Impasse must pass
Initial hiccups aside, there is both a need and an opportunity for the Government to reach a middle ground with farmers and involve them in the process of agrarian reform
The three farm bills are viewed as game changers in agriculture sector as they empower farmers in terms of better market for their produce, input support and security through contract farming. The vision is apparently liberalisation of the agrarian economy, as opposed to 'Inspector Raj', by encouraging private investment. How far the dream would get translated in to reality is difficult to prognosticate today and at least the protesting farmers wouldn't buy it for they perceive a threat of indirect corporatisation of agriculture sector. The main demands of farmers inter alia are: making MSP a legal right, implementation of Swaminathan report and scrapping of the three laws. The Government, allaying the fears of farmers, responded that MSP will continue, APMCs will stay, and farmers' freedom to sell the produce is guaranteed. On December 9, however, the talks between the Government and the farmers bore no fruit and the stalemate continues.
The saying 'well begun is half done' was not heeded, it seems, at the time of introducing (pun intended). The three bills evoked controversy. To begin with, the 'Farmer's Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020' (referred as APMC bypass bill) empowers the farmers to sell their produce outside the jurisdiction of the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee — the mandis and provides for barrier-free intra-state and inter-state trade, an electronic trading platform for online trading, trade at farm gates, warehouses and, cold storages. The intent of the Act is, of course, laudable but the flip side cannot be ignored either, as the provisions of the Act can also be misused to exploit farmers. These provisions, obviously, frighten the farmers as the mandis can no longer exercise any control either on price negotiations of the produce or in ensuring timely payment to farmers. State governments apprehend that as APMCs can no longer be able to levy fees, cess, or other charges loss of income to exchequer is imminent. The fears of farmers are not unfounded as the regulatory mechanism laid down in the new Bill for ensuring fair play may not be infallible if the story of many regulatory bodies is of any proof. Perhaps a more effective institutional framework that can guarantee farmer's upper hand may need to be incorporated in the new bill so that the fears of corporatisation can be put to rest.
'Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020' provides a legal framework for contract farming between farmers and the buyers viz., companies and firms involved in agribusiness or traders termed as 'sponsors'. The contract covers all aspects from sowing to harvest including the supply of inputs like seeds, agro-chemicals, machinery and technology. Undoubtedly, such a contract is support for farmers. But as the Act exempts the produce under the contract from state laws of sale and purchase, it is logically perceived by stakeholders that states cannot assure MSP on such produce. More over the states who are directly responsible to farmers locally, feel helpless. Interestingly the Act is silent on MSP which is the age-old guarantee by governments and has always been infallible support for farmers, especially the small and marginal farmers. However, the Centre has reassured farmers that MSP system is not affected by the new Bill and it will be business as usual, but the agitating farmers are far from convinced. Frankly, acceding to the demand means no harm to either side because MSP otherwise has always been an unwritten legal 'Right' all these decades and all parties invariably champion the cause in their manifestos. An addition to laws should not be an issue as the idea is to save the farmer from the vagaries of the free market and such a 'Right' would rather empower him in the 'corporate' markets. Farmers have no issue with the other provision of the Act which exempts sponsors from stock-limit obligations under the 'Essential Commodities Act, 1955' as it ensures wider markets for produce. However certain checks and balances need to be provided for in the laws in order to ensure that the benefits are not amassed by only the rural rich but equally reach to the threshold of marginal and small farmers. The system of free contract farming needs to be regulated by designated competent authorities locally binding the sponsors in terms of inclusion and equity, a rider apparently has no prominence in the bills.
The Act also facilitates agribusiness companies to process food grains, edible oils, and some vegetables and market without stock limits; a 'laissez affaire' free market. The farmers are not opposing this law as they see an incentive for undertaking large scale production of commercial crops with best inputs and more investment on vast farmlands.
The deadlock between the Centre and the agitating farmers will have to be resolved at the earliest and in the best possible way in view of the ongoing rabi operations wherein massive production of major food grains and oilseeds (wheat and mustard) is at stake. The present crisis is that the farmers refuse to cede their demands and the Government is serious in implementing the new policies. We must however acknowledge the fact that the conduct of the farmers is peaceful and praiseworthy much as the gravity and magnanimity of the Government in handling the agitation. Of course, the silver line is that a window is open for exploring via media. Acts are followed by well-described and clearly spelt out rules and procedures for implementation and, the new bills are yet to receive the rules. Secondly in most of the states, the new laws haven't yet begun to operate. Farmers can also be more understanding and cooperate in arriving at a solution without compromises. The Government perhaps may come up with more practical proposals reassuring farmers of the safeguards for protection while at the same time win their cooperation for agrarian market reforms. Hopefully, in the next deliberation between the Centre and the farmers, the contentious clauses and provisions in the new farm bills may undergo necessary modifications either through proposals for amending them or by mellowing down their force through the Rules to Acts.
We pray that the farmers' agitation ends on a happy note for all. But there are many other areas in the farm sector awaiting more interventions from the Government. The increasing cost of cultivation (CoC) and indebtedness entrap small and marginal farmers into a vicious cycle of poverty. Issues in agriculture outnumber their solutions and it will take more than these new bills to improve matters.
The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal