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Protests have“been steadily gathering steam since the socalled reforms were first announced as ordinances in early June, and despite three meetings since between the Centre and farmer group leaders, a resolution of issues was nowhere in sight. — Anilesh S. Mahajan
Since November 26, New Delhi has been under virtual siege by perhaps half a million farmers from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, who are protesting three newly-minted farm laws, rammed through Parliament during its monsoon session. While reports frequently boil the protests down to a single issue, MSPs (minimum support prices), there are actually several points of contention. These include fears that the new laws herald a not-so-distant future without APMCs (Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees), which will disrupt not simply a settled way of doing business but also take away the familiar protection mechanisms of the old system. There is also dissatisfaction with the new dispute-resolution system and issues relating to terms of payment and buyer identification. Protests have been steadily gathering steam since the so-called reforms were first announced as ordinances in early June, and despite three meetings since between the Centre and farmer group leaders, at the time of going to press on December 2, a resolution of issues was nowhere in sight.
The issue of price and purchase guarantees is clearly the most emotive. Under the APMC-MSP system, farmers have a guaranteed buyer, the central and state governments, for certain crops, with prices fixed in advance. While the new laws do not do away with this system, the private markets they make room for have no legally mandated minimum prices. Farmers fear this will, in the short term, leave them at the mercy of large corporates with disproportionate price-setting power and, in the longer run, make the APMC system redundant and MSPs irrelevant. A related aspect is the feared consequences of farmers being allowed to sell produce anywhere in India. Under the APMC system, mandis in a given state would procure crops almost exclusively from that state; under the new system, it is possible for farmers in Uttar Pradesh, for example, to sell to mandis in Punjab, weakening state agricultural safety nets. This is especially contentious in Punjab, the biggest beneficiary of the APMC system. In the last rabi and kharif seasons, grains worth Rs 52,000 crore were procured from Punjab alone, 25-30 per cent of the total procurement by the Food Corporation of India.
Further, under the new system, civil disputes are to be resolved by a conciliation board, with sub-divisional magistrates as the final authority. This prevents farmers from taking cases to courts. The fourth contentious issue relates to buyer identification and payment terms. Farmer groups argue that since the new system only requires buyers to have a PAN (Permanent Account Number), which does not include tracking information like addresses or phone numbers, they will be unable to track down absconding buyers in the case of a default. And since the laws also allow buyers up to 30 days to make payments, there are apprehensions of payment fraud as well.
Farmers’ groups are therefore demanding either a complete rollback of the reforms or amendments to the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act and the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act. The changes they are demanding include the setting up of special farmers’ tribunals to deal with disputes, legislation requiring upfront payment for crops purchased, increased disclosure requirements for buyers and legally guaranteed floor prices for crops.
The Centre has, so far, been unwilling to budge, insisting that the reforms are both farmer-friendly and essential to reforming India’s agricultural sector. At a rally in Varanasi on November 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly said, “These reforms are being done in the interest of farmers,” alleging that opposition political parties were spreading propaganda about unintended “consequences that haven’t happened or will never happen”. What was left unsaid is that even NDA supporters oppose the reforms, for instance, the protesting farmers’ groups include the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. The BJP’s political partners have also made it clear that they are not on board—on September 17, as a result of protests in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned her position in the Union cabinet. In Haryana, the Manohar Lal Khattar government is on the back foot, with independent MLAs Balraj Kundu and Somveer Sangwan and the Indian National Lok Dal’s Abhay Chautala withdrawing their support, and even Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) coming under increasing pressure from farmers’ groups to do the same. The JJP’s Digvijay Singh Chautala has said the party is, for the moment, waiting to see how negotiations with the Centre go.
At the time of going to press, the stalemate continued, with the farmers sticking to their guns and continuing the siege of Delhi and the Centre unwilling to climb down. After their march to the capital was halted at the NCR’s borders, farmers have settled in for the long run, vowing to disrupt road traffic to and from the capital until a settlement is reached. On November 28, home minister Amit Shah appealed to group leaders to shift their protest to the Sant Nirankari grounds in Burari, assuring them that if they did so, the Centre would be willing to “discuss all issues” at a meeting with agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar on December 3. “If farmers’ unions want to hold a discussion before December 3, I assure you that as soon as you shift your protest to the designated place, our government will hold talks the very next day,” he reportedly said. However, that offer was rejected by farmers’ groups. “We will stay put at the Delhi borders,” Bharatiya Kisan Union-Dakunda (BKU-Dakaunda) president Buta Singh Burjgill was reported as saying. “We do not want any preconditions, [but] we are ready for talks,” added BKU-Kadian president Harmeet Singh Kadian.
Sources say the Centre has found it almost impossible to build consensus among the farmers’ organisations that have come together for the protest, saying there is a severe trust deficit, which is also apparently why they rejected the Centre’s proposal to set up a committee with farmers’ representatives and officials from the agriculture ministry. They add that while the Centre is mulling some concessions, including tightening norms for buyers and setting up farmer’s tribunals, it is entirely unwilling to consider the central demand, making MSPs a law. In this, there is also an international context; India has been under considerable pressure at the WTO (World Trade Organization) to do away with MSPs, with western nations arguing that they block free trade.
With such a tangle of contrary pulls and pressures, it is unlikely that a solution will be found quickly. And with farmers seemingly prepared to lay extended siege to the capital, pressure is likely to mount in the days to come.