Following their passage in Parliament, President Ram Nath Kovind has signed the three Bills which are being referred to as “Farm Bills”. However, these are not about farming alone. They are `Food System Bills’. They affect the entire food system. These laws will determine how we produce our food, how much do farmers get for what they grow, how much do people pay for food, how many people have livelihoods in the food system, and how we manage our soils, biodiversity and natural resources.
They could dismantle India’s centuries-old biodiversity-based, small farmer-centred tradition of Atma Nirbhar of small farmers, and 70 years of a regulatory system to protect small farms, small farmer livelihoods, livelihoods of millions of workers and small traders in mandis, the right to food, and the food sovereignty of the country.
The three bills are:
The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 which excludes food from the Essential Commodities Act;
Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 which dismantles regulatory market framework that prevents traders and agribusiness from exploiting farmers; and,
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 which opens the door for global agribusiness and food processing corporations to lock farmers into new corporate slavery.
The Essential Commodities Act is not related to farm prices but to the entire food system. The Act is a regulation to prevent profiteering from essential commodities on which life depends - like seed, food and medicine. It is meant to prevent speculation and artificial scarcity created through hoarding. Food is an essential commodity. When prices rise, people starve. Excluding food from the Act is a recipe for speculation and profiteering.
Putting trade and profits above people’s right to food is also a recipe for hunger as we experienced during British rule which destroyed our food sovereignty through trade and a system of extraction of taxes from the peasants. Over 60 million Indians died due to the resulting famines created by the British empire. In 1955, independent India passed the Essential Commodities Act to prevent traders from profiteering from food while people died.
The government used the Act to regulate the price of Bt Cotton seeds. It is related to Right to Food as a fundamental right. Food is life. Article 21 guarantees it as does the Food Security Act of 2013 which opens with, “An Act to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
The Act embodies the duty of a sovereign government to regulate the prices of essential commodities. Without the regulation of food prices, there is no Right to Food.
The second Bill is the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 which dismantles the regulatory market framework that prevents traders and agribusiness from exploiting farmers, and is the foundation of the biggest public food system in the world to ensure that the Right to Food mandis are governed by the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) comprising of both farmers and traders.
As an example, the Karnataka Act – The Karnataka Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation) Act, 1966 - clearly states: (iv) representation on the market committee to purchasers of agricultural produce, representatives of the purchasers’ co-operative societies, representatives of co-operative marketing and processing societies, municipalities, taluk boards and the Central Warehousing Corporation or State Warehousing Corporation”.
Governed by states
The APMCs embody three aspects: First, they are governed by the states. Therefore, Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 is unconstitutional since the Centre is encroaching on states’ rights.
Secondly, the mandis - governed by APMCs - are a co-operative arrangement between farmers and traders with oversight by the government. The mandis are regulated. No trader can hold more than a limited stock. And prices are regulated to ensure that farmers are not exploited. Thirdly, they are a physical space that provides farmers decentralised access to markets.
It is the existence of the mandi that guarantees farmers a fair price. And it is the existence of a decentralised network of mandis governed by states in a federal framework that is the backbone of our food security system. No trader in a mandi can take more than 2.5% commission. Three traders create a price difference of 6-7% between farm price and consumer price. After the 1991 neo-liberal reforms, this started to diverge. After 1997, the polarisation increased to 40%. Wherever corporations control trade and commerce under deregulated markets, they take 90-95% as the margin. Farmers’ incomes fall, food prices rise. As corporates control increases, the price polarisation between farmers’ price and consumer price increases. Integration of farmers into corporate food systems is farmers’ slavery, not farmers’ freedom and farmers’ sovereignty corporations are neither producers, not consumers. They are middlemen who increase the distance between the farmer and consumer, and make profits by exploiting both.
However, all evidence shows that small farms are more productive than large farms. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 80% of the food we eat comes from small farmers (‘Who really feeds the world’ by Vandana Shiva). Navdanya’s work with small farmers shows that small biodiverse farms based on agro-ecology and nutrition-sensitive agriculture can provide full and adequate nutrition to two times India’s pollution. Biodiverse systems that increase nutrition per acre also increase farmers’ incomes because they stop the drain for costly corporate seeds and agrichemicals, and they free the farmer from corporate chains that drive down prices of farm produce (‘Wealth per Acre’ by Vandana Shiva). Small food-sovereign farmers and a decentralised, diverse food system is the backbone of our food security and food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty of farmers and Indian citizens is the essence for a self-reliant Atma Nirbhar Bharat.
(The writer is Executive Director, Navdanya, a non-government organisation)