Badal says while split with NDA is “sad”, his party couldn’t compromise on its principles, asserts Akali Dal is not against corporates but wanted MSP included in farm laws, and accuses Cong of “playing games” on the legislation. The session was moderated by Resident Editor (Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh) Manraj Grewal Sharma
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: What exactly happened in the period between the preparation of the farm Bills and when they were tabled in Parliament? Initially, the Akali Dal defended the Bills.
Let me recount the events and situation before the farm Bills (were prepared), what happened in the Cabinet, and after that. We are a founder member of the NDA and we represent the farming community… Chaudhary Devi Lal, Charan Singh and my father (Parkash Singh Badal) are still the face of the farmers in this country. When the government decided to introduce a radical change in the system of agriculture, they should have consulted their allies. We were not consulted at all when the Bills were being prepared.
They (the Central government) formed a committee with seven chief ministers which included Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nathji, who were given the task to go through it (the Bills). But it never came in public domain. They should have called a meeting of the stakeholders, and we should have been one of them because we represent Punjab which is the heartland of agriculture. Nearly 95 percent of our cadre and leadership are farmers.
Secondly, when it came to the Cabinet, it was just brought in as a table item. (Former minister) Harsimrat Kaur Badal objected. She said that since you are planning to bring about a major reform in the agriculture sector, please defer it and don’t take a decision now, let’s get views on it. We were assured that this is just an ordinance and views of all the stakeholders will be taken before the Bills are tabled in Parliament. We started meeting all the stakeholders ourselves, which was the job of the government. I met all the kisan unions, all 30, individually. We also met agricultural economists, and people from farming communities. There was a lot of gap between what the government was saying and what people felt. We went to and fro, trying to take the government’s views to the people and bringing the people’s views to the government. That was misconstrued as our support for the Bills. We were actually trying to find a solution so that we could get all that the farmers wanted incorporated in the Bills.
Every farmer in Punjab and Haryana fears that big corporates will take over the market first and then exploit them and finish the Minimum Support Price. They fear that the Bills will end the APMC mandis. Punjab has 1,900 mandis for 12,000 villages, which means there is one mandi for about six-seven villages. A mandi is 25 minutes from your village, you can sell your produce there and get the money, which is not so in any part of the country.
I told the government that we need a legal provision in the Bill assuring that MSP will be a right of the farmer and every purchase, even by a private player, will be above the MSP, and the mandi system would remain unchanged. But they were not ready to put it in the legal language. Finally, the Prime Minister announced the Bills in the (Monsoon) Session. I had told the government not to bring the Bills till all the apprehensions of farmers were allayed. I even requested the minister and the BJP president to send it to a parliamentary select committee, so that the committee meets the farmers and incorporates their concerns, but they refused. I told them if that was the case we can’t be part of their government.
HARISH DAMODARAN: How can you force the private sector to pay the MSP? Secondly, why are all politicians opposing the entry of corporates?
First of all, we are not against corporates. What India needs today is (food) processing and it can only happen if companies come in. During our government, we made anything that you buy for processing tax-free… What people do, they buy grains or vegetables, for example onions, for Re 1 a kg, store it and sell for Rs 20 per kg. I am a kinnow farmer myself. I sell it to the trader at Re 1 a piece, which you then get in a Delhi market for Rs 10 or 12 or 15 a piece. What is their input cost? Only storage. Private players coming in for processing is no problem. What farmers are saying is that if corporates want to buy, they should buy at MSP. Once you encourage private players to buy below MSP, you help in the exploitation of farmers. Today, the cotton farmers are being exploited by private players in Punjab.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Since you mentioned cotton, if I am a private trader, I buy the kapaas (raw, un-ginned cotton) which has three components — lint (fibre), cottonseed oil and oilcake. I look at the prices based on what my realisations on these three things are. After my labour, processing costs etc, I say I can only pay Rs 4,000 per quintal today. Now, how can you ask me to pay Rs 5,000-5,500 or whatever is the MSP? It’s not practical.
The way a trader does his calculation, the farmer also does his own reverse calculation. He knows this is the MSP, and plans accordingly. But if the government does not come and buy, the farmer is left at the mercy of private players. The government of India has come up with the Right to Education, Right to Food… you can then say why is everyone getting food, education. MSP means Minimum Support Price. How can you say the private sector can be allowed in without paying the MSP? Now the government is not buying cotton, and farmers are being paid a thousand rupees per quintal less than MSP in Malout and Mansa mandis. A trader keeps his margin so high that he has a cushion. A poor farmer will not roam from village to village to get a good price, he will sell his crop for whatever he gets in his fields.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: You always said your alliance with the BJP was crucial for the social fabric of Punjab. Now, you have quit the NDA. What impact will it have?
Every political party has certain principles it cannot compromise on. The Akali Dal represents farmers. They were not being protected and so it was very difficult for us to be part of the alliance. If you look at the philosophy of the Akali Dal, we have fought the Congress. We feel they have ruined this nation. From Emergency to the attack on the Golden Temple and whatever happened in Punjab, they were the root cause of our problems. So, we formed the alliance… It is sad that over 20 years later this relationship has broken.
Explained Ideas| Why Shiromani Akali Dal parted ways with BJP over farm bills 2020
This farm Bill is not related to farmers alone. Farmers are connected to arhatiyas (commission agents), farm labourers and even shopkeepers. If the farming community faces a drought, you will see the sales in mandis go down drastically. If the farmer has got a bumper crop, the opposite happens. We tried hard to save this alliance but in the end we had no choice.
DIVYA GOYAL: The Congress and also some sections of farmers have been accusing the Akali Dal of doublespeak on farm Bills…
We were just going between the government and farmers so that the government could address the farmers’ concerns. We objected to the Bills in the Cabinet meeting, on the floor of the House… Secondly, actual doublespeak is being done by the Congress. Rahul Gandhi’s manifesto of 2019 clearly says that it will abolish every government mandi and only private mandis will be available. Can you imagine, he went a step ahead (of the NDA)? Captain Amarinder said in his manifesto that he will allow private mandis, e-trading, all the things which are part of the Bills. The Congress government in Punjab has already passed a law to this effect in the state. Even if Prime Minister Narendra Modiji withdraws the Acts, the Punjab Act will still stand. I posed these questions to Rahul Gandhi but got no answers. Actually, it’s they who are playing games.
SUNNY VERMA: You have been the closest ally of the NDA government. Do you think their refusal to consider your concerns reflects the arrogance of the ruling party?
I do not want to get into that. But, we have had long relationships with everyone and still have… The PM has taken some very good decisions also… He has been able to do things like opening of (the Kartarpur) corridor. I can name 10, 20 things which he has done. But, the problem is that they should have consulted us on our core issue, agriculture, which they did not do.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: The Shiromani Akali Dal is in its 100th year now. Under your leadership, the SAD came to power for an unprecedented second consecutive term in 2012 but it also gave its worst performance in 2017. Many senior leaders have left the party. What is the party’s roadmap for the future?
Every party goes through good and bad phases… But if you look at the last performance which people term our worst, with only 15 MLAs, we still got a 31 per cent vote share while the Congress got 37 per cent and the Aam Aadmi Party got only 21 per cent… In the general election last year, we gained 7 per cent as compared to the Congress, while the AAP’s share fell from 21 per cent to 6 per cent… The Shiromani Akali Dal has a very strong base. My father was chief minister for 25 years. Nearly 90 per cent of Punjab’s agriculture infrastructure was created by him.
NAVJEEVAN GOPAL: You have criticised Amarinder Singh’s government for passing the APMC Act in 2017. Why did the Akali Dal not object to it at the time?
During the first two sessions we were thrown out of the Assembly. They passed the law without even a debate, without anything. All Akali MLAs and even AAP MLAs were barred from getting in… I think 10-15 Acts were passed in a matter of 30 minutes.
KAMALDEEP SINGH BRAR: In 2016, your party had released a documentary in which you claimed that the Akalis fought hard for ensuring a federal structure in the country and that the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was part of that move. Now that you have left the NDA, will you go back to that Resolution to strengthen the federal structure?
When the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was passed, many people and the media thought that we were asking for Khalistan. Everyone thought we are anti-nationals. Today, every state is asking for the same thing. We have always stressed on more power to the states. Today, states are constantly begging from the Centre. At present, everything (finances) comes from the Government of India. Initially, majority of the finances were generated from Punjab and we could get our money in our accounts immediately. Today, you have to wait for GST. Things have become more centralised. A policy which is good for Bihar may not be good for Punjab. This farm legislation may be good for other states, I don’t know, but it is not good for us… If you look at it, the majority of laws are made keeping in mind Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, from where the maximum chunk of the MPs come… Has any law ever been made for the hills, especially for Nagaland or Northeast states? It’s because of numbers (of MPs)… Punjab has only 13 people (MPs). Giving more power to the state, especially financial power, would take the country forward.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: How has your relationship with the BJP changed over the years, from when it needed allies in its first term to the second term when it has complete majority?
We may not have been that affected as compared to other allies because we never demanded anything… But, yes, there has been a change… We were never consulted on the agriculture Bills.
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: You have said that in last seven-10 years, no meeting was called by the Prime Minister to consult allies. Can you elaborate?
Yes, there has never been any interaction (with allies) by the BJP as a major player. We founded the NDA when there were only two BJP MPs in the whole country. I don’t remember them calling the Akali Dal leadership, the Shiv Sena leadership (which parted ways earlier). (No discussions have been held on) How to take the alliance forward, what issues we have, how do we solve them… Even when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed and the decision on Article 370 was taken, we were not a part of the discussions. There was no discussion on the Indo-China standoff either.
VANDITA MISHRA: The NDA lost the Shiv Sena not so long ago and now the SAD has left the alliance. In Bihar, the LJP has walked out of the NDA. Is the NDA now less of a coalition which represents federal concerns and regional parties? How do you see this panning out for federal relations in the country?
The success of our country has been that voices from different regions are heard. It is very important to have regional forces as part of the system. The minute you start dominating everything, things will collapse. For example, we were not consulted on farm Bills even though Punjab provides 50 per cent of the country’s foodgrains. Bad decisions get taken when you start deciding at the top level without consulting the regions. It is not healthy to take over everything. India is a country with different languages, beliefs, people. The concept of one party trying to dominate the country may work in the short term… Like the Congress collapsed slowly, I think the same could happen.
NITIN SHARMA: What has been your father’s reaction to the break-up? Is the SAD ready to take on the BJP?
Since we are no longer a part of the alliance, obviously we will fight the BJP. Secondly, we took my father into confidence. He said we have to leave because we represent certain people.
SAURABH PRASHAR: Recently, the Punjab CM said that if we give water to Haryana, Pakistan’s ISI will take advantage of the situation. What is your take on this?
Captain Amarinder tries to bring the ISI into everything. He gave a similar statement on farmers’ agitation too. Yes, we are a border state but that does not mean the ISI will take advantage of everything. What is the government sitting here for? People of Punjab want peace. Terrorism can only flourish when it has ground support. My father has taught me that we can prosper only if there is peace and communal harmony. If you look at our party, we have been represented by every community… Punjab is one place where you have never heard of riots. The people of Punjab live together like a family. Many Hindus visit the Golden Temple and lot of Sikhs go to mandir (temples) and masjid (mosques).
MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: What is the way forward on the farm Bills?
We have set up a committee including the senior leadership. We will talk to all the jathebandis (organisations), kisan unions, as well as all the people who are part of this struggle. We can achieve results only if it is a coordinated effort. My only request is that the Prime Minister should consider the feelings of the people. Sometimes, we may think certain decisions are good but the people who you are taking these for may not like them.
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