Punjab wastes chance to frame path-breaking farm laws; neglects ancillary workers, protects land holding farmers

In a quest to oppose what the state considers as Centre's hegemony, Punjab brings out three farm bills but crippled with bureaucratic clog and little creativity.

Arghya Bhaskar October 23, 2020 10:21:23 IST
Punjab wastes chance to frame path-breaking farm laws; neglects ancillary workers, protects land holding farmers

File Image of Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh.

On 19 October 2020, the Punjab Vidhan Sabha called a special session (as winter session has not yet started) and became the first state to formally reject the three farm bills passed by the Centre. As it happened, the Punjab Vidhan Sabha passed three bills unanimously, except the two BJP members who were absent from the house, and passed a resolution to legally negate the three acts of the Centre thus demanding their annulment.

The three bills passed by Punjab Assembly are: 1. The Farmers' (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2020, 2. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2020 and 3. The Essential Commodities (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2020.

Just the last month, the Centre passed three bills of the same name which are now recognised as Acts. These Acts triggered nationwide protest of farmers spearheaded by farmer organisations of Punjab and Haryana. With enormous pressure from the farmers ‘rail roko’, the Punjab government sought this route. The new bills propose penal clauses for sale-purchase of wheat or paddy below MSP among other things.

The first two bills initiate with a paragraph which reads “to restore the agricultural safeguards of the farmers of Punjab...to secure and protect the interest and livelihood of farmers and farm labourers as also all others engaged in agriculture and related activities.” The Farmers Empowerment and Protection Bill mentions the Minimum Support Price (MSP) mechanism and the regulatory framework of APMC laws as the instruments that will ‘secure’ the interest of farmers.

The bills call for the restoration of the farmer’s condition through the existing APMC laws (they prominently mention the Punjab APMC ACT of 1961). This motive for restoration indicates the confidence of the state government in the archaic laws. It is also indicative of their faith in the existing system for the farmers. This opportunity could have been used by the state government to propose a new set of contemporary and worked out provisions for our agricultural population rather the state government through these bills is trying to find the best possible options from the already existing system.

In one of its introductory paragraphs, the bill mentions that these central Acts would leave the farmers of Punjab prone to “encroachment and manipulation by vested corporate interests”. This indicates the hesitation of the state government towards its own capacity in handling legal agricultural transactions outside mandi spaces. it also reflects that the state government is dubious in giving agricultural transactions a broader framework where the farmers could have multifaceted clients for their produces.

In the following paragraph, the bill cites the Agricultural Census of 2015-16 where it mentions that 86.2 percent of farmers own less than 5 acres of land. Being a state bill, it misses a very minute but elementary detail whether this data is Punjab specific or not.

It becomes much more important because the figure of 86.2 percent which has been used with conviction in the bill does not find itself against the name of Punjab anywhere. However, there is a figure of 86.08 percent referring to the population of farmers who have less than 0-2 acres of land in the census. Such unanimous usage of data in respect of a state subject can alter the whole purpose of this bill which is brought specifically for the needs of the state. Also, it could be misjudged and could form a basis of dissent in other states, if the matters of the bill aren’t state-specific.

Further, the bill states that these farmers owning less than five acres of land would need “proper protection by the state government to endure a level playing field, prevent exploitation and an optimum guarantee of fair market price for the agricultural produce".

It must be noted that the bill duly recognises the farm labourers and the agricultural workers, who do the ancillary jobs, but this protection and the level playing field is only being provided to the farmers who own land. It is understood that ‘land’ plays the most important role in the process of agriculture but restricting the maximum benefit to the ones who own it, makes it a constrictive process. It leaves a negligible scope for one’s growth.

The bill mentions that these things are the responsibility of the state government and also emphasises that the Central government failed to recognise this ‘object’ of the Constitution of India. It further cites the 7th Schedule of the Constitution of India and accordingly states that agriculture, agricultural markets and land (entry 14, 18 and 28 of the State list (II)) is the primary legislative domain of the state and ‘production, supply and distribution of goods’ is also a state subject (entry no 27 of list II).

But the Centre through these new farm bills does not directly interfere with the ‘objects’ of the Constitution. Entry no. 20 of the Concurrent List mentions ‘Economic and Social Planning’. The contents of the Concurrent List mention those subjects which can be taken into account both by the State and the Centre. Therefore, setting up of MSP forms a part of this economic planning done by the Centre and likewise, creating a new trading system for agricultural produces also forms a part of economic planning.

Entry No 13 of 7th Schedule (Civil procedures) and Entry no. 46 (Jurisdiction and power of all courts except Supreme Court) comes under the Concurrent List. These entries emphasise that deciding the judicial framework of professional activity is the responsibility of both, the Centre and the State. The Centre introduced the model APMC Act in 2007 which exclusively makes the creation of APMC mandis a state subject. Therefore the farm Acts in its appearance do not act in opposition to the ‘object’ of Constitution as the Concurrent List of the Constitution of India, allows the central government to create a jurisdictional and financial framework for a certain profession.

The bill under the ‘Special Provisions for the State of Punjab’ 6 (1), considers the provisions of Punjab APMC Act, 1961. The Revised Act of 1961 helped Punjab to acquire and strengthen its position during the ‘Green Revolution’. But one has to remember how only a section of farmers was benefitted from the ‘Green Revolution’.

Farming as an activity in India is not a ‘prosperous’ for a much larger population who practice it daily. In this scenario, falling back on already existing laws like it was done with the three Central farm laws does not make sense. These Central farm laws derived its basis from colonial-era laws. The same procedural activity is being repeated by the Punjab government by the restoration of the old laws. This restoration will only help the already strengthened agricultural classes while contributing equally in the deteriorating situation of landless farmers, farm labourers and small farmers.

The Empowerment Bill further mentions that the ‘civil court and other remedies’ must be available to these farmers. In this scenario, the responsibility to get justice according to ensured work relies on the farmers themselves. The bill fails to recognise that the smaller farmers do not hold the capacity to go through legal procedures for hindrances in professional work.

The bill calls for a new cess to be levied on the ‘corporate traders’ trading outside the APMC market area and the money collected from these will be spent on funds that would help purchase equipment for small and marginal farmers. This move cannot guarantee an egalitarian environment and would invite hostility among fellow professionals. It would also increase the stakeholding of the APMC market over the agricultural produces.

The similarity between the state and Centre is reflected in their efforts of falling back to history for answers, with the only difference being in their interpretations (which is in accordance to their own ideological grounds). While the vested interest of corporate and market players is sensed in Central laws,  the state laws reflect the intent of safeguarding the stakeholders. In this tussle between state and Centre, in this political conflict, it is the landless labourers who are rammed. The India-wide population of such labourers are stuck in this political gamut.

The controversy is likely to end up in Supreme Court, regarding which, Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said his government was all set to take legal recourse. While caught up in another political drama is also the opposition comprising of AAM and SAD which at first supported the bill, and whose MLAs accompanied the chief minister in meeting the governor, but these parties have now taken a ‘U-turn’ on their stance regarding the bills.

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, on the other hand, has said that he would ‘examine’ these bills after which they would be sent to the president for assent (being a matter of concurrent list, they are sent to the home ministry for scrutiny and thereafter requires president’s nod).

It is the ideological differences that have come about through farming. But one really ought to contemplate Punjab’s reaction because the state government could have taken a tougher and stringent course had they really wanted to work out on problems. The amendments lack creativity. It is only a conservative follow up of the already existing political mappings.

This lack in creativity is as much a marker of the bureaucratic bloc as much it is of executive pressure. It highlights the limitedness of the thought process of the bureaucrats who form these legislations. The issue overall also raises some questions on the federal structure of the country and distribution of power, here, between the Union of India and the states.

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