The three bills passed by the Punjab Assembly on Tuesday, ostensibly to undo the Centre’s recently enacted farm reform laws, make a populist political point. Proof of it is the provision of “imprisonment of not less than three years and fine” for any purchase of produce at below the official minimum support price (MSP). The fine print, however, is that the MSPs in the bills, which have to receive presidential assent, relate to wheat and paddy alone. Government agencies procured almost 95 per cent of the entire wheat and 99.5 per cent of the regular non-basmati paddy that arrived last year in Punjab’s mandis. These purchases were obviously at MSP, making claims of the Punjab government’s bills protecting farmers against “harassment” by traders or corporate houses superficial. The simple fact is private players hardly source any wheat or non-basmati paddy from Punjab, given the state’s high market fees and levies. The threat of jail sentence would merely increase the government’s share in whatever remains of the “market” to 100 per cent.
The bills pushed through by the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government, ironically, propose no such punitive action against those buying other produce at below MSP. Maize growers in Punjab have realised rates of Rs 800-1,200 per quintal in the current marketing season, as against the MSP of Rs 1,850. Kapas (raw un-ginned cotton) is, likewise, trading at Rs 5,100-5,200 per quintal, way below its MSP of Rs 5,725. Punjab farmers have this time planted 7.43 lakh hectares (lh) under these two crops and another 6.60 lh under basmati paddy, which receives no MSP support even on paper. Despite the significant acreages, the Punjab government’s bills have refrained from deeming sub-MSP transactions in them as an offence. Nor do their purchases attract prohibitive mandi fees, unlike for wheat and normal paddy. The reason is only because the buyers here are overwhelmingly private millers, ginners and traders. The government knows pretty well that antagonising the private trade would require it to procure these commodities, for which there is neither money nor means for effective disposal.
Farmers across India are, no doubt, restive today. Their margins are under pressure from both rising input costs and un-remunerative produce prices. But the solution does not lie in populism or fishing in troubled waters. Instead, it has to be found in improving productivity and input use efficiency, apart from leveraging the power of agricultural markets that have suffered from excessive fragmentation and controls on movement, stocking, exports and pricing. The Centre’s farm acts are directionally correct, even if they might not yield immediate results. It is for the states, irrespective of the ruling party, to realise an opportunity. Punjab did it during the Green Revolution and should enable its farmers to do even better: Let the world, not just the Food Corporation of India, be their stage.
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