As accurately stated by the World Bank, India is the agricultural powerhouse of the world. Although it contributes just 20% to the GDP of India, it feeds around 60% of people of the second-most populous nation on the planet. India is the largest producer of milk, spices and pulses in the world and stands proudly as a leading producer of wheat, paddy, cotton, sugarcane, fruits, vegetables and tea. Despite such humongous participation, several roadblocks stop agriculture to be a highly profitable business in India. With an aim to remove these roadblocks, the Government of India passed 3 farm laws by promulgating ordinances through the President of India. When passed, the Farm Unions along with the opposition condemned and rejected the newly formed laws which ultimately led to nationwide farmers' protests.
Pandemic as a Legislative Tool
When the pandemic struck India, it wreaked havoc and the government was forced to impose a state of lockdown all over the country. When the primary focus of government should have been on making the healthcare facilities better and to stop the virus from spreading, the government passed three Farm Laws by an ordinance through the President of India.
On the day when India recorded the highest COVID cases ever (almost 98k on the 16th of September 2020), the legislators of the ruling party were getting prepared to vote on the three bills. Even after an opposition uproar in the parliament against the bill and negligible discussion on the issues of concern, the Bill got cleared the same day and got the President’s assent within 10 days which doesn’t happen usually.
On observing the timing of the ordinance and haphazard passage of the law, it is clear that Government, very conveniently, utilized the ongoing situation in their favour and passed the three laws in both the houses where the ruling party has the strongest presence.
The Three Infamous Farm Laws
Before analyzing the political and agricultural implications of the new farm laws, it’s important to understand what these Acts are about.
1. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2021
This Act permits farmers and traders to conduct the sale and purchase of agricultural produce outside the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Mandis. According to the new law, any individual can register itself as a trader and buy the agro-produce directly from the farmer and such a deal will not attract any Market Fees, Levies or Cess. Before the legislation, it was illegal for farmers to sell their produce outside these government regulated mandis and the farmers would have to pay market fees and commission to the trade facilitators called Artiyas.
2. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020
This legislation provides for the constitution of a legal framework for contract farming wherein the farmers and the corporates can enter into a mutual agreement for the production of a specific crop at a pre-decided remuneration. Although contract farming was prevalent in many states of India before these laws were brought in, there was no legal framework for it and farmers had to register themselves before APMCs and pay market fees for the same.
The Government implies that this legislation will allow free trade between farmers and this will increase the inflow of capital directly into the farms.
3. The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020
This legislation is an amendment to The Essential Commodities Act, 1954 which provided for governmental regulation (in the public interest) on production, distribution and supply of some essential commodities listed under the schedule of the Act. Through the amendment, the government’s powers have been reduced and they can regulate the supply of food items like pulses, oilseeds, potato, edible oil, etc. only in case of extraordinary circumstances like war, famine, severe natural calamity. Furthermore, this amendment removes the stocking restrictions on these food items to value-chain participants, exporters and food processors. This means that these three can now stock as much agro-produce as they please but not more than the installed capacity of their storage units.
THE BONES OF CONTENTION
The Government has always stressed that these laws have been introduced to bring reforms in the ever-struggling Agricultural Sector but the Farm Unions say otherwise. They’re against selective provisions of all the three Acts.
1. Corporatization and Monopolization: The Farmers say that the first legislation will corporatize the whole agricultural setup which eventually will scrap APMC mandis and lead to monopolization of the sector. In their words, the corporates will come, offer lucrative prices for the first few years and scrap the mandis. Once the Mandis become obsolete, the farmers will be left with no option but to sell to corporates on their terms and conditions.
2. The other side of Artiyas Artiyas are the facilitators of trade of agro-produce between the farmers and the buyers including the government. The primary task of an Artiya is to reach out to a farmer, check the quality of his produce, buy it from him on or above the Minimum Support Price set by the government and then re-sell it to the buyers. The other side of the Artiyas is that if a farmer is in a distress due to crop failure or in dire need of money, these Artiyas come forward, give them collateral-free loans and be their guardians. The farmers fear that if the APMC Mandi system gets scrapped, these Artiyas will also go jobless and the farmers will be left at the hands of profit-centric corporates.
3. The Corporate manipulation of Contracts Although the new legislation provides for direct contract farming between farmers and corporates, the farmers fear that the companies will put non-understandable clauses mostly about the quality of the produce and this may lead to rejection or selling at a much less price.
4. MSP The Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a minimum price set by the government for the sale of a particular agro-commodity so that the farmer gets what he deserves. As the three laws failed to acknowledge the surety of MSP in the future, the farmers are concerned that the MSP will no longer be functional after the decline of APMCs and then could lead to exploitation of farmers.
− The Constitution of India allows a challenge to parliamentary law under two conditions. If the law violates the fundamental rights and the other is when the parliament tries to legislate in state-list thereby going inconsistent with the quasi-federal structure of our constitution.
− By making laws solely on the decision of the cabinet without even a formal consultation of states, the Centre indeed has breached an important provision of the constitution and based on this reason, anyone can appeal against the passage of such laws in the Supreme Court of India.
Implications on South Asian Politics
The Farmers’ protest is definitely going to hamper India’s Global Outlook. As countries like the UK, US, Canada, etc are commenting directly on the protest, India won’t be able to hold on to ‘our nation-our business’ formula. Now, India will also serve its term at United Nations Security Council and there’ll be questions from global leaders which the Indian Government will have to answer.
The Protest against the farm laws that started on the highways of Punjab and Haryana has unfurled many dimensions of democracy. When these unions started the protest back in September, they were heard but not taken seriously by the government. The small protests even continued in every city of Punjab and yet the government didn’t seem to have been bothered by it. Seeing the lacklustre approach by the government towards Farmers’ demands, the Unions decided to march to Delhi in protest against the laws. The Haryana Government even ordered police action but they couldn’t be stopped. Today, there are thousands of people sitting at three of Delhi’s prime borders, protesting peacefully against the laws. This showcases the rare display of the power of dissent and the right to peaceful protest as conferred to every citizen by the Constitution of India.
Coming to the Farm Laws, the government has been adamant that these laws will revolutionize the whole sector. It is evident by the scheme of the laws that they’ll bring considerable capital and independence in the agro-trade but in my opinion, the laws will lead the agricultural sector on the path of the telecom sector of India.
Not so long ago, a leading telecom service provider lured everyone into buying their sim and use them free of cost for a long period of time. While people were busy on the internet, this provider slowly killed most of the telcos and was finally able to emerge as the leader of the Telecom Sector of India leaving its peers struggling to keep up with the pace.
Furthermore, the Government’s insensitivity towards a protest that has been going on for 100 days and has left 248 people (according to Sanyukat Kisan Morcha), will definitely affect the way Indian politics work. This is evident from the incident when the Prime Minister of the country promised to keep the MSP regime intact on live TV and people still chose to not believe him at face value.
The Government must take up significant steps towards breaking the deadlock and letting the poor farmers return back home. The Farmers don’t deserve it.