Farmers' Protest Explained: Why and What
From Rail Roko to Delhi Chalo the anger of the country’s farmers against the agricultural ordinances has been increasing. The union government claims these reforms to be historical and prosperous for the farming sector. Why then are the peasants marching towards the capital to protest these bills?
The Standing Committee on Agriculture (2018-2019) had found and highlighted several issues with the current system of the sale of farm-produce in the APMC system, including but not limited to high levels of corruption, decreasing participation, among others. The Committee concluded that such practices and the current system of regulation was damaging the agricultural sector. The Union Government of India had previously in 2018 released model farming acts, which contained provisions for setting up contract farming. These rules had been notified only been 14 states in the country. Following this, another panel of 7 chief ministers was set up to deliberate on the implementation of the model acts. The union government in September passed 3 bills in the parliament in order to reform the agricultural sector, the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. On 27th September 2020, the bills received approval from the President and became acts, even as protests the bills picked up.
What do these reforms do?
The bills collectively seek to provide farmers with multiple marketing channels, break market monopolies, including that of the government-regulated APMC (APMC- Agricultural produce Market Committee) mandis (market yards), a framework for electronic trading of produce and provide a legal framework for farmers to enter into contract farming. The bills also prohibit the state governments from levying any fees or cess for trade of farmer’s produce outside the market area.
Set up by the government in the early 1960s, it created special areas called mandis in the market area that regulated the notified agricultural produce and livestock and worked under the jurisdiction of the market committee. As per the bills the farmers can now trade outside the physical premise of the APMC mandis and areas outside the mandi will not be subject to any cess/tax levied by the state governments or any regulations such as license trading. It is predicted that in practice, with no taxation and regulations outside the mandis, the traders will gradually move out of the mandis to the unregulated markets making the APMC mandis redundant.
The following are the issues raised by the farmers with regards to this:
MSP-Minimum support price and Price Discovery - With APMC mandis becoming redundant, the farmers fear that the provision of minimum support price for the crop, pricing transparency ,convenient payment methods and price discovery through auctions will also end, leaving them at the mercy of the large corporations for a fair price for their crop.
Contract Farming - The Farmers Agreement Ordinance creates a framework for contract farming through an agreement between the farmer and the buyer prior to the production or rearing of any farm produce. Owing to the unorganized nature of the farming sector and lack of resources and knowledge of the contractual legalities the farmers argue that this would give the corporates an upper hand who could further exploit the farmers.
Government Procurement - In the APMC mandis in case the crop was left unsold the government would step in to procure the produce at MSP assuring them of a fair price for their crop. But with the predicted obsoletion of the mandi system and minimal government involvement in the whole process the farmers fear inadequate protection from the private players in the market. With small and marginal farmers having little bargaining powers over these players, it would leave them with no choice but to sell their produce at unsustainable rates imposed by them.
Electricity Amendment Bill - The farmers are also demanding that the government repeal the electricity amendment bill. They argue that the bill supports privatization and fear that once enforced, the bill would stop free or subsidized electricity for the farmers.
The farmers believe the bills would largely privatize the farming sector, benefitting big corporates and weaken their say in the system. Farmers have also questioned as to why such large reforms that deeply impact the farming sector have been taken without consultation with the farmer organizations.
Farmers’ associations have also raised issue with the controversial voice vote that was conducted in the Rajya Sabha to pass these bills, with Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien alleging that the RSTV feed was cut-off during the vote and commenting on the passing of the bills as follows: “This is a brutal murder of the Parliamentary democratic system”.
To the Centre’s call for “one nation, one market” a counter demand of “one nation, one MSP” has been put forth by the farmers.
The farmer’s demands include the rescindment of all 3 farm laws as well as the Electricity Amendment Bill and the provision of MSP and procurement by government even for off market transactions to assure farmers of a steady income. The other demands also included asking the government to withdraw the provision of Rs. 1 crore fine and 5-year jail for stubble burning.
The Bharatiya Kisan Union, a farmer’s representative organization announced on 19th November that they would march to Delhi on November 27 to protest the Centre’s farm laws. They were joined by The All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) and farmers from across North India. On November 27, over 50,000 farmers (estimated) marched to the National Capital Territory of Delhi. The protestors were met with tear gas shells and water cannons, as the police sought to dissuade them from completing their journey to the national capital. After hours of tense stand-offs and repeated pushes by the farmer unions, they were finally allowed to enter the capital and stage their protest at the Nirankari Maidan in Burari, North Delhi. However, several thousand are still camped at Singhu on the Delhi-Haryana border. In addition to the bulk of farmers from the northern states, several farmer unions from other parts of the country, including Telangana, and Karnataka also travelled over 2000km journey towards Delhi.
There was no immediate government response to the mounting protests, with the Union Government choosing to stand its ground on the bills, maintaining that the bills are ultimately beneficial for the farmers. However the resignation of the Union Minister of Food Processing, Harsimrat Kaur Badal in support of the farmers’ protests, as well as the breaking of the alliance with the Shiromani Akali Dal (one of the ruling BJP’s oldest ally’s) raised questions from several fronts. Meanwhile, the protesting farmers have faced increasing levels of violence from the police.
Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has invited the agitating farmers for talks. “We have called all farmers' organizations on December 3 and we have talked before and are still ready for talk” he said. Home Minister Amit Shah also asked the farmers' organizations to assemble at designated areas to carry out protests in a peaceful manner.
With uncertainty of what the future holds for these farmers they continue to protest and are adamant that they would not return till the time their demands are met.
Sources: The Print, The Hindu, Second Report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, Times of India, TheNewsMinute ~Noor Sehgal