The farmer agitation is on the boil through the length and breadth of the country, its long-term consequences a lot less visible now, but one that can scarcely be underestimated. The All India Kisan Sangarsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), the country’s largest pan-India umbrella organisation comprising 250 farmer federations, is at the forefront of this stir.
According to its convenor, VM Singh, the central government has gone ahead with legislating the farm bills without so much as talking to farmers unions and associations. ``This is an all-out attempt to put agriculture in the hands of corporates. The country’s food security cannot be handed over to multinationals and private companies,” he told this writer.
The government on September 20, brushing aside the demands of the opposition parties to refer to three farm bills – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and the Essential Commodities (amendment) Bill, 2020 – to a select committee of the House for scrutiny and examination, passed them by a voice vote despite opposition MPs asking for a division, i.e. a recorded vote – which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) clearly was not in a position to win.
The Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) bill allows farmers to bypass the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) regulated markets and will lead to the formal sector beginning to engage with the farmers directly on a long-term basis, while the Agreement on Price Assurance bill strengthens the farmers’ bargaining power by laying out the model terms for an agreement with a buyer of farm produce.
The Essential Commodities Act was enacted decades ago to stop hoarding. States could decree stock limit for traders and prevent them from moving goods across the states. In practice, it also hit the farmers. They were not protected when prices of onions or potatoes fell but were prevented from reaping the gains when profits rose. The amendment will help farmers when prices rise. That remains the government’s position.
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Critics say that the bills were neither referred to the concerned department-related parliamentary standing committees nor to the select committee of the Rajya Sabha, as suggested by opposition parties.
Long simmering protest
Farmers have been opposing the bills, even before they were taken up in the Parliament, indicating a distinct degree of public resentment. VM Singh says that the first call against these ordinances, issued in June, were given by his organisation on August 9, with the slogan `remove the corporates and save the farmers call.’
He believes that while the call of `One Country-One Market’ sounds fine in theory, it is inherently flawed in a nation where 85 percent of farmers hold no more than 2-3 acres of land. He thinks that the fragmented holdings of farmers make them ill-equipped to participate in a free market setting.
There is little doubt that farming is no longer an attractive proposition. Surveys reveal that 42% of farmers want to quit because of decreasing options. Between 1970-71 and 2015-16, the number of farms more than doubled from 71 million to 145 million while the average farm more than halved from 2.28 hectares to 1.08 hectares.
To buttress his argument, Singh gives the example of the maize crop this year. “The bills may have been passed and made into an Act now, but the ordinances on these were promulgated on June 5, 2020, and the moment an ordinance is issued, it is a law. Thereafter, we had the maize crop coming during July and August. The minimum support price (MSP) declared by the government for maize was Rs 1,760 per quintal and this year it is Rs 1,850 per quintal. Yet, the government did not procure any grain and maize was being sold at less than Rs 1,000 per quintal – ranging between Rs 700 and Rs 900 a quintal across Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan.”
According to him, “the new law was in place and the shackles were removed with the ordinance and the farmers could have sold in any market but no one did so because they did not have the resources or the means to transport the produce, a vast majority of them being small farmers.”
The rationale behind the stir
Singh argues that even though the MSP was in force the government did not intervene and procure the grain. Compare this with those who would have ended up buying the entire maize produce of 285 metric tonnes at throwaway prices, while making huge gains selling in markets that fetched high prices. To Singh, this has only one meaning—those with means stand to gain.
There is also controversy about MSP, with some political leaders claiming that the new bills mean the end of government procurement. The government says they cannot do away with procurement or else how will they get grains for ration shops?
For Singh, however, the farmers can only benefit ``if there is a guarantee that produce will have to be bought at any price above the MSP with MSP being the true base price.” According to him, it is very important that such a guarantee is enforced in the form of a legislation, as it is missing in the current farm bills.
Just how seriously is the ruling party going to treat this growing farmer unrest? Even before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, analysts had predicted that dissatisfied farmers would vote out Narendra Modi, but it did not happen that way. ``Well, the 2019 polls were won on the nationalistic platform. The farmers, who constitute most voters in this country, supported the BJP. In a typical village, one brother tills the land while the other joins the army. This support will not come again, if the government forces the unpopular laws down their throats,” he asserts.
Singh’s warning is ominous. “The momentum is building against these bills through which the Modi government is taking the farmers for a ride. We are not fools to be taken in by the government’s marketing propaganda,” he asserts.
He also refuted the charge that Congress is instigating the farmers. ``If the Congress was that smart, it would not be sitting in the opposition. If they had fulfilled promises made to the farmers, they would not be where they are now,” says Singh, warning that there is going to be no let up in the agitation ahead.
Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist based in Delhi.