Agricultural reforms must not leave farmers unprotected
Though the Rajya Sabha passed the two bills — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) bill and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance bill — the central government and the Opposition appear to be heading towards a prolonged battle on the justification of the legislations. The government has claimed that the bills tackle crucial issues in ushering agricultural reforms, but there are serious doubts being raised about the objectives behind deregulating the sale of agricultural produce. The Lok Sabha has already given its approval to the two bills along with the Essential Commodities (Amendment) bill. Regardless of the central government’s argument that the new laws are aimed at improvement in the economic conditions of the farming community, farmers in many parts of the country are up in arms refuting the government claims. The third bill was to be taken up in the Rajya Sabha on Monday but could not get its approval due to a ruckus in the House over the suspension of eight members for a week. The bill is likely to sail through in the upper house when it is taken for discussion and voting as the opposition strength is further depleted.
The government has been saying that the changes in the laws will transform the agricultural sector and raise income of the farmers. It may be recalled that the Centre had promised to double the income of the farmers by 2022. The Centre says that changes are aimed at making farmers free from government-controlled markets (mandis) and help them fetch higher prices for their produce. The changes are also aimed at encouraging intra-state trade and reducing transportation cost. The bills provide for a framework for agreements that enables farmers to engage with agri-business companies, exporters and retailers for services and sale of produce while giving the farmer access to modern technology. The farmers are however apprehensive about getting Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce under new laws. There is also a fear among the farmers that changes give upper hand to the agri-businesses and big retailers in negotiations and will put farmers at a disadvantage. They also fear big companies would dictate the prices of the commodities as they gain control of the system.
The central government needs to allay the fears of the farmers by making a commitment that the laws will not bring an end to the agriculture ‘mandi’ and that the Minimum Support Price system will continue. Else, feelings would grow among farmers that the new laws would spell doom for the agriculture sector. It is surprising to see the government brushing aside all opposition to the agricultural laws and getting them approved through a process which has been questioned in various quarters. The hurry shown by the government in amending the laws has led many to allege a ‘hidden motive’ behind it. The government should have shown magnanimity in accommodating the views of its allies and the opponents of the laws and taken them on board and redesigned the agricultural reforms to make them acceptable to all.
The stubbornness shown by the government in getting the bills passed has led to it losing one of its oldest allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal, besides angering the farming sector. The urgency of the government to change the laws has brought the farmers on the streets and their agitation could have impact on farm production in the months ahead unless corrective steps were taken. Can the changes made help farmers double their income over the next two years, as promised by the government? Besides, even as it initiated the changes to the laws, the Centre apparently took an anti-farmer step by imposing a ban on export of onions and the opposition parties were quick to point out the double standards of the government. It has to be noted that agriculture has been the backbone of the Indian economy for years and the only sector to have shown positive growth in the pandemic era. Merely changing laws alone is not enough. The authorities need to ensure that the changes are shaped after accommodating the views of farmers and the opposition parties and made with the sole purpose of raising the income and spirits of the farmers.