FARMER’S BILL; THE HOLISTIC PERSPECTIVE
The Vastavik delves into the peculiarities and particulars of the Farmer's Bill, the points of the opposition and lastly clears the cloud of ambiguity in the minds of news consumers.
“If agriculture fails, everything else will fail.” - M.S Swaminathan(Father of India's Green Revolution)
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act along with The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance and Farm Services Bill, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill was proposed by the Union Cabinet on 5th June 2020. These bills were passed in the Lok Sabha on 17th September 2020 and in Rajya Sabha on 20th September 2020.
What are these Bills?
These 3 bills aim to change the way in which agricultural produce is sold, marketed and stored across the nation and were earlier issued in the form of ordinances in June. These bills were passed by voice vote in both the houses of parliament with a voice-vote and faced considerable opposition protest during the delayed monsoon session in September.
Promotion and Facilitation of Trade and Commerce of Farmer's Produce-
“Subject to the provisions of this Act, any farmer or trader or electronic trading and transaction platform shall have the freedom to carry on the inter-State or intra-State trade and commerce in farmers’ produce in a trade area.”
This bill permits inter-state and intra-state trade of farmers’ produce beyond the physical premises of Agricultural Produce Market Committee (AIPM) markets. Furthermore, State governments are prohibited from levying any market fee, cess or levy outside APMC areas.
This bill provides farmers and traders with a certain freedom of option to sell and purchase produce without the barriers of state premises. Along with this, an electronic trading platform has been proposed for ensuring a seamless trade electronically.
Along with mandis, farmers would enjoy the freedom to do trading at farmgate, cold storage, warehouse, processing units etc. Farmers will be able to do direct marketing thus eliminating intermediaries or the middlemen resulting in realization of higher prices.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020
This ordinance provides farmers with a farming agreement between a farmer and a buyer prior to the production or rearing of any farm produce. It also states that the minimum period of an agreement will be one crop season, or one production cycle of livestock, the maximum period being five years, unless the production cycle is more than five years.
Furthermore, it provides provisions for the price of farming produce which should be mentioned in the agreement itself. For prices subjected to variation, a guaranteed price for the produce and a clear reference for any additional amount above the guaranteed price must be specified in the agreement. The process of price determination should also be mentioned.
For the part of dispute settlement, the agreement should also provide for a conciliation board as well as a conciliation process for settlement of disputes. The Board must have a fair and balanced representation of parties to the agreement.
The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020
It includes the regulation of food items, the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 empowers the central government to designate certain commodities (such as food items, fertilizers, and petroleum products) as essential commodities. This allows the central government to regulate or even prohibit the production, supply, distribution, trade, and commerce of such essential commodities. This Ordinance also says that the central government can regulate the supply of certain food items including cereals, pulses, potatoes, onions, edible oilseeds, and oils, only under extraordinary circumstances like war, famine, extraordinary price rise and natural calamity of grave nature.
The Ordinance also requires that imposition of any stock limit on agricultural produce must be based on price rise.
Apart from fears of an end to Minimum Support Price (MSP), The Bills are largely favourable to big buyers, corporates, exporters, traders, and processors who want to control the food and agriculture business. These Bills also relate to contract farming, which until now is not practised in the State.
The Bills seek to provide a framework on farming agreements for the sale and purchase of farm produce which promotes the fear that contract farming will open up the State’s farm sector to multinational companies and corporates who look to buy the entire produce from large tracts of land and will further lead to the exploitation.
Policy makers and the central bank will also need to closely monitor how changes in the Essential Commodities act will impact retail food inflation. With the government permitting private participants to stock commodities freely, chances of hoarding to manipulate retail prices cannot be ruled out.
With the participation of private players, farmer groups need to closely monitor corporate interventions in agriculture markets. It is unlikely that private firms will immediately invest in value chains or set up private markets if state governments are not aligned to the reform agenda.
This legislation should be considered along with the Essential Commodities Bill. While one Bill allows more choices for farmers to market their produce at higher remunerative prices, the other one facilitates bulk purchasing.
Furthermore, without regulatory oversight and monitoring of transactions outside APMC mandis it remains unclear how the welfare impact on farmers will be quantified
Farmers in the country, especially where state-run Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) operate on a large scale are worried that the farm will further reduce their price security net.
They fear that the bills will leave them powerless in dealing with major corporates if APMCs cease to exist due to inactivity.
Farmers feel that they will be inevitably exposed to price exploitation by large corporates, who could become end up becoming “bigger middlemen” under the new structure. They are worried that in case of a dispute with the corporate, the poor farmers will be left powerless to defend themselves.
They are mainly concerned that this will eventually lead to the end of wholesale markets and assured prices, leaving them with no back-up option. That is, if they are not satisfied with the price offered by a private buyer, they cannot return to the mandi or use it as a bargaining chip during negotiations.
The biggest trust issue stems from the fact that farmers are also deeply suspicious that the government might withdraw minimum support price (MSP) even though the government has ensured that the mandi system will continue. The worry arises from the fact that only six per cent of the country’s farmers have been able to sell their prices at MSP. That leaves 94 per cent of farmers who are forced to sell their produce at prices lower than the minimum price determined by the government.
"This is a death warrant for small and marginalised farmers. This is aimed at destroying them by handing over agriculture and market to the big corporates. They want to snatch away our land. But we will not let them do this," Sukhdev Singh Kokri, a farmer, told BBC Punjabi.
Opposition and its Actions:
The opposition decided to boycott the Rajya Sabha until its key demands are met. The House, though, decided to go on with business as usual – passing seven Bills in under four hours without the opposition present. As protests against the hurried passage of the farm bills escalated across the country, all the eight MPs – Derek O’Brien and Dola Sen (TMC), Sanjay Singh (AAP), Rajeev Satav, Syed Naseer Hussain, and Ripun Bora (all Congress), and K.K. Ragesh and Elamaram Kareem (both CPI(M)) – sat on a dharna against their suspension.
Even as pandemonium erupted - opposition MPs not only stormed the well of the house but also threw their microphones and tore up papers - the deputy chairman of the house, who is an MP from a party that supports the government, chose to go ahead with the vote.
But, to the outrage of the opposition, he conducted a voice vote rather than a physical ballot. The latter, which allows individual MPs to cast their vote, is more accurate. The opposition alleged that the voice vote was not just rushed but was also unclear - in the light of the protest, they say, it was hard to determine if the BJP had enough votes to pass the bills or not.
Calling the bill “death warrant”, The opposition has questioned the manner in which the bills were passed also the manner in which the MPs were suspended and the leader of opposition were not allowed to speak and simply the manner in which the government has failed to accommodate the views of the opposition which by and large is highly undemocratic.
Another very big opposition came in the form of a resignation of Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Punjab ally Shiromani Akali Dal. Her resignation came on the same day the Lok Sabha passed two of the bills.
The announcement was made in the Lok Sabha by Shiromani Akali Dal President and her husband Sukhbir Singh Badal as he opposed two of the bills. “The Shiromani Akali Dal is the party of the farmers,” he said. “We oppose the bills as they are anti-farmer. I also announce that Harsimrat Kaur Badal will resign from the government.”
“I have resigned from Union Cabinet in protest against anti-farmer ordinances and legislation. Proud to stand with farmers as their daughter & sister”,he tweeted. ANI reported- “Thousands of farmers are on the streets,” she said. “I did not want to be part of the government that got the bills passed in the House without addressing the apprehensions of farmers.”
This “historic” bill caused widespread protests throughout the country especially in areas of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. Several farmers' bodies have called for a Bharat Bandh. As many as 31 farmer organisations have joined hands for the 'Punjab Bandh'. Several organisations in Haryana including the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), said they had extended support to the nationwide strike against these bills.
With burning of tractors on Rajpath, Delhi police five people have been detained for setting the tractor afire and that the fire was doused and no one was injured in the incident. Farmers have been blocking the Amritsar-Delhi railway track as part of protests against the laws. Opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi plan to conduct tractor to protest against these laws.
With the return of slogans like “JAI JAWAAN, JAI KISAAN”, the opposition asks two burning questions-of who is the bill is really benefiting, and if the ruling party isn’t protecting the farmers of the country, who are they protecting?