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Business Standard
New Delhi, 28 July 2013
The right of the farmer While some are fretting about the poverty line, whether one can survive on Rs 27 a day or whether Rs 5 or Rs 12 could fetch one a meal, little thought has gone into the state of those who account for the food -farmers and farm labourers who are forced into hand-to-mouth existence. While there is a right to food, no law ensures the survival of the farmer, either through guaranteed incomes or through minimum wages at a par with those of skilled and educated workers in other segments. Four years ago, an international movement for farmers, Via Campesina, initiated a campaign, demanding a United Nations (UN) declaration on the rights of peasants. The organisation raised the matter with the UN Human Rights Commission. This month, a United Nations working group brought out the first draft for the declaration, causing a flutter in member countries such as the US and China, according to those who attended the session. On its demand for the UN declaration, Via Campesina says the European Union had a common farm policy that ensured remunerative prices and protection of the domestic market. "But the principles of this policy changed in the 90s, after the setting up of the World Trade Organization, globalisation and the implementation of neo-liberal policies. Now, prices are aligned with world prices to provide cheap raw material for industry," it says. Agricultural economist Devinder Sharma, a panelist at the recent working group meeting on farmer rights in the UN, says the group considered his suggestion of a guaranteed income for farmers. The declaration saw an agreement on the fact that farmers were key to humanity and should be better supported and protected. The question of protecting traditional farm practices also was taken up. Vijay Jawandhia, a leading farm activist who approached the UN Human Rights Commission with a Via Campesina team four years ago, demanding the commission take up the rights of farmers, says the current debate on poverty exposes critics. "The same critics wouldn't want wages of farm labourers to be increased. If you give Rs 135 to an MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) worker, he has to make do with Rs 27 a day. People complain about paying for food, but they don't mind fancy cars. The farmer starves so that people get food cheap. Why should it be so?" he asks. Poverty has led to the death of many farmers, as also of their knowledge and skills. Jawandhia points to the dearth of skilled farm labourers in Maharashtra. Earlier, farmers could sow different quantities of seeds for different crops on a single acre, with equal ease. Now, such skilled people are rare, he says. The UN Right to Food declaration led to a law in India, irrespective of its merits. Farmer groups hope a UN declaration on farmers would force governments to focus on their right to survive and prosper.

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