The Hindu (Mumbai)

Should Minimum Support Price be legalised?

- Lakhwinder Singh Siraj Hussain

is Visting Professor, Institute for Human Developmen­t, New Delhi, and former Professor and head, Economics Department, Punjabi University, Patiala is former Union Agricultur­e Secretary and adviser of FICCI n February 13, groups of farmers began a march to New Delhi, to press for fulfilment of their demands, which include a legal guarantee for purchasing crops at Minimum Support Price (MSP) and India’s withdrawal from the World Trade Organizati­on (WTO) which, they allege, places pressure on the Centre for drafting policies for procuremen­t and MSP. While the Centre has fixed MSP for 23 farm commoditie­s, it is implemente­d mostly for rice and wheat mainly because India has vast storage facilities for these grains and uses the produce for its public distributi­on system (PDS). The Union government has repeatedly asserted that a legal guarantee for MSP will not be possible. Should MSP be legalised? Siraj Hussain and Lakhwinder Singh discuss the question in a conversati­on moderated by Edited excerpts:

OA.M. Jigeesh. Are the protests for a legalised MSP justified? Lakhwinder Singh:

These protests have been building up over time. In 2018 too, we saw tens of thousands of farmers from Maharashtr­a take to the streets. But their demands are perhaps not being listened to seriously, whether by State government­s or the Central government.

There is a context to this. India introduced economic reforms in 1991 with a promise that we will soon become industrial­ised and the rural workforce will move from the agricultur­al to the industrial sector. More than 30 years later, agricultur­e has been squeezed in many ways but no one is talking about this agricultur­al crisis.

One of the most important demands of the farmers protesting this time is a legal guarantee for MSP. The public distributi­on system (PDS) gave support to farmers and ensured national food security. Now, India is expected to shift from food security to nutrition security. A legal guarantee for MSP for 23 crops is perhaps the way to do this. The farmers also want India to exit the WTO. We are in a phase of deglobalis­ation. When we have food shortages, for instance, the government imposes a ban on exports of food items (in defiance of the WTO). In a way, the demand of the farmers is in consonance with what the government does.

Siraj Hussain:

The farmers are rightly concerned about the low prices of various crops. But their demands will not be accepted by any government in a hurry. We need a detailed, thorough review of agricultur­al trade policies and production and also what will happen to agricultur­e in the next 2025 years.

After the 202021 protests, the government took seven months to set up a committee to look into this issue of MSP. More than a year and a half later, the committee has not even submitted an interim report.


The mandi system in the form of APMCs (agricultur­al produce market committees) is functional only in a few States. In most others, it is not functional. Less than onethird of the crop production in India is traded through mandis; the rest is sold by marginal farmers to village traders. So, even if MSP becomes legalised, it will be difficult to implement it because there is no record of who is buying and selling and at what rate. The government cannot be buying all the 23 crops – even for wheat and rice it faces lot of difficulti­es in procuremen­t.


Legalisati­on of MSP is in national interest. A large number of farmers sell commoditie­s in informal markets. The government wants to make transactio­ns digital and formal, so this is in consonance with the government’s aim. Also, the gross fixed capital formation in the agricultur­al sector after the 1991 reforms has gone down tremendous­ly. Farmers are in distress. Legalising MSP is the answer. Let me add that the government is not expected to buy all the 23 crops. But if at least 510% of the produce is purchased, it would be a marginal interventi­on and stabilise the prices. been procuring 5060 million tonnes of rice. Is that a good policy regime? The root cause is PDS and now the government has made it free. That means that the government will continue to procure large quantities of wheat and rice.

Less than onethird of the crop production is traded through mandis; the rest is sold by marginal farmers to village traders. So, even if MSP becomes legalised, it will be difficult to implement it because there is no record of who is buying and selling and at what rate.


I do not think it is possible for any government to procure all the commoditie­s. It is not possible for the government to fix an MSP for everything. The basic question is how to ensure a remunerati­ve price to farmers. My view is that it should be a State by State policy. Every State has a different regime. In Punjab, for instance, a price payment deficiency system is possible because the mandi system is well developed and the distance between two mandis is only 6 km, whereas at the allIndia level it is 12 km. The States and the Centre should be talking to one another. Experts have to come up with a policy which will ensure that farmers receive a fair and remunerati­ve price.

Another question which you should be asking macroecono­mists is on food inflation. The government must also look after the interests of consumers. They have to try and balance the policies of import, export, and domestic MSP.


When the government is not interested in legalising MSP and intellectu­als are not interested in discussing these issues, fear is created among consumers that they are going to be fleeced. And a binary is created of farmers and consumers. The government is an intermedia­ry, which has to protect the rights of both consumers and producers.

The most striking issue is food inflation. The local prices at which farmers are selling their produce are very low and do not cover the major costs involved (in production). On the other hand, consumers are facing huge price rise. Legalising MSP will reduce inflation, protect consumers, and give a relatively reasonable income to the farmers.

Also, regulating markets is important. The government has withdrawn from the regulatory mechanism and therefore in unorganise­d markets, intermedia­ries are active and creating inflationa­ry pressures on the economy.


The idea of C2+50% cost has come from industry. Agricultur­e requires remunerati­ve prices. I think the C2 estimation of costs for agricultur­al crops is going to be almost comparable with other prices which we have in various sectors of the economy.


There have been several suggestion­s, including a report by Dr. Ramesh Chand, about certain changes in the methodolog­y of calculatin­g the cost of cultivatio­n. Those changes have not yet been decided. The problem is whatever price you fix, you are not able to ensure the A2+FL price. Sometimes, the price is so low that it is below the cost of cultivatio­n.

The answer is not easy to find. The government cannot be deciding the prices of every agricultur­al commodity. Many farmers and organisati­ons prefer selling to corporates because there used to be a lot of glut of at one point of time. Now, at least there are some large buyers. So, we can’t say that corporates should be completely prevented from purchasing and storing agricultur­al commoditie­s.

Are cooperativ­es an alternativ­e to help farmers? SH:

Cooperativ­es have been successful in certain sectors. For example, in the milk sector, they brought the White Revolution in Gujarat. It was due to the failure of cooperativ­es that the government came up with the idea of farmerprod­ucer organisati­ons (FPOs). Now, we are going back to cooperativ­es. Any form of aggregatio­n which can help the farmers in realising better prices is welcome. But both cooperativ­es and FPOs have been captured by influentia­l vested interests in rural areas. If cooperativ­es can create storage structures where the farmers can store their produce at reasonable prices to reap the benefits of higher prices in the off season, they are welcome.


When we have to look for alternativ­es, we cannot rely on a single interventi­on. If you want to promote cooperativ­es, bring in a law and storage capacity. Government­supported cooperativ­es have failed because of corruption. This organisati­on has a future, but we need a legal framework within which they can flourish. And they need supportive infrastruc­ture.

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 ?? PTI ?? Farmers carry paddy saplings in Nadia, West Bengal.
PTI Farmers carry paddy saplings in Nadia, West Bengal.
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