Modi Government in a dilemma with newly passed agricultural reform bills

Modi Government in a dilemma with newly passed agricultural reform bills

According to a gazette notification, the President gave assent to three 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. September 28, 2020.

The three laws aim to deregulate India’s enormous agriculture sector. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said they will “liberate” farmers from the tyranny of middlemen and allowing farmers to sell anywhere in the country.

But many farmers fear that they stand to lose more than they could gain from the new regulations and that the main beneficiaries will be agricultural corporations with gargantuan financial firepower.

However, the farmers have been worried that the new laws will eliminate the safety cushion of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) and procurement system while rendering ineffective the mandi system that ensures earnings for the various stakeholder’s farm sector.

As a result, the farmers have taken to the streets in the biggest such protests in years. Farmers’ protest is against the Centre’s new farm laws, which they say would pave the way for dismantling the MSP system. They want the Centre to scrap its “black laws” which they say are not in the farming community’s interest.

The demonstrations ramped up last week when several thousand protesters from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana converged on the capital, New Delhi. Police blocked them at the city’s borders, denying them permission to gather in a place of their choice.

The five major demands of farmers are:

• The rollback of the three agri reform laws passed by the Parliament a few months back. The farmer unions say these rules are not in their favour and will promote privatisation of agriculture and benefit hoarders and big corporate houses. They say these laws weaken future prospects.

• A written assurance in the form of a bill that the MSP and conventional food grain procurement system for the central pool will continue in the future.

• The Centre drops the electricity bill amendment. Farmer unions say if this legislation becomes a law, they will lose free power supply facility as this amendment will promote privatisation and discontinuation of free power supplied to farmers in Punjab.

• Withdrawal of the provision under which farmers responsible for burning farm residue can be imprisoned for five years besides a fine up to Rs 1 crore.

• The protesters also want the release of farmers arrested on charges of burning paddy stubble in Punjab.

The five demands show that protests are not just against the three agriculture laws but to push in other demands. Some farmer unions have also raised local issues and demanded that they be paid sugarcane prices at par with Haryana farmers.

Talks between three union ministers and a representative group of thousands of agitating farmers failed to yield any resolution on Thursday. The union leaders stuck to their demand for the repeal of new farm laws and even refused the lunch tea and water offered to them during almost eight-hour-long hectic parleys.

On its part, the government assured the group of nearly 40 farmer leaders that all their valid concerns would be discussed and considered with an open mind. Still, the other side flagged several loopholes and deficiencies in the laws, which they said were passed hastily in September.

Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who led the government side at the fourth round of talks at Vigyan Bhawan, later told reporters that the next meeting would take place on Saturday at 2 pm, which he hoped would take the matter to a decisive stage and towards a resolution.

He also said there is “no ego involved” and the government has agreed to “discuss and consider with an open mind” some major points of concerns among farmers about the three new laws, including on strengthening of the APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee) mandi system, tax parity with proposed private mandis and freedom for farmers to approach higher courts for any dispute resolution.

Tomar said the government would also consider all these issues on Friday, and so will the union leaders before coming to the table again on Saturday. Asked whether the government is ready to amend the three contentious laws, Tomar said, “I am not a fortune teller. When we meet the day after, we hope to move towards a resolution.”

Tomar said the government would also be open to looking into farmers’ concerns related to an ordinance on stubble burning and an electricity-related law.

He said the Narendra Modi government is committed to continuing, improving, and expanding the procurement process at MSP (Minimum Support Price). “There should not be any doubt in anyone’s mind. Still, if farmers have any worries on that front, we would want to assure them that the new laws do not present any threat to the MSP system,” he said.

The minister also assured that the government is ready to make it more transparent, if required, that there is no threat of farmers losing their land to corporates.

A government source said the meeting would resume on Saturday as no final outcome could be reached due to lack of time.

Union leaders, who came out of the meeting venue shouting slogans, said the talks remained deadlocked, and some of them threatened to boycott any further meetings if no solution was found at Thursday’s meeting.

“Discussions are over from our side. Our leaders have said they will not attend further meetings if the government does not give a solution today,” said Pratibha Shinde, AIKSCC (All India Kishan Sangharsh Coordination Committee) working group working group member and President of Lok Sangharsh Morcha, which represents farmers of Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Another farmer leader Kulwant Singh Sandhu said the government made many proposals, including on MSP and procurement system, which would be discussed among the farmer organisations on Friday, before the next meeting with the government on Saturday.

AIKSCC General Secretary Hannan Mollah said the unions’ main demand remains the repeal of the three Acts, and the government also listened to the 8-10 specific deficiencies pointed out by the farmer leaders.

“We do not want any amendment. We want the Acts to be repealed,” he said.

Mollah said all farmer organisations would meet on Friday at 11 am to take a collective call for the next round of talks with the government.

Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ambarta) President Rishipal said, “The government noted all points. Ministers assured that they would look into them and sought one day’s time.”

However, the farmers’ unions stuck to their demand of repealing all three farm laws, else they will intensity the protest, he said.

The government gave a detailed presentation on the three laws and asserted its intent towards the farmers’ welfare.

However, union leaders rejected the government’s position. Besides Tomar, the government side included Railways, Food and Consumer Affairs, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal; and Minister of State for Commerce Som Parkash, an MP from Punjab.

The 40 farmer leaders present at the meeting refused the lunch offered by the government and preferred to eat the food ferried in a van from the Singhu border, where thousands of their colleagues are sitting in protest against the new agri laws. They also did not accept tea and water offered to them during the meeting, which began around mid-day.

The previous round of talks had taken place on December 1, but had ended in a stalemate even after three hours of discussion as farmers’ groups rejected the government’s suggestion of a new committee to look into their issues.

On Wednesday, agitating farmers had demanded that the Centre convene a special session of Parliament and repeal the new farm laws.

Thousands of farmers have been camping at various borders of the national capital for eight days as part of their protest against the laws. But protests have been continuing for much longer in other parts, especially in Punjab.

While the first two rounds of talks were with Punjab farmers’ representatives, the third round saw participation from Haryana and two nationwide organisations also. The fourth round included representation from more states, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh.

After the meeting, Tomar said, “Discussions were held in a cordial atmosphere where the union leaders presented their side and the government also gave its views. A few major points of concern among farmers have after the four rounds of talks.”

Asserting that the government is fully committed to farmers’ welfare and will remain so, Tomar said, “There is no ego involved on the government’s side, and we have been discussing each and every issue with the unions with an open mind.”

He said farmers and their unions are worried that the new laws will end the APMC system.

“The government will consider ways to strengthen the APMC framework and make it of greater use. As far as new Acts are concerned, there are provisions for private mandis outside the purview of the APMC. Those private mandis would be set up, and we will discuss how there could be a tax parity between these private ones and those set up under the APMC Act,” he said.

We will also ensure that all traders are registered for operating outside the APMC mandi system, the minister said.

“The new Acts also have a provision that any dispute will go to SDM (Sub-Divisional Magistrate) court, but the unions want freedom for going to higher courts. The government has also agreed to discuss and consider this point with an open mind, as unions stressed a lot on this issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, veteran politician and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Prakash Singh Badal, a five-time former chief minister of Punjab, has returned his Padma Vibhushan award to the President of India against what he says as “betrayal of the farmers by the government of India”.

Several former sportspersons, including Padma Shri and Arjuna awardees, have extended their support to the agitating farmers and said they will return their awards in protest against the “force” used against the peasants en route to Delhi.

Among them are Padma Shri and Arjuna awardee wrestler Kartar Singh, Arjuna awardee basketball player Sajjan Singh Cheema and Arjuna awardee hockey player Rajbir Kaur.

Incidentally, SAD (Democratic) chief and rebel Rajya Sabha member Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa has also announced that he would be returning his Padma Bhushan award.