September 20, 2020

Shortchanging Farmers

EVER since the three ordinances concerning agriculture and marketing were promulgated in June, kisan organisations and farmers have been protesting against the serious assault on their rights. On the eve of the parliament session, there have been big protests in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh.

Not heeding this opposition, the government has introduced three bills to replace these ordinances in the current monsoon session of parliament, to be adopted forthwith.

The three ordinances took foodgrains and other agricultural commodities out of the essential commodities list and lifted stockholding limits; bypassed the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees in states and allowed free inter-state trade and movement of agricultural commodities; and provided for an enabling legal framework for contract farming. Taken together, they are a charter for exploitation of the farmers by big traders, agribusiness and corporates.

The triple ordinances are a trishul aimed at promoting corporatisation of agriculture, facilitating the integration of Indian agriculture with the global market and undermining the procurement/MSP mechanism which will lead to the erosion of food security.

The amendment of the Essential Commodities Act removes cereals, pulses, edible oils, onions and potatoes from the list of essential commodities and stockholding limits. Limits can be imposed only in the case of exorbitant price rise, war or other extraordinary events. This amendment will only facilitate stockpiling and hoarding by big traders, corporates, aggregators and processors and will be utilised for speculation in futures trading. The obverse side is that it will lead to price rise in these commodities for consumers.

The second ordinance/legislation is meant to bypass the APMC. Traders and companies can buy from farmers directly or in venues outside the APMC yards. The state government concerned cannot levy any taxes on these transactions. Along with the promotion of contract farming, the effect will be to enable agribusiness companies and big traders to buy produce from farmers at prices dictated by them. What is being touted as “freedom for the farmer” will in reality be freedom for the big traders-corporates to dictate prices to the farmer.

There are problems regarding the functioning of the APMCs and the Essential Commodities Act. Instead of addressing these problems through the state governments, since agriculture is a state subject, the Modi government has decided to go all out to promote the interests of agribusiness, corporates and big traders. The bill dealing with the APMCs is outside the purview of central legislation as it concerns a purely state subject. Despite that, the government is going ahead in pushing through the legislation.

As it has become the pattern, the BJP state governments were told to make amendments to the state laws on APMC.  Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have already done so. This is the way labour laws have also been changed or scrapped through state level ordinances and measures.

The Modi government is pushing through various neoliberal measures under the guise of the Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign. All the measures announced under its auspices for agriculture and rural infrastructure have actually given nothing much to the farmers. The farmgate infrastructure fund, the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, the Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund and so on are actually repackaging of existing schemes or those announced in the union budgets of 2019-20 and 2020-21. The additional spending is less than Rs 5000 crore.

We are seeing a truncated parliament in action. The government has refused to refer any of the bills to the standing committees concerned. With time for discussion severely curtailed, legislations are being railroaded through. The pandemic has become a golden opportunity for the Modi government to push through anti-farmer and anti-worker legislations without any proper parliamentary scrutiny or discussion.

(September 16, 2020)