Three contentious farm laws have put Punjab on a warpath with the Centre; here's why

The SAD leaving the NDA, combined with the rise of the AAP in Punjab, has complicated the political equation. With polls less than two years away, it is easy to see why political parties dare not risk the anger of farmers

FP Staff September 28, 2020 19:07:31 IST
Three contentious farm laws have put Punjab on a warpath with the Centre; here's why

Amarinder Singh during a protest against the farm Bills. Image courtesy: Twitter/@INCPunjab

The three agriculture-related laws which on Sunday received the assent of President Ram Nath Kovind have sparked protests from farmers in many parts of the country.

Perhaps nowhere have the agitations been fiercer than in the state of Punjab.

All major political parties in the state, except the BJP, have now unanimously condemned the laws.

Even the BJP's former ally Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which initially supported the legislative changes, now stands firmly against them, and even left the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) over the issue.

In fact, the SAD went so far as to demand that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh declare the entire state as a 'Principal Market Yard' in order to nullify the effect of the law limiting the powers of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs).

The SAD leaving the NDA, combined with the rise of the AAP in Punjab, has complicated the political equation.

An article in The Print noted that the Akali Dal could benefit enormously from the move in the 2022 Assembly election. In recent years, it had been on the backfoot over allegations that it did not take action over the desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in 2015.

"The Akalis were facing an existential crisis and this is their last ditch bid to revive themselves,” the article in The Print quoted professor Ashutosh Kumar, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh, as saying.

With polls less than two years away, it is easy to see why political parties dare not risk the anger of farmers.

Over the past few days, cultivators blocked several roads, held a rail roko agitation and organised tractor rallies over the three laws. On Friday, the agitation even forced buses run by the State-owned Pepsu Road Transport to go off the roads on Friday.

While the government has accused the Opposition of misleading farmers, the protesters have strenuously denied such claims.

An NDTV report quoted Sarwan Singh Pandher, Punjab state secretary of Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti as saying, "Prime Minister Narendra Modi is blaming the Opposition for instigating us. This is not correct. We have read the ordinances (now laws). The corporates have pushed prime minister Modi to introduce these changes. We are getting support from farmers across the country; this is a very big people's movement."

Why are Punjab cultivators particularly angry?

In order to understand why many farmers are concerned about the legal changes, one needs to first understand what the laws state.

The three laws that have now been passed by the Parliament are the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.

While the first law allows farmers to sell their produce outside the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC), the second one provides a framework allowing farmers to enter into contract farming. The third law allows traders to stock food articles freely without the fear of being prosecuted for hoarding.

One of the fears of the farmers is that the laws may be the first step towards the dismantling of the minimum support price (MSP) regime. As agricultural expert Ajay Vir Jakhar noted in an interview, cultivators in Punjab and Haryana stand to gain more from the present MSP system, which is why it is more of a concern in these states.

An article in Down To Earth magazine noted that the network of mandis in Punjab includes 153 principal yards, 284 sub-yards and 1,443 purchase centres.

It is for this reason that most political parties in Punjab are rallying behind protesting farmers. Here is how political parties in Punjab apart from the BJP have responded to the laws that have recently been passed:

Congress

Punjab chief minister and Congress leader Captain Amarinder Singh has strongly resisted the legislations, and is participating in a dharna today.

The protest is at Khatkar Kalan, the ancestral village of Bhagat Singh on the freedom fighter's birth anniversary.

Amarinder, in an op-ed for Indian Express, said the laws "hide more than they reveal."

He wrote, "They give the poor small and marginal farmers of India (constituting over 85 percent of India’s farmers) no assurance of protection of their interests, their livelihoods, and their future. They make no mention whatsoever of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime, which is the lifeline of these poor farmers and their key to survival, as also the survival of the nation’s agriculture sector."

The Punjab chief minister has also said that the state government will approach the Supreme Court to challenge the laws.

Earlier this month, some Congress MPs from Punjab also burnt copies of the laws brought in by the government inside the Parliament Complex.

Akali Dal

The Shiromani Akali Dal had initially voiced support for the legal changes when they were introduced as Ordinances.

Party leader Sukhbir Singh Badal, sharing his correspondence with Union Agriculture Minister Narender Singh Tomar with the media, had claimed that the three ordinances were not a threat to the Minimum Support Price system.

He had said he received categorical clarification from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the MSP system will continue to be a priority.

He had also slammed Congress for trying to 'mislead the farmers' about the ordinances.

However, Akali Dal changed its stance when the extent of opposition among farmers became clear. On 17 September, Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the Union Cabinet in protest against the laws. She said that her resignation symbolises her "party's vision, its glorious legacy and its commitment to go to any extent to safeguard the interests of farmers".

On 26 September, the Akali Dal, one of the oldest constituents of the NDA, quit the alliance, becoming the third major party to walk out of the BJP-led coalition in the last couple of years.

Aam Aadmi Party

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) strongly opposed the laws when they were being discussed in Parliament, with party MP Sanjay Singh being one of the eight MPs suspended for 'misbehaviour'.

Last week, AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal said, "There are obvious problems and loopholes in the Bills. Farmers across the country are protesting and you cannot say they all have been misled. Moreover, the way the voting (on the Bills) was done in Rajya Sabha is questionable and condemnable."

The AAP, which is the main Opposition party in Punjab, had supported the 25 September "bandh" call given by various farmers' outfits against the legal changes.

Last week, a party delegation led by AAP MLA Harpal Singh Cheema and in-charge of Punjab affairs Jarnail Singh handed Punjab governor VP Singh Badnore a memorandum to give President Ram Nath Kovind, which urged him to withhold his assent.

With inputs  from PTI

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