Arhatiyas, the curse of Punjab
Arhatiyas are powerful figures in the rural landscape of Punjab where each agent has between 20 and 200 farmers.
The ongoing agitation against the farm laws enacted by the Modi government has forced researchers to have a relook on the data points. Since there are also some questions on the nature and participants in the protests as it appears protesters are mostly from arhatiya and middlemen groups of APMCs, it is important to know why are they against the laws that are meant to empower the genuine farmers.
According to this article(1) published the last year in the Indian Express Arhatiyas remain powerful figures in the rural landscape of Punjab where each agent has between 20 and 200 farmers. These farmers cannot sell their produce, it is the arhatiya who sells for them, this way the latter manages around 160 lakh tones of paddy and 180 lakh tones of wheat that is procured every year. In fact, arhatiyas have so much paralyzed the system that even the government is dependent on them. In the name of providing basic facilities like fans, weighing machines, and labor to short staffed government agencies, they charge hefty money from the farmers. The charges are so much that even when the state has higher MSP for most of the agriculture produces, there is hardly much difference from what the farmers in the other states like Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh get.
Apart from their routine work in the mandis, arhatiyas also lend money to the needy farmers. In his research renowned agriculture economist P. Sainath says that commission agents or arhatiyas are a powerful lobby in the state’s agriculture and politics. In his study titled “Punjab’s arhtiyas: sins of commission” he says that the attempts to resolve Punjab’s agrarian crisis without breaking their grip on the farmer will not succeed.(2)
Similar to what P. Sainath wrote a study on Indebtedness among Farmers and Agricultural Laborers in Rural Punjab wrote that as many as 86% of farmer and 80% of agricultural labor households are mired in debt.(3) The study was conducted by researchers at Punjabi University; Patiala also found that over a fifth of that debt was owed to commission agents and moneylenders. The researchers also found that the debt burden gets worse down the scale and it is heaviest amongst marginal and small farmers.
The story from P. Sainath also reveals a striking fact that a new set of people have entered into arhatiya system in Punjab as unlike most of the India’s arhati system the arhatiyas in Punjab are from Jat Sikh families. Though the study does not offer a reason why traditional Baniyas left the business, it appears the reason must have been Khalistan militancy that caused a lot of fear among Hindus. In 1970s and 1980s thousands of Hindus were killed by Khalistani terrorists. It must have been difficult for Hindus Baniyas to work in those days as it was too much a risk of life to function. Out of 47,000 arhtiyas in Punjab, 23,000 are Jats.
One advantage Jat arhatiyas have over the Hindu baniya arhatiya is that they have muscle power to recover the money from the farmers. Whereas Baniyas push only to some extent when the money is stuck, Jats have men and resources to recover the money by force.
Earlier this year in September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about the need to eliminate middlemen and rescue farmers from arhatiyas. The PM had said,
“Farmers have been given new independence in agriculture. They’ll now have more options and opportunities to sell their produce. I congratulate them on the passage of the bills. It was necessary to bring these to protect them from middlemen. These are farmers’ shields,”
The Prime Minister was aware of the menace called middlemen; he has already hit them hard in schemes like LGP cylinder, PDS or ration card by direct transfer and transparency. APMCs are the last bastion of middlemen where they are sucking farmers’ blood. Taking a swipe at those protesting against the bills, PM Modi had said that many forces were trying to “mislead” farmers on this issue; however, they need to be aware of the politics of those who ruled the country for decades and did nothing to empower farmers. He warned farmers about these people as they are in favor of middlemen who unfairly loot the profit of farmers.(4)
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