From not engaging with stakeholders at the time of drafting or allowing debate in Parliament during passage, to now conceding to farmers’ demands short of repeal, the Narendra Modi government has done a virtual 180 on its three agricultural reform laws. It has agreed to permit state governments to impose the cesses/fee charged in APMC (agricultural produce market committee) mandis also on trades happening outside their boundaries. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act not only provided for sale and purchase of agri-commodities in private mandis, direct collection centres, electronic platforms and other alternative markets, but also exempted such transactions from any APMC imposts. This was only fair: How could buyers and sellers be made to pay for not even using the infrastructure of the state-regulated markets? By proposing that states can extend the levies applicable in APMC mandis to the new alternative markets, the Modi government has shown willingness to strike down a key provision (Section 6) of its law.
There are other concessions, too, on offer. They include giving farmers the option to approach regular courts in the event of disputes arising from transactions (the current resolution mechanism is limited to sub-divisional and district-level authorities) and registration of traders in non-APMC markets by state governments (the existing law requires them to simply have a permanent account number). But these, unlike removing Section 6, don’t tantamount to a fundamental rewriting of the Act. The amendments required in their case could well have been introduced during informed discussions in Parliament, which did not take place due to the government’s intransigence. The fact that the same government isn’t today averse to effectively rendering redundant a progressive legislation, which dismantles the monopoly of APMCs and opens up new marketing avenues for crops, is a measure of how much it has had to bend to farmer pressure.
Unfortunately, the farmer unions have not just rejected the Modi government’s proposals — extending to a not-legally-binding “written assurance” on continuance of the present minimum support price-based procurement system — but are demanding a total rollback of all the three laws. This, despite the other two Acts (which significantly do away with stockholding restrictions on agri-produce and enable contract cultivation) having no provisions that can be termed anti-farmer. Farmers, if anything, benefit from traders being able to buy and stock without limit, just as a legal framework for contract contraction (which is anyway voluntary) is only in their interest. The unions have already won a moral victory by forcing the government to negotiate on their terms. They have also, perhaps, gained public sympathy through their dignified and non-violent conduct even in the face of insinuation. All the more reason why they should not close the door on negotiation by insisting on “repeal or nothing”.
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