Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has directed party CMs to exempt fruits and vegetables,which have contributed extensively to the persistent food inflation,from the purview of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act. However,ensuring this so as to make any impact before the 2014 elections may prove easier said than done.
The archaic APMC provisions virtually restrict agricultural trade to within the confines of state-regulated mandis. Anyone other than a farmer needs a licence to trade in agricultural commodities there. Over the years,traders holding these licences have come to function as cartels,fixing prices of the produce procured from farmers through an opaque system and maximising their gains.
The Centres attempt to reform this through a model APMC Act circulated to states in 2003 has achieved little success as agricultural marketing is a state subject under the Constitution. Several appeals by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to state governments to reform agricultural marketing have gone unheeded.
Rahuls suggestion may also face resistance given the ties that have developed between the political class and traders as well as between state governments. If traders will oppose a move that seeks to demolish their monopoly,state agricultural marketing boards will be averse any blow to the established network of mandis,as the transactions there contribute to their revenue.
Rahuls directive,in a way,seeks to allow traders without licences in mandis,allowing retail chains,aggregators and processors to source fruits and vegetables directly,bypassing the intermediaries. This is expected to result in more competition for the farm produce,benefiting farmers,and by making pricing more transparent,eventually the consumers. Fruits and vegetables,in particular,have several layers of intermediation between the producer and consumer.
APMCs have been restricting agricultural trade. Most of the traders at mandis have got warehouses and resort to hoarding to maximise profits. Through cartelisation,they fix prices. Mandi tax and other levies in the name of development also add up to the cost for consumer, says Vijay Sardana,a Delhi-based agri-business expert.
While H S Baweja,Managing Director,Himachal Pradesh Marketing Board,too claims to be open to reforms,he cautions that existing mandis may be staring at losses. If the government proposes reforms and scraps the fee (levied on fruits),it is a welcome step. But marketing committees need to be financially helped through alternative means, he says.
Shailendra Mohan Singhal,chairman of the Uttarakhand Agriculture Produce Marketing Board,agrees. Two-third of our geographical area is hilly,where there is little scope for production of food grain. If we exempt vegetables and fruits from market fee,it means loss of revenue for different mandis.
Established traders warn against ending an age old practice. Traders and farmers are in a symbiotic relationship. We cannot live and progress without each other. The recent price rise was because of cartels and the artificial hike created at the retailers end. This new rule will break an age old practice and create confusion, Narendra Kor,a trader at the Vashi APMC,said.
The move proposed by Rahul also needs to be supplemented with other measures for it to work. Sardana underlines that these include providing farmers access to easy credit as well as market intelligence,because in most cases,producers rely on traders for both these needs. Minister for Agricultural Marketing,Andhra Pradesh,Mukesh Goud points out that farmers also need to be provided the logistics and infrastructure to transport their produce.
Our experience with farmers markets,where farmers directly sell at weekly markets,indicates that while it is a very effective way to keep vegetable and fruit prices in balance,the reach of farmers is limited to these bazaars. Few people have access to such rythu bazaars, says Goud.
Given that Rahul has put his weight behind delisting fruits and vegetables from APMC though,there may be some action. Chief Ministers of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh,Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Virbhadra Singh respectively,as well as Assam Agriculture Minister Nilamoni Seni indicated on Saturday that they are serious about it. All three are Congress-ruled states. However,the Agriculture Minister of another Congress-ruled state,Keralas K P Mohanan,warned that meeting the January 15 deadline set by Rahul would still be difficult.
We welcome the suggestion as it would help farmers get better prices. But it will take at least two months to implement it as the process of delisting the items would demand the involvement of all Krishi Bhavans (at the grass-root level) in the state, Mohanan said.
In Karnataka,the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in July this year passed a Bill to modify the Karnataka Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation and Development) Act,1966. The amendment included the provision to remove perishables from APMC, Agriculture Minister Krishna Byregowda said.