Rasheeda Bhagat

Hastily hustled farm laws raise question marks

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on September 21, 2020

Without proper regulation and monitoring mechanism in place, farmers fear they will be at the mercy of big corporates

On a Sunday morning, in the midst of a ruckus and Opposition walkout, the Rajya Sabha pushed through two (out of three) controversial farm Bills by voice vote. Two days earlier, Harsimrat Kaur, Food Processing Minister in the Modi Cabinet, had resigned in protest. With Punjab elections only 18 months away, her party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, a member of the ruling NDA, which is hoping to return to power in the State, simply cannot go against the angry and agitating farmers of Punjab..

For a week now, several farmer outfits have been protesting against these Bills, now law, accusing them of being “business friendly” and fearing that big agri-business firms will now call the shots in Indian agriculture, and thoroughly exploit farmers, especially the small and marginal ones. Punjab farmers have announced a three-day rail roko agitation from September 24; other outfits have called for a bandh on September 25.

The most spirited and strident criticism of the Bills came from the feisty Trinamool Congress MP, Mahua Moitra, who accused the Central government of systematically destroying the federal structure of the country, and watering down States’ powers. “Once again, this government is doing what it does best, which is arrogating to itself a constitutional authority it is not vested with,” and predicted that “this move will permit the government to retrospectively validate its failure”.

In an editorial, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna lambasted the Modi government for “giving control of farmers’ lives to private players,” after the privatisation of airports, railways, ports, etc.

The three Bills were on agri-market reforms, contract farming provisions and the Essential Commodities Act. The government’s reasoning is that these laws will help small and medium farmers sell their produce outside the APMC mandis to whoever they want, and will benefit those who don’t have access to technology.

The contract farming legislation, argues the government, will allow farmers to enter into contracts with agri-firms at a predetermined price, an insurance against the vagaries of the monsoon, floods or drought.

The apprehension of farmers about these laws is that without proper regulations and monitoring mechanisms of the government, they will be at the mercy of big corporates, whose only motive is profit.

Even when it comes to contract farming, those of us who have seen the vulnerability, distress and despair of small farmers, and their total dependence on the vagaries of nature, can well imagine the small landholders bartering away their rights to their crop to agri companies for paltry amounts. When you have little or nothing to fall back upon, you are most likely to succumb to the a bird in the hand…

Corporatisation of agriculture

Agriculture expert Devinder Sharma disputes the government’s claim that these laws are farmer-friendly and not market-friendly. “If it were so, then why are the markets happy and the farmers protesting?” he says. He says these laws mirror American and European free-market policies on agriculture, and their “get big or get out” and “move up or move out” mantras for farmers, and wonders where they would lead a bulk of the 60 crore people dependent on farming in India. He argues that despite huge subsidies (“on an average an American farmer gets an annual subsidy of $60,000 against only $200 for an Indian farmer”) and a free market, there is huge farm distress in Europe and the US.”

Before the corona pandemic he visited France and found that 500 farmers commit suicide a year; “I was told that young farmers do not get brides. So it is no different from India. This is the social fallout of keeping agriculture impoverished.” Sharma argues that barely 6 per cent of Indian farmers get MSP, and 94 per cent of them are anyway dependent on the market. “If the market is so good, then why are Indian farmers in such acute distress? The Punjab and Haryana farmers are angry because they sell a bulk of their rice and wheat produce to the mandis.”

He gives the example of Bihar, which did away with the APMC Act in 2006, claiming that “Bihar will be the new harbinger of agricultural revolution in India. But the reality today is that Bihar farmers are sending truckloads of their produce to Punjab and Haryana mandis.”

It’s early days yet to decide if these controversial farm laws will be farmer-friendly, as the government claims, or yet another salvo from the suit-boot ki sarkar, as Rahul Gandhi once called the Modi government, to throw our already beleaguered farmers to corporate wolves! But the haste with which the Bills were hustled through the Rajya Sabha raises serious doubts on whether the 70 per cent of our population dependent on farming will really benefit.

Published on September 21, 2020

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