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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 42, New Delhi, October 3, 2020

Farmers’ Bills: A case of Governance Deficit | Francisco Sardinha & DK Giri

Friday 2 October 2020, by D.K. Giri, Francisco Sardinha

The chaos in the Rajya Sabha and the controversy in the country created by the passing of three farmers’ bills could have been avoided, if the government were simply inclusive. This ongoing tension between the government on the one hand and the Opposition, farmers, non-BJP states on the other is purely due to the governance deficit under the present Narendra Modi regime. The present government does not believe in consultation with the stakeholders, hardly listens to the Opposition and ignores popular criticisms. It thinks of a policy, decides by itself that it is good for the country and just ramrods it through legislation.

Remember the demonetisation, in hours’ notice the government scrapped the thousand-rupee note and introduced a two thousand-rupee note without adequate preparation including technical alignment in ATMs etc. People reconciled to enormous inconvenience in the hope that demonetization would unearth the black money. The hope soon ended in smoke as the same amount of currency scrapped, returned to the RBI. Similar was the case with GST that involved a complicated and cumbersome process of implementation. Then came NRC/CAA. This Bill too was passed without requisite communication, consultation and presentation. It created panic, confusion and obfuscation by the government. The Home Minister said NRC will be implemented across the country whereas the Prime Minister said there was no plan to do so. The protests against CAA that left out one community in JNU, Jamia and Shaheen Bagh became international news. In particular, the riotous resistance to the Bill in Assam caused a cancellation of the important visit of Shinzo Abe, the premier of Japan.

Now on the farmers’ Bill, as is the government’s won’t, there was no consultation with the farmers, no discussion in the Parliament, no discussion with states which is necessary in the federal frame of our politics, agriculture is in the State list of our constitution. The Bills were rushed in Lok Sabha as well as Rajya Sabha where voting was denied leading to an unsavoury fracas among the honourable Members of Parliament and the Deputy Chairman. Eight members were suspended, a Union Minister resigned, the Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana threatens to resign on the bills. If the government thinks, as it does, that the Bills passed are so good for the farmers and the country why their allies are protesting and the Ministers from alliance partners are resigning. Is it not a trust issue recurring too often to transform into a governance deficit? Laws passed by the government, action taken or utterances made instantly polarise the debate, divide the people and create discord.

Since 2014, BJP-led government claims it works for the interest of the people and the country. Yet very beneficiaries of their schemes and policies rise in protest. How does one explain this paradox? The Union Ministers are writing articles to explain the policies. That is a good step. But will it not be better through dialogue and discussion!

What are the issues in the three Bills just passed that raise the hackles? The first is non-mention of MSP in The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020. The MSP is the lifeline of the farmers. The government maintains that MSP will not be abolished. If so, why did they not record it in the Bill? It is like the CAA where Muslims were excluded. Government then said the Muslims will not be discriminated against. But the NRC implied to do so. NRC and CAA put together could exclude them. Not mentioning MSP raises similar doubts. To assuage the angry and frustrated reaction of the farmers the government raised the MSP for wheat by 2.6 per cent. This amounts to double speak. On the one hand you do not assure MSP in the Bill and then raise it for some crops. The second bone of contention is the abolition of Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee and the Mandis run by it. Secondly, the licensed commission agents called ‘Arhatiyas’ in Punjab and Haryana will also be marginalised. The farmers were using these agents by paying them a small commission between 1.5 to 3 per cent for their services which include cleaning, shorting, displaying and auctioning the crop. The agents worked as interface between farmers and the market, in terms of supplying them farm inputs like seeds, technology, pesticides and marketing intelligence. The states earn Mandi fees paid by the crop buyers. The produce procured through MSP was fed into the PDS for poor and the needy. Once the procurement process through MSP is completed within 60 to 90 days, the crops could be traded at the market price.

Third point of friction is contract farming allowing the big corporates to sneak in through the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020. The farmers can sign a sale contract before sowing with processors, aggregators, wholesalers, large retailers and exporters at mutually agreed crop price. The idea as touted by the government is to enhance farm output through industrialisation etc. The farmers fear the corporate will have upper hand in fixing prices and settling disputes in courts. There is a huge power disparity between corporates and farmers. Also, corporates will not like to deal with small farmers who constitute 85 per cent of the farming community.

Fourth is the often-controversial issue of hoarding. The third one, Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill takes certain food items out of the list of essential commodities. It removes stock hoarding limits of these items except in ‘extraordinary circumstances such as war and natural disaster. The plea or expectation is, it will improve storage quality, eliminate food wastage and enhance the price. But actually freedom to hoard will lower prices for farmers. The ban on onion export testifies to this apprehension.

To sum up, to corporatize the farming sector is fraught with grave risks. During Covid when all other sectors got a severe beating resulting in the decline of their revenue, the farm sector sustained without much damage. The small and medium farmers continue to produce pulses and vegetables which were made available to consumers without inflated prices. This could happen as market manipulation could not be done by corporates who have been outside the agriculture sector. Inviting them into the sector will be like putting the small fishes before a shark. Indian farming thrives with government regulation and patronage as most of the small farmers are exposed to the vagaries of nature and are insulated from the predatory market through MSP etc. The government may have planned with a good intention of enhancing farm output for the country, price for the farmers and creating a food supply chain within and beyond the country. Given the tradition and culture of farming in India, unleashing the corporate on farmers is not the best way. The government should come clean and clear on these reforms.

(Francisco Sardinha, former Chief Minister of Goa and currently the Member of Parliament. Prof (Dr) D.K. Giri is a political Analyst)

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