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Farm Bills: Seeds of discontent

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Protests have erupted all over the country over the passage of Bills which are being seen as anti-farmer. Will the Bills put them at the mercy of big corporates and lead to an unequal playing field?

By Sambhav Sharma

Farmers in many states are protesting against three new farm Bills, which were passed in the Rajya Sabha in a charged atmosphere. The row led to the suspension of eight Opposition members for the rest of the session. The MPs later staged a sit-in outside Parliament.

The Bills Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 were passed by both Houses of Parliament and now need President Ram Nath Kovind’s signature to become law.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to woo farmers’ unions, the government hiked the Minimum Support Price (MSP, the price at which it buys farm produce) of six rabi crops. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the farm Bills a need for 21st-century India and assured that MSP would not be scrapped. “We have taken well thought out decisions that are not for any political benefit (to us) but for the empowerment and benefit of farmers.” he said while addressing BJP workers at a function on September 25.
Read related column: Save The Farmer.

However, Opposition parties, farmers’ groups and commission agents launched a nationwide stir on that day to protest against the contentious Bills. Punjab, followed by Haryana, were the epicentre of the protests.

So are these Bills really anti-farmer? How would they impact the agriculture sector in the short and long term?  How can a small farmer be expected to bargain with a big corporate player on an equal basis?

Farmers’ leader Vinod Anand told APN, India Legal’s sister organisation, that there was no question about the intent of the government as farmers can now sell their produce to markets other than APMC’s mandis and this would increase competition. “However, the reason for the protest was the amendments which we suggested to the government,” said Anand.

The first bone of conten­tion is that in case of a dispute between the parties, the farmers can’t knock on the doors of courts. The second is quality and grade which is to be decided by an agreement, which would be very subjective and is likely to be used by corporates to exploit farmers. Suppose, a natural calamity occurs or if the quality of produce suffers, then farmers will be at the receiving end. The third issue is that farmers demand legislation assuring that MSP will continue.

In India, 85 percent of farmers come under the small and medium category, Anand revealed. “How would a farmer like the one in Munshi Premchand’s Godaan be able to withstand in a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) court? Small and marginal farmers face exploitation and will also fail to get full payment for their produce.” There was a dire need to reform mandis and include all farmers under the ambit of the banking system with a unique farmers’ ID, he added.

Economist GP Srivastava, a former chief advisor in the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, told APN that the passage of these Bills was a revolutionary step and had the potential to reform the farm sector. However, there were a few challenges which the government needed to seriously address.

Both Union and state governments need to work in tandem to address the fears and apprehensions of the farmers so that they don’t feel exploited at the hands of corporates. This could be done by educating farmers about their rights

said Srivastava

Modi’s reforms were the need of the hour as cartelisation by middlemen and traders was a grave challenge farmers face in mandis, he said. A few powerful people control mandis and exploit farmers for their own benefit. To safeguard the rights of small and medium farmers, the economist suggested that MSP needs to continue so that they can get an assured price. Highlighting the problem faced by the current mandi based system, he said that monopoly was a bigger problem and these Bills would promote competition which would weaken the monopoly.

These Bills open the doors for farmers so that they can think beyond MSP. The government needs to assure that MSP will be maintained.

However, small farmers from a village in west UP told APN that only big farmers benefitted from any new law. The government failed to connect directly with small farmers as middlemen play a big role here, they said.

Veteran farmer Ratan Singh said that the government had failed to make farmers understand how these Bills would help them. For example, if a farmer sells 15 quintals of produce, he will only get money equivalent to 10 quintals, while that of five quintals would be swallowed by middlemen. “If the new Bill can cut the role of middlemen, it would strengthen the pocket of the small farmer,” he added. Sanjay Kumar Tiwari, a farmer from a village in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, said that with these Bills, farmers would be at the mercy of big corporates. Farmers needed government protection, he added.

On the other hand, Dr Ravi Singh, Vice-President, Karvy, a stockbroking firm in Hyderabad, said that with the infusion of private money in the farm sector and direct contract with the tiller of the land, the role of middlemen would decrease. This step of the government would free farmers from the mo­nopolistic clutches of mandis. Under this Bill, farmers with less than five hectares are kept in a different category and hopefully, the government would make a special provision for them, so that small and marginalised farmers are not vulnerable to manipulation, he added.

Another take on these Bills was provided by Prof Ramesh Chand, Director, Institute of Agriculture Sciences, BHU, who said that the commercialisation of the farm sector would motivate the use of organic manures. “This is because private players will demand better quality, which will come with balanced soil nutrition,” he said. Private players would also demand soil analysis and soil report and for better soil nutrition, farmers need to think of alternatives to pesticides. However, in this process, they are vulnerable to exploitation, he added. The Bills would also impact cropping patterns and lead to diversification of crops. “With the infusion of private money, farmers could try horticulture crops and come out of conventional cropping patterns like wheat and rice,” Chand said. Coming to mandis, he said there were serious issues with them which ought to be addressed on an urgent basis. A farmer faced a long queue to sell his produce in the designated market. The whole process takes 3-4 days and was very frustrating for him.

Rashid Bashir, an apple farmer from Kashmir, said these Bills would impact the state revenue as a farmer can now sell products in any mandi without tax. Bashir Ahmed, chairperson of Fruit Growers Association in Kashmir, called the Bills anti-farmer.

“There was a competitive environment in horticulture mandis and the farmer got a better price for his crop. Now, the government wants to give power to big corporates,” he said.

Read Also: Farm Bills: Save the farmer from vested interests

The real impact of these Bills can be gauged only after they become law and are implemented at the grassroots level. Though the new law allows farmers to sell their produce outside mandis also, how can they bargain on an equal basis with big corporate players? Reports suggest that after Independence, the condition of small and marginal farmers has not improved much. They have been driven deeper and deeper into debt due to crop failures and the inability to secure competitive prices for their produce. Many are unable to cope and commit suicide. Against this backdrop, the government needs to ensure that the new Bills don’t become tools for exploitation in the hands of corporates.

Is that asking for much?

Lead Picture: UNI

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