In September of 2020, the Indian government introduced three new farm bills in a rather hopeless attempt to revolutionise Indian agriculture. Much like other controversial bills passed under the Modi regime, these too were passed in a hurry in both Houses of Parliament, allowing for little scrutiny by the opposition. The bills have caused widespread resentment amongst farmers across India, especially those of Punjab and Haryana. As the Indian government suspends internet services in the Delhi region of the protests in a characteristic authoritarian move to supress any opposition, it is important to evaluate why it is that these farmers are protesting in the first place, and whether their claims in fact bear merit or not.
The new agricultural reforms comprise of three main bills – The Farmers (empowerment and protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill.
The Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill essentially promotes contract farming, and states that legal agreements must be made with private contracting companies in the farmer’s interest to prevent exploitation. It specifies that for disputes between farmers and private organisations, the farmer cannot go to court and must instead go to a government official – a sub-divisional magistrate or a district collector – whose say is final. While on the surface it may seem that the government is working towards preventing the exploitation of farmers, it is clear that farmers are in fact being deprived of their fundamental right in the case of a dispute, especially considering that the monopoly power of private organisations would be sufficient to legally crush any small farmer. Furthermore, the bill also states that nobody can file a case against the specifications of this law – another prime example of the unconstitutional and dictatorial nature of the bill, to which parallels can be drawn with the banning of trade unions, or perhaps the presence of the schutzstaffel in Germany of the 1930s.
The ‘Farm Services’ aspect of the Bill is concerned with the fact that a private company purchasing goods from a farmer can specify the quality of the products, as well as where they are delivered. While the government claims this will attract private investment, farmers make an amply valid argument in saying that a powerful corporate investor would legally dominate them and impose liability clauses on them. It is essential to understand that the private sector is answerable only to its shareholders, and has the primary objective of maximising profits. This makes farmer exploitation far more likely than already was under the government, considering the government is answerable to the people of India and is concerned primarily (at least in theory if not entirely in reality) with the welfare of the people.
The second bill that has sparked considerable outrage is the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce Bill, which looks at the trading of farm good outside of Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) yards, which has been the norm for decades. APMCs are controlled by state governments and have provided farmers with a much-needed minimum support price (MSP). Farmers worry that the introduction of the private sector which will need to pay no tax to sell goods outside of mandis will benefit large farmers who have an incentive to send their goods across larger physical spans, but will effectively eliminate APMC mandis in the process. The elimination of these APMCs would mean that farmers would no longer receive a MSP, and small farmers would be left at the mercy of private organisations that are concerned with profit maximisation and would therefore drive prices for farmers even further down. Small farmers, which make up almost 80 percent of the farming workforce will have no negotiating power against large corporates. This policy seems to be advantageous only for the private organisations, and perhaps also the government who will be rid of the responsibility of agriculture – a wrong approach to be considered in a democratic nation, especially one where the Prime Minister Modi promised to double farmer incomes by 2022. Instead of seeing better, more economically viable prospects, the farmers of India seem to be stabbed instead by a three-pronged wholly unconstitutional spear. For a nation whose constitution makes explicit references to the adoption of a socialist ideology, this law must be deemed at best fraudulent, and at worst a preposterous and shocking misrepresentation of the very foundations on which Indian democracy is based.
Some may question the need for APMCs at all, considering that APMCs have been no foreigners to corruption. However, to these people farmers may respond by first of all stating the obvious – that the monopoly power of private corporates would crush small farmers – and then perhaps alluding to the time when Nitish Kumar abolished APMCs in Bihar. In 2006, when APMCs were abolished in Bihar, farmers’ conditions only deteriorated. Farmers flocked from Bihar to Punjab and Haryana, where they now work on farms assisting the main farmers. After these bills come to effect, not only will farmers be at a disadvantage, but the portion of the Bihari workforce that now relies on Punjab and Haryana’s farming will also bear the brunt of these bills through the form of widespread unemployment.
Several farmers at the Delhi protests have vocalised a strong support for APMCs and middlemen, saying that middlemen perform several indispensable jobs such as unloading trolleys, cleaning the produce, filling them in bags, ensuring that the farmers receive suitable rates, and even transferring the produce. In its essence these middlemen are service providers. If farmers do not wish to eliminate these ‘middle-men’ who will only be replaced by profit-hungry privates, why is the government putting all these service providers out of jobs?
The surprising aspect of this bill is that it is not just the farmers who are at a disadvantage due to it. Allowing large farmers to sell their produce outside the respective state boundaries means that these farmers will now sell bulk of their produce outside their state, where they can get the best price for it. This will in turn reduce state revenue. States like Punjab that rely predominantly on agricultural revenue will suffer greatly. All the money that state governments save under this policy through not having to provide farmers with subsidies will undoubtedly and inevitably be lost in the form of state revenue reduction.
The Essential Commodities Bill concerns itself with the control of production, supply and distribution of certain commodities. The amendment to the bill has removed certain commodities such as cereals, pulses, potato, onion, oils and oilseeds from the essential commodities list. This means that hoarding is now legal for these goods. Private companies can stock up on these items and sell them to the general public when demand is greatest and subsequently prices are highest. The government can only intervene and regulate prices if there is a 50 percent increase in retail prices for non-perishable produce like pulses, and a 100 percent increase for perishable produce like onions. Effectively, the policy seems to be advantageous only for large companies, catering minimally, if at all, to the needs of farmers whose conditions have not been praise-worthy since the inception of the Modi regime. This law dictates that farmers will be paid less, and will have no stable source of income, and that consumers too will have to pay more than the usual for essential food products.
In response to these laws, farmers from all across India have rightfully been protesting for months. The government denied farmers a safe protest site in Delhi, hoping to keep the protests away from the public eye. With the police being instructed to attack farmers with water cannons and tear gas, with each passing day of the protests, the laws ironically seem to be getting more and more unconstitutional. Farmers have had no avenue for relief whatsoever, thus explaining their mass demonstration at the Red Fort in Delhi. The farmers of India are embodying the spirit of democracy. The sustained protests even after 4 months are a clear depiction of how the farmers will not back down. What differentiates previous protests such as those against the CAA from these is that farmers are continuining to protest against the tide of circumstances such as the pandemic and the archetypal government internet blackages, water cannons and tear gas attacks. A persistent movement as it is right now could possibly be the final blow that breaks the current government’s largely fascist tendencies. This could be a win for Indian democracy.
The BJP came to power in 2014 on the pretext and promises of creating a better more economically equitable India, assuring farmers an increase in income and a more streamlined, corruption-free system of dealing. Instead, evidently, the regime has provided farmers with the precise opposite. As one of the farmers protesting in Delhi proclaimed, “Previous governments made us sick, but Modi has pushed us into the ICU.” It is about time the regime stop ignoring the people of India, as they have done with every other hastily passed and grotesquely inculcated law of theirs that the Indian populace has detested.