New farm laws fail to shed flawed British legacy; red-tapism, disguised middlemen will leave poor farmers high and dry
In the present Farm Produces Act, the state governments have not been given any real operational charge in the newly formulated system of trading.
On 5 June, when the Parliament was not in session due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the Centre passed three ordinances with the assent of the president of the country. Related to agriculture, the three ordinances namely were 1. The Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Facilitation and Promotion) Ordinance 2020, 2. The Farmer’s (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinances 2020. 3. The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance 2020. The first two ordinances were passed as bills of the same name.
Presented to the Parliament by the Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj on 14 September, these ordinances were passed as bills by the Lower House on 17 September and by the Upper House on 20 September. Both these bills have been central to the protests happening nationwide which have now become laws after the presidential nod.
The Act opens up in the beginning by claiming to create a provision that will enable the farmer to sell his produce at any destination found suitable by ‘him’. The Act mentions places of a farmer’s concern (cold storage units, farm spaces, factory premises etc.) as places one can use for trading produces other than the APMC mandis.
The Act claims that its main motive is to eliminate the ‘middlemen’ so that the farmers can enjoy the maximum benefits of their produces. But the Act replaces the ‘middlemen’ with traders and not consumers in a country like ours, where the use of agricultural products are diversified to a large extent. Henceforth, it becomes an impractical task to expect a farmer to sell the produce directly to the consumers. The middlemen who are officials of the mandis by the virtue of state government laws are not exactly replaced but are alternatively present as traders.
The Act further calls for an electronic platform for the trading of the agricultural produce by the farmers in context to the newly developed independent trading system. In January 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the e-NAM (electronic national market) portal.
Now available as an app and functioning in eight different languages, e-NAM acts as an electronic platform for trading agricultural produce in an APMC mandi area. Since the Act has been passed, the government is claiming that APMC mandis and the newly developed trading system can co-exist together. But the government has failed to explain why the same electronic trading platform cannot be expanded for independent and mandi based trading.
In the Act, provisions for irregularities in the case of independent trading is mentioned. Though, the Act only recognises ‘disputes of payments’ as irregularities and disputes. Recognition of disputes based on social hierarchies is not evident. Trading as an activity requires communication and involvement of people of various sections of society. Interaction of such kinds can produce conflicts beyond financial irregularities. Even the apparatus created by the Act to tackle such problems is a complicated one.
The Act specifies that the disputes must be filed in front of the sub-divisional magistrate of the sub-division who will then form a committee. The committee will be constituted of two members (representing the two parties) and a chairperson appointed by the sub-divisional magistrate. It is mentioned further that if any of the party is unsatisfied from the decision of the committee, they can report to the joint secretary to the Government of India appointed for this purpose only. The professional problems of the agricultural community by virtue of this Act will now lay in the hands of the executive power of the country.
The Agricultural Produce Market (Regulation) Act is originally a state-driven initiative. It was popular among various state governments during the 1960s and 1970s. The Centre recognised this in the form of the model APMC Act 2003. This act prescribed a transactional chain for the agriculturists to trade their produce.
The model APMC Act of 2003 mentions that the APMC mandis (market places) can only be formed at the initiative of the state governments. The Act acknowledges that the state government understands the local agriculture problem in a better way and thus the responsibility of creating and regulating these mandis was bestowed upon them.
In the present Farm Produces Act, the state governments have not been given any real operational charge in the newly formulated system of trading. The APMC mandis have their own individual committees whose members are democratically elected by the farmers and individuals who are participants of the mandis. In a rural set up these elected representatives form a political base for themselves by working among the professional group. The present Act reduces the stake of such committees and individuals and prompts the setting up of a different kind of politics altogether.
The genesis of the Act in context to agriculture was formulated in a series of colonial Indian laws. In 1935, The Unionist party (Zamindara league) founded by an ex-Congressman Sir Chotu Ram, an OBC Jat, won the Punjab provincial legislative elections and went on to form a government in the state capital, Lahore. With this win, Sir Chotu Ram began his movement of changing the outlook of agriculture in Punjab.
Under a tenure of 10 years, Sir Chotu Ram actively coordinated the passing and application of five important bills: 1. Punjab Regulation of Accounts Act, 1930, enabling only registered money lenders to lend money; 2. Punjab Relief of Indebtors Act, 1934 which provided for evaluating the debt for relieving debtors; 3. Punjab Debtors Protection Act, 1936 which focused on reclaiming of the possessions of farmers by moneylenders; 4. Punjab APMC Act, 1939 which formed the base for Mandis and 5. Consolidations Holding Act, 1939 which helped contain the fragmentation of land.
With the passing of these laws, farming and agriculture became central to the politics of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Western Uttar Pradesh, paving way for a strong political and social understanding in these regions. Thus APMC mandis were formed and Punjab and Haryana were now given preference in every matter relating to farming. Cultivation of wheat, grown in these two regions was emphasised over rice which was, and still is, primarily grown in Bihar, Orissa, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, etc.
Punjab-Haryana actively participated in APMC politics, a concept that reached other states very late in time. It resulted in strong political backing and shifted the apparatus of farm laws towards a particular region.
The politics still remains very strong in these areas. Recently, when on 14 October, the representatives of the farmer groups who are protesting were called for a meeting with the Centre, the representatives walked out of Krishi Bhawan citing that no minister was present at the meeting. Union Minister for Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar was absent from the meeting much to the dismay of the farmer groups who straight away walked out. The incident is an exemplar of how politically active and sound these farmers are.
Very strong lobbying by one community culminated into laws that would now guide the whole of India. Farming, which was till then a subjective affair, changing with every state, soil, demography and weather now became an objective, unified and central affair. The present farm laws which are drawn from the same pattern of these colonial-era laws, or rather, are extracts of it, only makes this pattern of centralization of farming more rigorous.
The colonial laws catered to such farmers who knew accounting and therefore could keep accounts and to those who possessed land, carts, cattle, etc. Though the farm laws of India accepts the landless labourers too, as agriculturists, but no reflection of the statement could be seen any of the laws from the colonial era to new Farm Acts of 2020.
We have to understand that the farmers who are out on roads, protesting in various parts of the country are those farmers who own land, bullock carts, cattle, tractors, smartphones, etc. In stark contrast are those poor farmers from Bihar who walked till Delhi because they could not afford a train ticket or distressing images of poor farmers from Tamil Nadu who protested at Jantar Mantar.
P Sainath in interaction with Ravish Kumar says on NDTV that most of the distressed farmers who die by suicide have outstanding debts of Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. Researches by Economics and Political weekly and Kisan Mitra also supports the claim. It points towards the fact that these are landless labourers who are unable to mortgage any of their possession (like bullock, tractor, etc.) in order to get away with the debt. This deep despair is the reality of these landless labourers but the farm laws miserably fail to interact with them.
According to National Crime Report Bureau (NCRB), approximately 42,000 farmers and daily wagers died by suicide in 2019 alone, maximum deaths being from Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Going by the figures of NCRB, over 1 lakh farmers have died by suicide since 1995. These group of farmers, who the Left circles call the ‘proletariat’ have become mere numbers in their representation. The attitude of media is equally painful and discomforting. One ought to despise the entire agonising phenomenon that turns a group of humans into mere numbers.
When exactly can we let go of our colonial perceptions and move towards concrete and conclusive route that could address the distress of the farmers is the biggest question of the day.