The Parliament of India has passed the highly contended Farm Bills. These bills stirred up trouble and were uninvited by the farmers. Bandhs, Roadblocks and Rallies were organized in the states of Punjab and Haryana. The Kisan Union and the opposition parties have enunciated that the proposed laws could lead to corporatism in agriculture, cause disturbance in the current ‘Mandi’ network and palliate the system of Minimum Support Price (MSP).
What do the bills include?
The reforms proposed by the Parliament consists of three bills:
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, permits the farmers to sell their produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Mandis and eradicates the need of paying any state tax or fees.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, encourages contract farming and direct sale and marketing of commodities.
The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, liberalizes the production, stocking, movement and sale of several items, including pulses, cereals, onion and edible oil except in case of adverse conditions.
These bills were originally issued in June in the form of ordinances. They were passed by the voice-vote in both the houses of the parliament during the delayed monsoon session. The bills were subject to vehement protests. The government anticipates that these reforms will provide the farmers with a variety of choices and will eventually generate profits for their produce. Further, it would invite private investments in the agricultural sector and provide better infrastructural facilities.
Matter of Contention
The major concern expressed by the farmers is the need to protect the Minimum Support Price or MSP. These are the fixed prices at which the Central government purchases harvest from the farmers, regardless of market rates. This price is announced for 23 crops at the beginning of each sowing season.
According to a report by Shanta Kumar Committee, the government authorities purchase some selective pulses, paddy and wheat in bulk quantities. The committee further reported that only 6% of farmers actually sell their crops at MSP rates.
In Punjab, Haryana and a few other states, the harvest procurement centers are positioned within the declared APMC ‘Mandis’. Farmers are in consternation that stirring non-tax private trade outside the APMC Mandis will make these notified markets impracticable, which might steer reduction of government procurement. Farmers further demand that the MSPs be made comprehensive, so that they act as a bottom line in every transaction.
As per the data provided by Ministry of Agriculture, majority of the government procurement of wheat and rice, since the last five years, has come from Punjab and Haryana. All this produce has been bought at the MSP rates. Farmers in these States worry that without MSPs, market prices will plummet. These States have a well-oiled machinery lubricating the procurement of food grains from the villages to the markets. The Punjab government obtains an annual income of Rs. 3,500 crore from the Mandi taxes.
Other issues raised by some regional political parties and non-BJP State governments is that agriculture is a part of the State list, which means that the Union government should leave the matter in the hands of the state governments. Most of the regional governments are also perturbed about the loss of income from the taxes levied on Mandis.
A Word from the Economists
Economists are of the view that some states like Punjab and Rajasthan are assessing statutory provisions to expand the borders of the APMC Mandis to regulate the collection of taxes within their respective States.
States such as Chhattisgarh and Odisha have witnessed procurement increase over the last five years, after the implementation of localized attainment procedures. Rice farming has enhanced drastically with procurement at MSPs and farmers worry that the newly proposed bills will hamper their previously guaranteed incomes.
More than half of agrarian marketing takes place outside the Mandi network. Only 7,000 APMC markets are operational across the country. States like Bihar, Kerala and Manipur do not follow the APMC system at all.
Most of the private buyers are small traders at local Mandis. The removal of supply limits and encouragement of bulk purchase and storage by the amendment to the Essential Commodities Act could bring key corporate players into the agricultural domain. But at the same time, the small farmers might get distorted and this might also widen the gap between the rich and the poor peasants.
When two out of the three farm bills were passed in the Rajya Sabha, opposition parties were highly unsatisfied by the use of Voice Vote. They broke microphones, flung papers and stood up on the tables as the Deputy Chairman did not permit voting on the moved resolutions against the government’s decisions.
When the proceedings of the house were just about to finish, the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the Samajwadi Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Aam Aadmi Party and the two Left parties firmly opposed the bills. They demanded the government to send them to a Parliament panel for a deep perusal.
Deputy Chairman’s request to maintain physical distance was ignored as opposition leaders including Aam Aadmi Party MP Sanjay Singh and TMC leaders Arpita Ghosh and Dola Sen raised the slogans against the regulations. Opposition leader Ghulam Nabi Azad also propounded that tradition recites that the decision to extend the time of the House is not taken on the strength of the numbers but on the basis of consensus.
“I was in my seat when I asked for a vote, but the Deputy Chairman completely ignored my demand. The rules dictate that even if one member of the House asks for a resolution to be put to vote, it should be. This was clearly undemocratic”
– K.K Ragesh, MP Rajya Sabha
AAP’s Sanjay Singh and Congress members Rajeev Satav and Syed Naseer Hussain climbed on the table in front of the Secretary General. They were enthralled by the marshals. Amidst the brawl, microphones were broken, papers were torn and hurled in the air. The MPs started to record all the ruckus in their mobile phones as the Rajya Sabha TV was shut for some time and the opposition protests were not broadcasted for the public. When the house was reconvened, the Bills were passed in a hurry.
“The dictatorial attitude of the Chair in not wanting to get a sense of the House, which is the convention to extend the session beyond the scheduled 1 p.m., led to bedlam & chaos. The anti-farmer Bills were passed in the din without voting. Why the tearing urgency? On whose orders?”
-Congress member Jairam Ramesh
“The bottom line is that the Opposition wanted a vote on the farmers Bills and the BJP did not want to vote because it did not have numbers. This story does not end here. The BJP told you it is a historic day, but it is a sad day for Parliamentary democracy,”
-Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’ Brien
The farm bills were passed hurriedly using the voice vote. The same mechanism was used by the Congress party in 2014, when the bill for the formation of the state of Telengana was passed by the parliament.
As per the rules of the Voice Vote, the speaker decides whether the bill is to be moved forward or neutralized. It is the arrangement for passing bills in the Parliament through oral communication.
When there is an ongoing motion, the speaker says, ”Those in the favor of the motion say Aye and those opposing it say No.” If a member is not happy with a voice vote, it can be questioned. The votes are recorded by the Automatic Vote Recording Equipment. The Voice Vote has been used by the parliament on several occasions. Appropriation bills (financial Bills) were passed by voice vote amidst the interventions from the opposition.
Protests across the Country
Protests by farmers have been ongoing in the country over the past few weeks. The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) also quit the NDA government amidst the heavy uproar. SAD leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal also quit as Union minister for food processing industries. She described the three agriculture Bills as ‘Anti farmer’.
Farmer organizations are demanding to make MSP a legal right. The same thing has been advised by the government’s own Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) in 2018. The commission added that most farmers are not able to sell their produce at MSP and have to accept the rates which are way below the MSP. This Bill was even introduced in parliament as a Private Member Bill in 2018 by the then MP Raju Shetti. However, it was not taken up for discussion.
The government is yet to make an official statement in this regard.