The Modi government seems to have a penchant for rushing ahead and taking momentous decisions without giving a thought to the impact on the people. No wonder many well-intentioned forward-looking schemes seem to boomerang.
Whether it is demonetisation or CAA, we are getting used to seeing the Modi government always in the fire fighting mode, trying to douse the flame or busy explaining its own rationale to angry protesting masses soon after a scheme is announced.
Somehow, wide-ranging consultations, taking all stakeholders on board, a thorough discussion with trade unions, consensus building with Opposition parties before any important decision, or introducing crucial bills is no more the style of the ruling dispensation.
Recently, using brute majority, the Farmer Bills were passed in the Rajya Sabha despite pandemonium and chaos created by an aggressive sloganeering Opposition with many of them rushing to the well and even tearing the Rule Book.
The government seemed to have been in an incredible hurry to pass the Bills notwithstanding its own Cabinet Minister Union Minister of Food Processing Industries quitting in protest and massive farmers’ protests in states like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi.
No doubt the ruling party enjoys the majority but an enlightened democracy runs by building a consensus on important issues.
A Cabinet minister’s resignation and that too of an alliance partner in protest shows the serious rift in the NDA camp on the issue.
Farmers have already decided to continue their agitation till the Bills are withdrawn. Eight MPs of the Opposition have been suspended for a week from Rajya Sabha. Even BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Dr. Subramanian Swamy had asked the Central government to “withdraw the Bills” and “negotiate with allies for a consensus bill.”
While Shiromani Akali Dal, Congress, Trinamool Congress, NCP, BSP, and CPI(M) all opposed the Bill, Biju Janata Dal urged the Bills to be referred to the Standing Committee.
Odisha BJD MP Anubhav Mohanty raised very valid issues that the Bills lacked “clarity” and had been brought in “haste”. To take advantage of the Bills, the farmers will need more capital, information on price fluctuation, better access to credit facilities and storage facilities etc.
He also pointed out that the Bill will eventually lead to the abolition of Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and the Bihar example has shown that scrapping APMCs had adversely affected farmers.
The passage of these Bills has raised a very fundamental question – Is the Indian agriculture sector ready for a free market economy?
Here we must understand the role and relevance of the Indian agriculture sector.
Agriculture Economist Dr. P. Indira Devi former Director of Research Kerala University says “India’s agriculture sector needs protection and regulations and market support” in view of its significance in supporting livelihood to the majority of the Indian population, food security of the nation, and ecological safety and sustainable development.
The decision to free the Agri market system without regulations is a matter of concern, she points out. There is a feeling that the opening up will finally lead to complete privatisation and withdrawal of the Government from the Agri sector.
There is also concern about the much-touted contract farming system with big corporate houses and big traders, as it is not among equals and not on a level playing field with eighty-six percent of Indian farmers being small and marginal. The balance would be skewed unless farmers collectives were formed to negotiate with corporates or big businesses.
She said, “Had the focus been on empowering the existing APMCs on ensuring MSP (Minimum Support Price) to all the farmers on establishing rural markets, the role of the public sector could have been more and the sustainability of the sector ensured.”
No one doubts that the government’s proclaimed intention to protect the farmers realise better prices that help to double their farm income, freedom to sell outside the APMCs, support for contract farming and easing the stock limits for the traders/exporters/processors, and electronic trading are expected to facilitate Agri marketing system to act in favour of the farming community.
But the big question remains. Is the poor, illiterate, mostly in debt Indian farmer ready to become a successful player in an open free Agri market, competing with national and international players.
The fear is that while big industrialists will profit in the long run with contract and corporate farming, farmers will become labourers.
The government’s argument that these measures will free farmers from the existing government-controlled markets and prices, and that they can enter into agreements with private parties for a better price of their produce, and that a lot of agriculture infrastructure and services will be brought into the farming sector by the corporate and industrialists do not seem to wash with the farmers.
Despite the Agriculture Minister repeatedly reaffirming that MSP or Minimum Support Price will remain, the damage seems to have been already done by the Opposition parties pointing out to farmers that it is nowhere written in the new Bill and the government intends to do away with MSP.
No wonder there is a demand that MSP should not be touched. Opposition parties have been quick to play on the fears of the farmers and clearly, there is a trust issue with the government.
With the Bihar elections looming large to be followed by Bengal, the government cannot let the farmers’ agitation go out of hand.
If all the stakeholders and Opposition parties had been briefed properly by the government, it would not have been taken by surprise at the kind of response from the farmers and the Opposition parties.
State governments ruled by Opposition parties are also staring at the possible loss of huge revenue as mandi tax from the mandis of APMCs.
Its early days and the situation is absolutely fluid but politicians cutting across party lines must deal with the situation very carefully because nearly 60 percent of India’s population depends on the agriculture sector for its livelihood.