On 16 December, almost three weeks into the farmers’ protests at Delhi’s borders, the union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad praised the contested farm laws by citing the case of a farmer in Bihar. Prasad tweeted that Om Prakash Yadav, a vegetable farmer from Muktapur panchayat in Bihar’s Samastipur district, sold his cauliflower harvest to a firm in Delhi, at ten times the local rate through an online platform. “Now the new agricultural laws of the Narendra Modi government have given the farmer the freedom to sell his crop anywhere,” read the tweet. But a close look at the transaction indicates that the sale was facilitated only by the cabinet minister’s personal intervention, and the new agricultural laws had no role to play in the entire process. A few other farmers from the same village told me that they had no such luck when they tried to utilise the same online platform, known as Agri10x, an agri-tech firm. Agri10x has existing linkages with the central government that predate the farm laws.
The incident first began on 14 December, when Om Prakash recorded a video in which he can be seen running a tractor through his field of cauliflowers. The 34-year-old farmer owns 4.5 bighas of cultivable land and had taken 9 acres on lease—one acre is approximately equal to 1.6 bighas in Bihar. He told me that for this season, he had cultivated cauliflower on 6.5 bighas. But when the vegetable was ready, the market price of cauliflower crashed. “Traders in the bazaar samiti”—local market-committee—“were not willing to take cauliflower even for Rs 1 per kilogram,” he said. Notably, Bihar had deregulated the agrarian sector and removed the state government’s oversight in 2006—the recently enacted farm laws share a similar framework. He told me that he cannot even recover his material input costs, let alone the labour costs at that rate. Frustrated with the situation, Om Prakash decided to destroy his harvest rather than sell it.
The video was shared widely and was soon picked up by news channels and digital sites. In the midst of the ongoing agitation against the farm laws, the news came as an embarrassment to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government, which is also a part of the ruling alliance in Bihar. The BJP government and its various ministers have consistently held that the new legislation is in the interests of the farmers and the ongoing farmers’ protests are misplaced. Some ministers, BJP functionaries and certain mainstream channels have also suggested that the agitation is a front for hidden agendas ranging from the separatist Khalistan movement, to China, Pakistan, and the Maoists, among others. In fact, on 11 December, Prasad claimed that the farmers’ protests had been taken over by the “tukde-tukde gang”—the term translates to pieces-pieces gang and is a pejorative coined by the BJP which refers to an imaginary gang that aims to break apart the nation—and there was a “sinister design” to the agitation.
However, as the video went viral across social-media platforms, Prasad seems to have switched to damage-control mode. Om Prakash told me, “On 15 December, I got a call from the personal assistant of Ravi Shankar Babu. He asked me if I had destroyed my cauliflower. I told him, ‘yes.’” He said that the assistant asked him why he destroyed his harvest. “I said that the price of cauliflower in the market has fallen to Rs 1 to 2 per kg. If the transport cost and the cost of harvesting the cauliflower and filling it in the sack is not recovered, there is no logic of selling the vegetable at that price.” He added, “The PA asked how much cauliflower was destroyed. I said that the cauliflower in 4.5 bighas had been destroyed and there is still two bighas left.”
Om Prakash said that Prasad’s assistant assured him that the remaining cauliflower would be sold to Agri10x through the local Common Service Centre. The CSCs are access points for delivery of essential public-utility services, social-welfare schemes, health care, financial, education and agricultural services. They were first launched in 2009 and then revamped in 2015 under the central government’s “Digital India” programme. Currently, every gram panchayat in Bihar has CSC facilities where farmers can register themselves. Om Prakash said that soon after the assistant’s call, he got a call from representatives of the CSC, and Agri10x. “I was then taken to the CSC and made to register online,” Om Prakash told me. Vikram Sharma, the district manager of the CSC in Samastipur, told me, “The role of Ravi Shankar Prasad is that when the news became viral, it was he who took cognizance and directed the CSC to solve his problem by registering him.”