The central government must protect interests of farmers
The decision of the Union government to go ahead with the three bills aimed at bringing “agrarian reforms” has caused friction within the ruling National Democratic Alliance. The Shiromani Akali Dal, a key ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has distanced itself from the government decision to go ahead with the legislation and the party’s lone representative in the Modi cabinet, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, has resigned saying that the amendments were not in the interest of farmers. Since the government issued the ordinances – the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 – farmers across the country have been protesting the changes to the law as they see them as damaging to their interests. It is surprising to note that Akali Dal initially defended the ordinances but perhaps noting that the opposition from farmers was growing it decided to make a U-turn and side with them. Despite the opposition the Union government went ahead with the changes to the laws and got it approved in the Lok Sabha.
The impact of the changes to the agricultural laws has been widespread across the country but maximum in the states of Punjab and Haryana, both predominantly agrarian states, with thousands of farmers agitating for weeks together. They have also announced a three-day “rail roko” to intensify their agitation. The Akali Dal president, Sukhbir Singh Badal has alleged that his party was never consulted on either the issue of ordinances or changes to the laws. The resignation of Harsimrat Kaur, food processing minister, appears to have opened a new battle frontier for the Modi government. Her resignation is bound to put pressure on the Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana, Dushyant Singh Chautala, whose Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) is part of the state’s coalition government and force him to take an unambiguous stand on the NDA’s new laws. The echoes of the changes to the agricultural laws are bound to be felt in Bihar also, which is scheduled to go in for polls shortly.
The unrest among farmers is bound to increase and encompass other states as the fear spreads that there will no longer be minimum support prices. In bigger agrarian states, where commission agents pay a major role in the sale of farm produce, there is a fear that they too will lose their commission and a source of income. A Punjab Agricultural University study has revealed that there are over 12 lakh families engaged in farming in Punjab alone, and there are over 28,000 registered commission agents. The changes to the laws will help the farmers to sell their produce to anyone inside and outside the state. Till now, most of the wheat and rice produced in Punjab as elsewhere used to be lifted by the Food Corporation of India, which will not be the case henceforth. The state itself will lose the 6 percent commission it used to levy on the procurement agency. Similar is going to be the situation in many other states. Can the government afford this gamble when the resentment against the changes to the agricultural law is growing?
India is a predominantly agrarian nation and its economy is vastly dependent on the farm produce. The bills have been opposed by most parties, including some which give issue-based support to the NDA, like the Biju Janata Dal, YSR Congress and JJP, as they draw support from farmers and agricultural labour to a large extent and would not like to be seen supporting measures that would hurt their interests. Farmers across political affiliations have joined hands to oppose the laws. The opposition from allies is unlikely to change the equation at the Centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hailed the passage of the bills in the Lok Sabha as historic, arguing the changes are aimed at bringing agrarian reforms and freeing farmers from the clutches of middlemen. It remains to be seen whether the farmers will buy the arguments of the government or intensify the agitation till the previous laws are restored. The Centre should remember that no government can afford to antagonize the farmers. The NDA might find it tough to win back the support of farmers.