Salient features that got lost in the din of protest

Subramani Ra Mancombu | | Updated on: Nov 19, 2021
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The Modi government has kept the door open and could, after talks with farm groups, bring back the laws with tweaks

Given the speculations that did the rounds soon after former Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh quit the Congress, the repeal of the three farms laws may not be surprising.

The legislations, first passed as Ordinances in June last year and then enacted by Parliament in September, were meant to be for farmers welfare but turned contentious as political parties tried to take advantage of some disgruntled elements, particularly arthiyas (commission agents) in Punjab and Haryana.

When the Centre announced its intention to promulgate Ordinance for the farm laws as part of Atmanirbhar Bharat in last year, it was seen as a game changer. Some experts even equated the laws with the 1991 economic reforms.

There are reasons why the farm laws were welcomed generally by those who knew how the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) yards functioned in the country.

The prime reason is that farmers were always under pressure from trader cartels. One example is the BusinessLine report on October 26 ‘Farmers want to get rid of Asia’s biggest onion market’ at Lasalgaon in Maharashtra. Onion farmers in the region have termed the market “useless” and “a cartel of traders, comprising a few families”. A study conducted on the 2011 surge in onion prices by Agricultural Development and Rural Transformation Centre, Bengaluru, revealed that a few big traders with well-connected networks played a big role in onion markets.

Powerful middlemen

The other example is what some government officials said in private when the Centre announced its plans for the farm laws Ordinances. The presidents of APMC yards were more powerful than village heads (pradhans), and their writ ran large in the rural markets.

As these chiefs wielded political clout, some political parties depended on them for support. Thus, farmers were at the mercy of these regional politicians.

Also, the quality of the produce has been a point of dispute between traders and farmers. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, would have ensured that farmers could have taken their produce to any part of the country or sold to anyone with whom they were comfortable in case of such dispute.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, were also criticised. Both were termed as moves to help big corporate firms but without any allegation being substantiated.

The Price Assurance Act enabled contract farming and this was one where the buyer couldn’t have backed off after entering into an agreement. Sadly, its impact was lost in the political din and bustle. The objective of Essential Commodities Act’s amendment was to ensure that farmers didn’t have to resort to distress sale.

Usually, unscrupulous traders would point out at the Act to stop a farmer from selling his produce. The farmer, in need of hard cash, would be ready to make a distress sale and thus end up in loss. This amended provision, too, got buried in the sand of protests.

It was for the first time that any government at the Centre focussed on strengthening the output side of farming. Until then, the Centre’s focus had been on the input side of agriculture such as fertiliser, power, fuel, seeds, insecticides and pesticides. These reforms would have looked at agriculture as a business and focussed on agri-produce marketing.

There were two drawbacks, primarily, in enacting the farm laws. One was its communication to the people, in general, and farmers, especially. The Modi government was on the back foot right away even as the usual fear-mongering of corporate takeover, ending of the minimum support price (MSP) mechanism and a host of other things were done.

No one in the government or the BJP took the initiative to point out at the hypocrisy of parties like the Congress, which had in its 2019 Lok Sabha elections manifesto talked of implementing these very same laws.

Second, the legislation was rushed through in Parliament in September last year. Even if the Opposition was not allowing both the houses of Parliament to function peacefully, it does not absolve the government of the blame of rushing through laws that it sees as crucial for the country.

A section of the farmers had some objections to the provisions in these laws but it did not make them amply clear despite the Centre’s assurance to look into them. A clause-by-clause review offered by the Central mediators too was in vain.

The laws never got implemented in the first place. The Supreme Court stayed them and the Modi government offered to suspend them for 18 months. The last word has not been said, yet.

The Prime Minister has withdrawn the laws since a small section of the farmers was not convinced and he says he would work hard to convince them. Also, he has said the government would form a committee including all stakeholders from the Centre to State to farmer organisations. This leaves the door open for the laws to be brought back with some tweaks.

Much before repealing, the Modi government has taken a couple of key measures such as direct payment to farmers under MSP procurement schemes and ending recycling of foodgrains back to the Central pool. These have hit the arthiyas hard and probably, undermined their roles totally in agri-marketing .

Published on November 20, 2021

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