Opinion: Farmers stir- a litmus test for Modi govt

Venkat Parsa

The Modi government faces a litmus test, as talks with the agitating farmers have not borne any fruits so far. The government has to find a solution to the issue before it spirals out of control. 

After five rounds of talks with union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar, union home minister Amit Shah stepped in the sixth round, following which the deadlock continues. 

The Anna-Daata hitting the streets does not augur well for any society, especially a society steeped in the Indian ethos. Mahatma Gandhi said India lives in her villages. Despite rapid urbanization, India continues to be an essentially agrarian society. The farmer is the backbone of this largely agrarian economy. If the farmer is agitated, it is the duty of the Government to reach out to the farmer and address his issues. There is no visible evidence of this happening, which is more worrying.

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 What is the genesis of the present crisis? The Modi government had promulgated 11 ordinances. This was done after the Budget Session of Parliament in 2020 was abruptly adjourned sine die, in the wake of the clamping of lockdown in March, 2020, at four hours’ notice. 

Three of these 11 Ordinances relate to the farmers. In the Monsoon Session, these Ordinances were replaced by Bills, which were hurriedly passed; with President Ram Nath Kovind immediately thereafter according the Presidential Assent. These are Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.  

 These three legislations have the potential to deal a body blow to the farmers. When farmers realized that these laws would directly hit their livelihoods, there was no other alternative for them, but to come out on to the streets. It is a sad reality of our times that the Anna-Daata, who feeds the country, is forced on to the roads.  

The least that the Modi government could have done was to consult the farmers on the broad contours of the proposed Ordinances, before promulgating the same. If only the farmers were taken on board prior to Promulgation of the Ordinances, this agitation could have been averted. 

 What are the basic issues at stake? Why are farmers refusing to heed to the appeals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the entire Union Cabinet?  

First of all, some basic misconceptions woven into the narrative need to be cleared. One such basic misconception is that these laws will ensure that the farmer and the private purchaser have equal bargaining power. 

No. They do not have equal status. The small farmer will now be at the mercy of the private purchaser, as Agricultural Produce Marketing Committe (APMC) mandis are being done away with. Traders, on behalf of Corporates will form cartels, forcing a fait accompli on the farmers.

In case of dispute, the machinery proposed under the new law is so bureaucratic that it will ruin the farmers. So, at no stage is there any relief for the farmers proposed under these Anti-Farmer Laws. Besides, with corporates entering the farmers market, they are likely to procure the farmers produce at dead cheap prices.

The APMC Mandis are being dismantled, which are the only regulated markets available to the farmers to sell their produce, without creating markets in large villages and small towns that will be accessible to the farmers.  

 Secondly, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime will be eliminated progressively. Prime Minister Modi claimed he will double the income of the farmers by 2022. How will this be achieved now, by eliminating MSP? 

Thirdly, the public procurement system will also be done away with, eventually. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) buffer stocks of foodgrains will be seriously jeopardised, threatening food security.  This will have a serious bearing on the National Food Security architecture that was painstakingly put in place by Sonia Gandhi in 2013, aiming to provide subsidized foodgrains to two-thirds of the 1.3 billion Indians. 

Fourthly, the protagonists of the new Farm Laws argue why did not the previous Congress government accord statutory status to MSP, while voicing the demand now? 

Fact of the matter is that earlier on, bulk of the procurement was made for Public Distribution System (PDS); now that the government is showing signs of withdrawal from public procurement and paving the way for corporates, there is a growing demand for such statutory status for MSP. There should be a minimum floor price for purchasing foodgrains from the farmers. 

Fifthly a misconception created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaration is that the three Farms Laws are pro-Farmers. 

The moot question is if that were really so, why then are the farmers out on the roads to protest? How come, the Modi Government could not convince its own ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, whose leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal quit?

 Yet another tried, tested and trusted trick of the BJP is to blame anything and everything on the Congress, even after being in office for six years. Elected to power for the second term in a row, the Modi government cannot blame it on the Opposition Congress.

The Modi Government is spreading an impression that when in power, the Congress was planning to get a similar law passed. The argument goes as to what is the harm if the Modi government implements what is set out in the Congress Election Manifesto of 2019? 

Now, this position is not factually correct and is far removed from facts. The BJP brought out a letter written by the then union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar in 2006, trying to persuade the states to pass state laws to reform the APMC. So, what is wrong with it? That is the democratic way forward to get the States on board, as agriculture is on the concurrent list in Constitution. There can be no quarrel on the issue of reforms. The question is how it is done: through consultations, consensus and mutual accommodation. That is clearly seen to be missing now.

Besides, the BJP leaders are quoting selectively from the Congress Election Manifesto.  The Congress Election Manifesto stated that the marketing of agricultural produce must be reformed. Yes, it should be done, but not in a manner, in which the farmers end up feeling cheated, deprived of the only Safety Net that they have. 

By dismantling the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC), the Modi Government is forcing the farmers to be at the Mercy of the Corporates. This is something totally unacceptable to the farmers.

What the Congress Election Manifesto stated was to establish markets in Large Villages and Small Towns. The idea is to set up thousands of markets, in order to enhance access of the farmers to these markets. The Congress also proposed that the ruling prices in these markets should not be less than the Minimum Support Price (MSP).  

 It is then that the APMC becomes irrelevant over a period of time. The APMC can then be done away with. But it should not be disturbed till such time as the infrastructure of thousands of markets is created in all Large Villages and Small Towns.  

 The problem with the new set of laws is that it has created an unregulated environment, without creating an alternative infrastructure.  

For instance, the Agriculture Markets are governed by Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) laws enacted by the State Governments. Farmers can sell their produce at the APMC or State-run markets, at guaranteed Minimum Support Price. By dismantling the APMC Markets without the necessary infrastructure in place, the farmers are forced to be at the mercy of the cartel promoted by the corporates. 

The honourable way out of the present mess is that the Modi government should scrap the three laws. It can bring in a fresh set of Bills in consultation with farmers and other stakeholders in the next session of Parliament. The Modi Government can re-enact new laws, after allaying the apprehensions of the farmers.

Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi.

Views expressed are personal

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