In the game of political gains and loses- Are farm bills really a protective shield or a death warrant to farmers?

With the consent of the President, the much-debated farm bills have now become the law for the agriculture sector. Let us now see, will these bills change the fate of the farmers, or are the worries of opposition real.

Despite the protests against the new farm Bills, President Ram Nath Kovind on Sunday gave his assent for the three bills passed by the Parliament. All the three controversial farm bills that created a huge political turmoil and had cost the ruling BJP its alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal, have now become laws.

The three bills passed by the Parliament amid much drama during the recently concluded monsoon session are: Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020.

The Bills were alleged to be “anti-farmers” and have seen widespread protests particularly in the states of Punjab and Haryana.  A tractor was set on fire by a group of Punjab Youth Congress workers at India Gate in the national capital as part of the farmers’ agitation against the three farm legislations. 

The Centre believed farm bills as “historic” reforms in the field of agriculture sector as it would help the country’s farmers proceed into the 21st Century, helping them get a better price for produce. Whereas, farmers have expressed apprehension that the Centre’s farm reforms would pave a way for the dismantling of the minimum support price system, leaving them at the “mercy” of big companies.

Will the new laws be the game changer in agriculture?

According to the reports, these new reforms will attempt at ramping up the agriculture infrastructure to enhance supply chains, market facilitation of perishables and to provide better market access to farmers, and eventually to create a farm-to-fork ecosystem. The government’s attempt to implement the landmark reforms has met with resistance from the opposition parties and farmers, particularly from Punjab and Haryana.

These reforms will change the agriculture sector drastically. The government believed that there was a need to change the regressive land laws to achieve food security and the economy in a market system. 

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020, mainly focuses on removing restrictions on stocking food and facilitate better prices for farmers.

The Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, aims to end the monopoly of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) and allow anyone to freely participate in the purchase and sell of farm products in a trade zone, which includes all areas outside APMC. Unlike APMC, there will be no market fees or cess in any form on farm produce while farmers trading in physical or electronic trade of their produces in the Trade Zones.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on ‘Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, provides the legal framework for processors, aggregators, large retailers, and exporters to directly engage with farmers fairly and transparently.’

Are these farm laws anti-farmers?

The three contentious bills will definitely change the way India’s farmers do business. Beyond the political fracas, the bills have also split opinions – while Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the reforms a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture, opposition parties have termed them “anti-farmer” and likened them to a “death warrant”.

Angry and worried farmer groups see the laws as unfair and exploitative. While the pro-reform economists have partly welcomed the move.

The introduction of the bill is based on the concept of “One India, One Agricultural Market”. It aims at opening the gates for farmers to the corporate world to create additional trading opportunities beyond the APMC market yards to help farmers to get remunerative prices due to additional competition.

On the other hand, the opposition is of the view that the bills passed challenges the MSP and Public Distribution System. It is also argued that the bills are ‘anti-farmer’ as farmers are being handed over to the capitalists who will encroach them and exploit them rather than empowering them.

What is the issue?

Despite government’s clear announcement that the mandi system will continue, and they will not withdraw the Minimum Support Price (MSP) they currently offer. But farmers are suspicious. The changes in the agriculture sector are continuously opposed by the farmers and the traders, as they believe that the government instead of liberalising the farm markets will somehow put a stop to Minimum Support Price (MSP) on the mandated crops.

The protests are the strongest in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana state because the two states have a strong mandi system and also because agriculture productivity in these states is the highest as most people rely on agriculture business. The major concern of the farmers is- will the MSP continue? This is because the areas have high productivity and therefore, only the government has been able to buy that volume of produce at a set price. Apart from the farmer’s concerns, commission agents are also dreaded about the fact that this new system will make them lose their commissions.

In addition to the farmer’s concerns, state governments particularly in Punjab and Haryana are against the bills because if farmers will start selling their products to private buyers, they will be unable to charge them with the taxes that they were charged in mandis. The government of the states are fearing that doing away with the mandi system will leave millions of people without jobs.

India’s agriculture sector majorly comprises of poor farmers who own less than two hectares of land. With these bills, the poor farmers of the country will find it highly difficult to negotiate directly with large-scale buyers. Also, it is believed that the new bills will confine the mandis to their physical boundaries and give a free hand to big corporates buyers

Why did Akali Dal dump BJP? It’s not Just about farm bills

Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has ended its 24-year-old association with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The passage of farm bills by the Central government despite strong opposition by SAD is not the only reason behind the break-up of SAD and BJP but there are several layers to his decision.

The problems between the BJP and the Akali Dal began much before the farm Bills. The alliance faced several points of congestion in the past few years- from the BJP’s decision not to spare any seats for the Akalis in the Delhi Assembly polls, to the Akalis’ criticism of the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Another factor was that Akali Dal believed that BJP does not have much popularity amongst the Sikhs, who form the party’s core support base. Therefore, urban Hindu voters prefer Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh of the Congress over Sukhbir Singh Badal at the state level, despite of its alliance with BJP. This basically brings to the fact that Akalis had nothing to gain by preserving its alliance with the BJP and stood to lose its core support base completely.

It is important to note that Badal while announcing his party’s decision to leave the alliance, mentioned that bypassing the farm bills the government is not only neglecting the farmers but is also insensitive towards Punjabi and Sikh issues.

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