Congress has been on the warpath against the Modi government over the two farm sector bills – the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill passed by both House of Parliament. Senior Congress leader Manish Tewari tells Sagar Kulkarni of DH that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertions that the MSP regime would continue is a bogey. Excerpts:
DH: Why is the Congress opposing the Farm Bills?
Manish Tewari: The reasons are two-fold. First is that it transgresses into areas which are the exclusive jurisdiction of the states. The bills are per se unconstitutional and beyond the legal competence of the government. The second is if you look at the substance of the bill and you juxtapose against the amendments that have been carried out recently through the Companies Amendment Bill, whereby producer companies have been given preeminent position. The intent is very clear that the government wants big corporates to get into the business of agriculture. This essentially would mean that all that was achieved through the first 15 constitutional amendments from the 1950s to 1965 that empowered the marginal farmers, the landless labour, abolished the Zamindari Act and ensured an equitable distribution of land. Something which has ended feudalism in India created a middle class in our agrarian society. All this would be demolished and farmers would become serfs again. Earlier, they used to be at the mercy of landlords and now they will be at the mercy of big corporates.
DH: Congress claims the Bills would lead to discontinuation of MSP and dismantling of APMC markets?
Manish Tewari: Essentially, that is a possibility because of a simple reason that once you put in place alternate mechanisms of market access, whether it is through electronic trading platforms or through trading areas outside the APMC areas, the government could tomorrow turn around and say if the state wants to give a state-administered price – as UP does in case of sugarcane – they are free to do that, but insofar as GoI is concerned, we would discontinue the MSP. These are legitimate apprehensions which are in the minds of millions and millions of farmers across the country.
DH: BJP also claims that Congress made somewhat similar promises in its manifesto for Lok Sabha elections?
Manish Tewari: That is good hogwash. The Congress had infact proposed that we would create more APMC like structures whereby the linkages between the farm and the fork will get diversified, where the time lag for the farmer to access the market gets shortened. So, essentially our commitments or our proposals were to strengthen the APMC system rather than weaken it.
DH: So, what next for the Congress. The bills have already been passed by Parliament? Do you plan to move court?
Manish Tewari: The bills have been passed in the Rajya Sabha in a very unconstitutional manner and they would be open to a legal challenge. It is abundantly clear that the government did not have the numbers. They rammed the bills through in the most draconian and unconstitutional manner. In fact, Sunday was a Black Day in the history of the Council of States, when democracy was completely trampled upon. In fact, the government signed the death warrant of democracy in the manner in which it has behaved in the passage of the bills. The law is very clear, even if one member seeks a division, that division needs to be granted. So, even of if the President were to give his assent to the Bills, their constitutionality and their method of passage is something which will ultimately be challenged in the court of law.
DH: Was the ruckus in Rajya Sabha on Sunday avoidable?
Manish Tewari: Well, it was absolutely avoidable. The government should have agreed to a division.
DH: Suspension of eight of your colleagues in the other House?
Manish Tewari: It is extremely unfortunate. First of all, rather than listening to the message, you shoot the messenger. What were these leaders demanding? They were basically demanding that the Rules of Procedure for the conduct of the Rajya Sabha be followed. And the rules are absolutely clear and unequivocal. It is the right of every member to demand a division. Once a division is demanded, the division has to be granted.
DH: How will this pan out electorally in Punjab and Haryana?
Manish Tewari: That is something which we will have to wait and see. This is not about electoral gains or losses. This is about the lives and livelihoods of crores and crores of farmers across the length and breadth of India.
DH: Is the Congress planning a nationwide agitation somewhat similar to the one against the land acquisition bill in 2015?
Manish Tewari: This is a logical corollary of what happened on Sunday. There is a lot of consternation and anger amongst the farmers. It wouldn’t have been the case, the Akali Dal representative in the cabinet Harsimrat Kaur Badal wouldn’t have been forced to resign. She has not resigned because she has some empathy for the farmers. Akali Dal also gauged the fact that whatever little they have left in Punjab would be completely demolished. That is why she has taken the resignation route.
DH: Congress claims the government has bypassed demands for referring the bills to Select Committee? UPA also functioned in a similar way?
Manish Tewari: If you look at the demographics of India, 65% of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. So, something that is so critical to the livelihood of 90 crore people of the country, should it be treated in such a cavalier manner in order to benefit certain corporates? If you look at the economic direction of this government, they have tried their best to pulverise the small and medium enterprises, small shopkeepers and traders and promote large corporate interests.
DH: The Prime Minister and his council of ministers launched a massive outreach, accused opposition of misleading farmers over MSP and APMC?
Manish Tewari: The MSP will only be relevant if government procures. If government agencies stop procuring, what is the relevance of MSP? So, this whole thing that MSP will continue is a bogey. When there will be no procurement, how will there be any MSP?