Farm laws repeal: A long road ahead for farmers still

Farm laws repeal: A long road ahead for farmers still

Centre pushes the ball to states on MSP, withdrawal of cases

There was much criticism over the Centre usurping the powers of the states - agriculture being a State subject in the Constitution - by enacting the free market law [The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2021], for setting up private outlets outside of mandis. Credit: AFP Photo

Political expediency may have forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi's hand to roll back the three reforms-oriented farm laws, but the government does not seem to be in a mood for a photo-op with the triumphant leaders of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a congregation of farmer organisations and unions, who are seeking an official meeting.

For most farmers, a decision on mandatory payment of minimum support price (MSP) for the 25 notified farm commodities should have preceded the withdrawal of the laws because if corporate and private entities were bound by law to pay MSP to farmers, half their troubles would be over. A law with penalties would also bring traders within the mandi precincts to be fair to farmers, especially the small and medium ones who lack storage space for their farm produce and are at the mercy of arhtiyas (commission agents) in terms of weighing, quality, timely and full payment for their harvest. Apart from that, procurement is limited and for a short period, leaving several farmers to fend for themselves in the free market.

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High cost of inputs, dependency on monsoon, insufficient harvest payment, and unpaid loans make farming unremunerative for most small and medium farmers with a landholding of two or fewer hectares. The latest socio-economic data in the Situation Assessment of Agriculture Households conducted in 2018-19 (77th round) puts the average monthly income of marginal farming households from all sources at Rs 9,099 up from Rs 4,600 in 2012-13 (70th round). In real terms, the percentage increase is even lower.

Now the Central government has taken the stand that acceding other demands of the SKM, including mandatory payment of MSP, withdrawal of agitation cases against farmers, as well as compensation for the over 700 farmers who died during the year-long unrest lies with the state governments. However, several of the concerned states are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and will therefore look to the Central government for directions.

There was much criticism over the Centre usurping the powers of the states - agriculture being a State subject in the Constitution - by enacting the free market law [The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2021],  for setting up private outlets outside of mandis. The government's explanation was that "trade and commerce" being on the Concurrent List, it was well within its rights to enact such a law.

But by pushing the ball back into the court of the states, the Centre has virtually washed its hands off the issue, although to buy peace and time, the PM has announced the setting up of an over-arching committee to study the matter. From zero budget farming to crop diversification, the proposed panel will also look into how to make "MSP more effective and transparent". This in no way indicates any change in the government position. Last year too, while initiating talks with the farmers' representatives, the Centre had offered to set up a panel to study the demands, including repeal of the three farm laws brought through ordinances, but the SKM had outrightly rejected the idea.

It might be mentioned here that while granting a stay on the implementation of the farm laws, the Supreme Court had set up a panel headed by economist Ashok Gulati to study the laws, talk to the various stakeholders and come up with recommendations. The report was not made public. A panel member has now asked the report to be publicised and revealed that the committee had recommended executing the farm laws. In a clear conflict of interest, he even said he could gather one lakh farmers who supported the laws. This panel may have been set up with a different intention, but committees are often a tool for postponing decision-making and nudging outcomes.

On the SKM demand for withdrawal of the proposed amendments to the Electricity Act, 2020, the Central government is silent. On the contrary, the Bill has been listed for discussion in the winter session of Parliament that has begun today. The reforms oriented proposal is for privatisation of distribution with decision making vested in a single authority for influencing cross-subsidy and tariffs, which might impact the price at which electricity will be available to domestic consumers as well, as for irrigation.

By recently declaring that "all" demands of farmers had been met and that they should lift their siege of Delhi, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar indicated that the State Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act remains relevant for governing the sale of farm produce. The Central government's amended Model APMC Act had provided for setting up of private markets outside of mandis but not all states, who would loathe losing the considerable revenue from taxes and levies, had adopted it.

This law does not provide for mandatory payment of MSP to farmers, but the minister was hinting that the states that want to do it could go ahead. The truth of the matter is that whether the Congress or BJP, most major political parties support reforms in agriculture marketing on the age-old principle of availability of raw material to industry and corporates at low rates at the cost of farmers whose status remains largely unchanged.

The Model APMC Act, which also provided for contract farming norms, was introduced during the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance regime in 2003, but the United Progressive Alliance, which came to power in 2004 and returned in 2009, did not dismantle it. Even now, five opposition-ruled states, including Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi passed a resolution in their respective assemblies to oppose the three contentious farm laws. None, however, provided for mandatory payment of MSP to farmers. A reason for this could be that the Centre fixes targets for procurement of farm produce for the central pool and releases funds to the states for payment of MSP. The one who holds the purse strings calls the shots. In this case, the Centre.

Anxious that nothing disrupts the legislative withdrawal of the farm laws, the SKM postponed its tractor rally towards Parliament on the first day of the winter session. Senior leaders like BJP's Kalraj Mishra and others may have spoken out of turn when they said that farm laws might be back in an amended form, but that prompted the SKM to seek written assurances on their "pending issues" from the government in a direct meeting. However, the Centre seems to want to deny them for now, which means their struggle is not yet over.

(Gargi Parsai is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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