On Friday, farmers’ organisations across the country gave a call for a bandh to protest the three bills passed by Parliament. These bills were passed amid protests by the Opposition parties, without discussion in Parliament. Even the government’s allies, such as the Shiromani Akali Dal, have raised apprehensions, lending their voice to the farmers’ demands.
Projected as historic reforms, the government promises freedom to the farmers from the “villainous and exploitative” Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) mandis and from the middlemen who charge commission from trade in these mandis.
Most farmers would agree that the functioning of the mandis is inefficient, opaque, politicised and often controlled by cartels. The attempt to reform the functioning of the mandis is not new and has been in process for the last two decades.
So why are farmers protesting instead of welcoming the freedom from mandis?
For one, he writes, this time farmers are on the streets fighting for restoring the primacy of the mandis in agricultural trade primarily because APMC mandis are an essential part of the agricultural trading ecosystem.
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While farmers may have a confrontationist attitude to the functioning and administration of mandis, they also share a symbiotic relationship with the middlemen and the mandis extending beyond matters of transaction in agricultural produce.
“The middlemen are a source of information, inputs, and sometimes credit without collateral,” he explains.
The anger is also over the manner in which the bills were thrust upon the farming community. Not only the farmers’ organisations but even state governments and allies have not been consulted.
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Secondly, all the earlier attempts at reforming agricultural marketing respected the constitutional separation of powers. Most APMC reforms were enacted by states.
On the other hand, the current reforms completely bypass the state governments and weaken their ability to regulate agricultural markets even though it is a state subject.
Further, unlike earlier reforms where the focus was on strengthening the functioning of APMC mandis while allowing for greater private market access and participation, the current bill bypasses the APMC altogether, creating a separate structure of trading.
Most farmers realise that the reform is not delivering on the promise of freedom to farmers but freedom to private capital to purchase agricultural produce at cheaper prices and without any regulation or oversight by the government.
“The fight to retain the APMC despite its shortcomings is also a fight to extract a commitment from the government on maintaining state support to the agricultural sector,” explains Himanshu.
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