One doesn’t really know where to begin talking about the three disastrous farm bills, which the central government is touting as a watershed moment for India’s agriculture sector but which are blatantly crafted to fill the pockets of capitalist cronies of the BJP at the cost of the poor farmers.
Frankly, everything about these three agriculture bills that the BJP-led NDA government has virtually railroaded through Parliament is wrong. From the way the original ordinances were introduced in the midst of the pandemic, to the manner in which they have been forced through Parliament now, nothing explains the mad rush with which the government of India has pushed the bills through. They never bothered to consult any of the major stakeholders before bringing the ordinances — they did not talk to the farmers’ representatives, they did not talk to my government which represents the most important state in India’s food security chain, even though agriculture is constitutionally mandated to be a state subject, and they did not bother to hear out the Opposition in Parliament.
The only reason for these sly, undemocratic and anti-federal actions on the part of the central government, as far I can see, is that these bills hide more than they reveal. They give the poor small and marginal farmers of India (constituting over 85 per cent of India’s farmers) no assurance of protection of their interests, their livelihoods, and their future. They make no mention whatsoever of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime, which is the lifeline of these poor farmers and their key to survival, as also the survival of the nation’s agriculture sector.
I am told the ordinances have simplified the names of the existing Acts. If that is meant to make the farmers happy, then I can only lament the total lack of understanding of their concerns, which is clearly reflected in the farm bills too. Frankly, the farmers have always only understood one nomenclature as far as their produce goes, and that is MSP.
So where is MSP in these ordinances/bills? Actually nowhere. In all those reams and reams of pages, the central government did not deem it fit to even once come out with a categorical assurance that the MSP will not be tinkered with, as we in the Congress did in our manifesto. If only the policymakers in the government of India had stated in black and white that the MSP will be applicable to the private players too, and that farmers will get an assured MSP not just on wheat and rice but all other crops so that they are encouraged to diversify (a critical need of the hour), the farming community might have reacted a little more kindly to these ill-conceived and devastating new farm laws.
Instead, what these laws will do is to throw the small farmers to the big sharks, where market forces will control the pricing, procurement and marketing mechanism, and these helpless farmers will be left running from one retailer/trader to another to sell their little produce season after season, with no bargaining power to demand or get the price they deserve. The financial security for which they are currently dependent on the existing marketing system will become a thing of the past, and the promise of a bright future will disappear just as the one on doubling of their farm incomes by 2022 receded long ago into the recesses of their distant memory.
The Centre has claimed that these new laws will free the farmers from the monopolistic clutches of the intermediaries (arhtiyas). There are two points I would like to make here. First, did they even once ask the farmers if they wanted to be freed from these arhtiyas, whom BJP’s own leader, late Sushma Swaraj, had once described as the most trusted and biggest support system for farmers? And second, how will such legislation prevent the farmers from falling into the clutches of the monopolistic big corporates, who have progressively been taking over one sector after another under the benign eye of the BJP leadership?
The bills are totally silent on these counts, just as they are on MSP. The verbal assurances being made by BJP leaders do not count as their track record in fulfilling promises is abysmal. Apparently, even their own ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), does not believe in these verbal statements, or so they claim (though the Akalis’ double-speak on this issue has totally exposed their lack of sincerity for the farmers). As for Sushma’s remarks, the BJP is justifying its shameless deviation from its earlier stated stand on the grounds that farmers now have Jan Dhan and bank accounts. As if these are enough to help them out in an emergency!
Naturally, the farmers of Punjab are angry and upset with the BJP and its allies, including SAD, and have no confidence in their verbal assurances. The well-established system in which Punjab’s farmers have operated all these decades has worked beautifully, with the state government addressing their concerns as and when required. Just recently, my government made necessary amendments in the Punjab APMC Act to provide for setting up of regulated mandis even in the private sector for specific produce, thus ensuring that the private markets do not overwhelm the existing, tried and tested procurement and marketing processes. We realised that the private sector mandis could not be given a free run of the farm sector, as that would spell the death knell for the small and marginal farmers, in turn ruining India’s agriculture and its food security, which is what the government of India will end up doing with its ill-conceived legislation.
But does the power hungry and greedy BJP-led government care? Evidently, it does not, neither for the farmers, who are out on the roads, nor for the views of the elected representatives in Parliament or of the states who will be the worst affected by these arbitrary and ill-intentioned changes. And it definitely does not care about Punjab, the small border state whose contribution to the nation’s security, through its food godowns and at the borders, is exemplary. I have warned the central government repeatedly that if there is farmer unrest on this issue, Pakistan will try to take advantage of the same to foment further trouble in my state, which will do no good to the country’s security either. But, quite clearly, they simply do not care.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 23, 2020 under the title ‘Bills against farmers’. The writer is Chief Minister of Punjab
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