Farmers’ Protests: What are the Main Concerns Regarding the Farm Bills Passed by the BJP Government?

In September 2020, the Bharatiya Janata Party government pushed the passage of three farm bills in Parliament. The bills, which are deemed anti-farmer, are facing opposition from farmers and state governments alike. But what makes the bills so controversial? 

 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s farm bills—the 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—passed in the monsoon session of the Parliament, have led to a series of events:  a union minister’s resignation from the cabinet in September, incidents of farmer suicides, and nationwide protests by various farmer organisations since November.

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 allows farmers to sell their produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis without paying any taxes. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 allows farmers to sell their future produce to agribusiness companies at a predetermined price, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 eases the control of the centre over the production and sale of agricultural produce.

The Prime Minister believes that the bills are a watershed moment for Indian agriculture as they free farmers from the influence of intermediaries. But farmers’ organisations see this as a move that increases the degree of participation of private companies. 

The concerns over the bills are twofold. First, the content of the bills are seen as a threat to small and marginal farmers. Second, the haste with which the bills were passed in Parliament is seen as a threat by states and regional parties.

This reading list looks at why the passage of the bills has been met with stiff opposition from farmers’ associations, regional political parties, and state governments.

Primary Concerns

The first point of contention regarding the farm bills is about the minimum support price (MSP)—the agricultural product price set by the government to protect farmers with minimum profit for their harvests. But, as an EPW Editorial from September 2020 points out, farmers are often not aware when the government procurement takes place, if it takes place at all.  

With the bills providing for the setting up of alternative (private) markets outside the conventional Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC)-governed mandis, and making no mention of the (legalisation of) minimum support price (MSP), the concern, prima facie, is that the government is now replicating its proverbial approach of dodging accountability for the distress-ridden farm sector under the guise of “barrier-free trade for farmers’ produce.”

Parliamentary Procedures 

The editorial also points out that the bill was passed without any discussion on important issues. The controversy around the bill, therefore, is not only in its contents but also in the way it was passed.

More than the content of the bills, it is, perhaps, the brazen infringement of parliamentary procedures in getting the bills passed—be it either the refusal of a division of votes following the debates on the farm bills or no informal headcount votes instead—that has driven the opposition’s resistance. Coercing the bills through by the sheer dint of power instead of their deliberated merits is a to ride roughshod over both federalism and democracy.

Practicality

The more obvious issues with the farm bills—the exclusion of intermediaries and the mentioning of the MSP and the subversion of democratic procedures—Nayakara Veeresha argues, are just a part of the problem. One crucial point that is often overlooked is the implementation of the bill. Small and marginal farmers, who constitute 85% of the country's agricultural landholdings, are indeed promised the freedom of expanding their market choices, but this is just part of the story. 

The high rate of indebtedness among the small and marginal farmers decreases the bargaining power to negotiate the price of the farm produce with the sponsors. Another factor is the transportation and transaction cost involved in selling the produce from APMCs to the chosen buyer. Given the low average agricultural income, that is, Rs. 6,426 per household as estimated by the National Sample Survey Office during 2012–13, it is highly impractical to burden small and marginal farmers with these costs on the pretext of providing an alternative market system. The FPAFSA fails to take account of these considerations, which are critical in what the bill claims, that is, price assurance and empowerment.

Powers, Policies, and Penalties

There is no food emergency in the country that could have required the government to act with such haste as it has, writes Pritam Singh, suggesting that the opportunity created by the pandemic was used by the government to swiftly pass the bills without critical assessment. Singh lists several reasons why the bill poses a threat, not only to farmers but to states and regional parties.

A dissatisfied farmer with limited res­ources, knowledge, and time, however, would not dare to challenge the legal prowess of powerful corporate entities who can hire expensive lawyers.

The government is also increasing its control over states and undermining their autonomy by making them more reliant on the centre for funds while leaving no scope for states to ignore the centre’s directives. 

The attack by the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 on the limited revenue resources of the states is also clear in the provision that “no market fee, cess or levy” can be levied by a state APMC act or any other state law. After depriving the states of the revenue they earlier earned through sales tax by rep­lacing it with the centrally controlled goods and services tax (GST), and now resisting compensation to the states due to this revenue loss, this is ­another attack on financially weakening the states and making them more depen­dent on the centre.

Then comes the question of divisions and tensions along regional and federal lines. States and communities that depend more on agriculture would be worse off than those states and communities that depend more on industries.

Agriculturally dependent states, such as Punjab and Haryana, and the farmers of these states would be the most adversely affected due to the weakening of the MSP structures. In contrast to that, industrially advanced states, such as Gujarat and Maharashtra, and the big business interests (especially agrobusiness ones) based in these states would be the beneficiaries due to increased and easier access to foodstuffs and agricultural raw materials from other states. This will increase regional and class tensions.

Singh sees this as part of a larger scheme by the BJP government of centralising the country. 

Its propagation of “One Country, One Agriculture Market” in defence of its farming policies articulated through the farm acts, the aggressive promotion of Hindi over regional languages (far more than the Congress ever did during its reign), its decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status and its statehood, and its New Education Policy are some of the key indicators of the BJP’s aggressive centralisation agenda.

 

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