the seeds. Furthermore, they receive crop insurance, seeds and loans from PepsiCo agents that they need to pay after the yield.
Regrettably, studies also highlighted a significant problem with the contract method indicating that it has not benefitted farmers. Both firms and farmers breached contracts when market conditions provided either party the opportunity for profit greater than that in the contract.
The Centre for Trade and Development released a study called India’s Agricultural Challenges, which highlights the positive and negatives aspects of contract farming. They criticise contract farming as being a tool for the agribusiness firms to exploit an unequal power relationship with growers.
The study explains that the method has no enforceable legal framework. The reality often is that such farmer groups are largely on the periphery. It is not so much that they are being exploited, but that they are excluded from the most profitable possibilities.
A study conducted by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) noted that appropriate institutional arrangements, legal provisions and government intervention are needed to protect the interests of farmers. It suggested the formation of ‘new generation co-operatives’ for increasing the bargaining power of contract growers.
Furthermore, there are also several established movements that have been pioneering to educate and train rural farmers.
The Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA), or Save the Seeds movement has played a pioneering role in linking trade issues with issues of ecology, gender, and social equity, and has made significant contributions to the discussion on the issues of biodiversity, patents, and intellectual property rights.
Over the last few years the Navdanya Trust, a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 16 states in India, has also made attempts in bio-piracy cases and lobbied against the seed law. They have also established a strong bio-safety framework.
There is a growing trend among farmers engaged in informal work to form or join organisations to fight for their rights, enhance their bargaining power, increase their economic power and improve their livelihoods.
The Network of Women Farmers in India is a prime example, as the women in this network use the platform to run a system of crop-financing and food distribution. The money collected on the open market sales every year is collected and deposited in regular banks and the interest is used to finance loans for members. The Organic Consumers Association, Living Farms, the International Network on Participatory Irrigation Management and Jala Spandana are also active networks that could represent several of the farmers’ trade requirements.
This seems to be a feasible option for farmers who cannot join trade unions due to circumstances. It seems that combining forces with these co-operations and self-help organisations can amplify their visibility, power and last but not least their voice.
Image: Yug_and_her (CC License)< Back