Sifting farmers' gains from the confusion
A common farmer and an end consumer would like the central government to reject the bad elements and implement the good ones that the new agriculture laws promise
The Opposition in the Rajya Sabha raged over the three agriculture bills that according to them are anti-farmer and pro-capitalist. An old ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), asked its union minister to quit in protest and gave the Opposition's anti-Modi rant new vigour even as the bills were passed in the upper house.
Since the Lok Sabha has already approved the bills, the President's ratification will turn them into laws for implementation across the country. The Opposition — interestingly it does not include all anti-BJP parties — is resolved to not allow the laws to be implemented in their existing form. The BJP yet again faces the allegation of being a corporate-friendly party. The country will soon see the opposition parties shouting in the streets, championing the cause of the biggest vote bank of farmers. In Punjab, the SAD has its own battle to fight against the Congress over farming issues. The BJP claims that the reforms will create a win-win position for the farmers and last end buyers.
In Maharashtra, the union bills have given the MVA partners another arsenal to poke the Modi government with. The first round was held over the Centre's decision of banning onion export, but it diffused quickly as local BJP leaders also joined the demand for withdrawing the ban that would cause losses to Maharashtra's onion producers. Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut asked the agriculture minister why a minister has quit, and if the government could assure the country that with the reforms, farmers' incomes would double, that no farmer would die by suicide and that their children would not go to bed hungry. He demanded a special session to discuss the bills instead of pushing them through in a disorderly fashion. NCP's senior MP Praful Patel wanted the government to consult former agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and SAD leader Parkash Singh Badal before coming up with the bills.
It's true that neither the common farmer nor the end consumer knows about the bills' nuances, but will definitely want to experience the benefits they promise. They really want to know if they will pay less if the farmers traded directly with agencies other than APMCs (Agricultural Produce Market Committee). In Mumbai, we pay through the nose for things that sell at much lower prices in the APMCs, where farmers also end up paying hefty commission and taxes.
Scene in Maharashtra
With confusion writ large, the BJP should be seen negating the impression imposed by the Opposition that it has made the farmers vulnerable to the corporates who wish to beat the state-controlled APMCs in a market condition created by the new bills. In Maharashtra, the BJP may respond through an act of legislation it had made in 2017 allowing the farmers to elect the APMC office-bearers in order to give them a larger say. However, the MVA scrapped the farmers' right to vote earlier this year, saying that the elections will be expensive and cumbersome. It would be interesting to see how the MVA government reacts to the Centre's laws.
The BJP-led previous government had also ended the APMCs' monopoly in trading of vegetables, fruits and spices in 2016. The union government's ordinances early this year freed the market further for the farmers. It is said that the MVA government was also prepared to announce the reforms freeing the trade of more farm commodities. An effective political and economic tool, the state has 306 APMCs that registered a turnover of about R48,000 crores in the last financial year.
The new laws are being opposed primarily on the charges that they do not ensure better prices for the farmers, and threaten the right to land ownership from a cartel of capitalist exploiters of contract farming. It is against the interest of small and marginal farmers, who the Opposition says would be reduced to labourers under the new law. The government says the bills are not going to override the Minimum Support Price mechanism, and adequate protection of land ownership was in place to protect farmer interests. The trade will take place in the non-APMC areas where the additional costs such as taxes and trading commission will not impact the final price that a vendor demands. Pro-reform people say the farm sector will improve with private sector investment in building infrastructure and supply chains that can cater to the national and global markets.
It is no secret that the people who control APMCs and the traders/commission agents who could lose a good amount of business, oppose the reforms. But they may have other reasons as well. The government should listen to their genuine grievances and make amends without compromising the farmers' benefit clause. The farmers too will have to think of the best trading option and look forward to the APMCs becoming competitive when the corporate/private players will come charging at them. We don't know yet in what way the reform will percolate from paper down to the ground. Till then, the farmers who get much less in price than what we, the hassled consumers, pay at the end of the supply chain, can count on the promises made.
Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore
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