Akali Dal Gives In To Congress’ Pressure In Punjab When It Could Have Quoted The Latter’s Own Manifesto On Agri Reforms Back To It

by M R Subramani - Sep 18, 2020 04:04 PM +05:30 IST
Akali Dal Gives In To Congress’ Pressure In Punjab When It Could Have Quoted The Latter’s Own Manifesto On Agri Reforms Back To It Sukhbir Badal and Narendra Modi. (Facebook)
  • While raising the heat over the agricultural reforms in Punjab, the Congress had dragged in the Akali Dal saying that it was a party to these anti-farmer developments.

    All that the Akalis had to do was quote the Congress’ own manifesto for 2019 elections back to it, chapter and verse.

The Narendra Modi government is facing a stern test in ushering in agricultural reforms in the country with one of its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), withdrawing from the Cabinet.

The SAD’s only representative, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, quit the Cabinet over the Lok Sabha passing two bills with regard to agricultural reforms yesterday (17 September)

The Lok Sabha passed the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill yesterday.

Both these bills, along with the provisions to facilitate contract farming across the country, have been hailed by economists. Prime Minister Modi has termed the passing of the bills as historic and these bills will provide new opportunities to farmers.

He did not hide his disappointment over the current spate of protests and criticism over the bills, saying “many forces are trying to mislead the farmers”.

In particular, he has allayed the fears of farmer over the fixing of minimum support price (MSP) for crops assuring that it will continue.

The Akalis were among those who had welcomed the agricultural reforms undertaken by the government as part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan in June this year.

The Minister for Food Processing Industries Harsimrat Badal had pointed out to the reforms and invited investments in the food processing sector.

On her part, she has claimed that she kept quiet when the Centre passed three ordinances for the reforms since she thought it was temporary. This doesn't wash especially coming from someone who was a Cabinet member. It is a well-known fact that an ordinance will be passed as a bill within six weeks of Parliament being convened.

There are three reasons why the Akalis have resorted to this step.

One, relations between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Akalis have been strained for a few months now.

Probably, the party, in which only the Badals dominate, saw an opportune moment now when some farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had been provoked by vested interests against the agricultural reforms.

Two, the party could have taken a short-term view ahead of the assembly elections due in 2022.

The Congress-led Captain Amarinder Singh government had passed a resolution against the reforms in the state assembly last month and the Akalis feel they could lose out if they were to support the Centre’s agricultural reforms.

Three, the Punjab Congress led by Sunil Jakhar had put the Akalis on the back foot with a campaign since June against the agricultural reforms.

Jakhar and Congress have played a smart game by misleading farmers saying that the reforms will end fixing of MSP and the government procurement of rice and wheat.

Government procurement of rice and wheat is a sensitive issue in Punjab and Haryana. Both the states are key produces of these crops.

During 2019-20 season, rice procurement under MSP operations from these states was 30 per cent of the 75 million tonnes (mt) totally procured across the country. Punjab alone contributed 21 per cent.

Both the states contributed over 50 per cent of the total 39.98 mt wheat procured across the country with Punjab alone contributing 31 per cent during April-June this year.

While raising the heat over the agricultural reforms in Punjab, the Congress has dragged in the Akalis saying that they were a party to these anti-farmer developments.

Clearly, the mobilisation of farmers to protest the reforms, acknowledged as being as good as the 1991 economic reforms of the P V Narasimha Rao government by former Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices chief Ashok Gulati, has forced a rethink on the Akalis’ part.

But are the reforms as bad or as dangerous as the Congress and some vested interests, including non-governmental organisations, term them to be?

A simple look at these reforms will make it clear that the issue has been politicised by these elements. In this regard, it would be pertinent to look at what the Congress manifesto for the 2019 Parliament elections promised on the agricultural front.

The manifesto, which claimed to usher in “gaam, daam, shaan and sushashan” (employment, price, shine and good governance), dealt specifically with agriculture, farmers and farm labour in the seventh chapter (page 17).

In the 11th point on the list for agriculture, the Congress said it would repeal the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act and make trade in agricultural produce — including exports and inter-state trade — free from all restrictions.

It goes on further to say that it will establish farmers’ market with adequate infrastructure and support in large villages and small towns.

It would be only in the fitness of things if the Modi government asks the Congress whether there is anything different it has done by passing the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill?

The objective of the bill is to help the farmer to sell his produce anywhere across the country and even abroad without just relying on the nearest APMC mandi (market).

Until the ordinance on this was passed, a farmer could not go beyond the APMC mandi he/she was registered with. How fair is it for a farmer to not have access to sell his produce anywhere in the country when almost all sectors in the industry have such a liberty?

The Congress’ claim that MSP and government procurement will end soon does not wash since the government has been explaining from the time the ordinances were promulgated that these will continue.

More importantly, the government and its officials have made it clear that the APMCs will continue to exist side-by-side with any new marketing platform or system that may emerge in view of the reforms.

In fact, it is the government that should be worried since if farmers get a better price for their produce, it might not get the required quantity of rice or wheat for its buffer stocks.

The Akalis should have pointed out at this Congress double-speak and the reality rather than leave the Cabinet in a huff.

It could have even pointed out the higher MSP fixed for the current kharif crops.

The Akalis might have other reasons to leave too.

As seen from the procurement data, most of the farmers, especially the well-to-do ones in Punjab, seem to rely on government procurement under the MSP scheme. Thus, vested interests have played on their fears to fuel the protests.

Another issue in Punjab with regard to food grain trade is the presence of a huge number of arhatiyas or commission agents. Walk into Asia’s largest grain mandi at Khanna in the state, and you would see more agents that farmers even during peak harvest season.

There are nearly 30,000 commission agents, who are all well-to-do and influential, in Punjab, and they seem to have somehow convinced the Congress and Akalis to hold brief for them than tend to the interests of the farmers.

Also, they seem to be worried about the votes of Jats, who form a majority of the commission agents.

An additional reason why both parties are up in arms over the reforms is that if farmers are to move away from the APMC mandis and sell their produce at a place of their choice, the state government stands to lose revenue.

Currently, Punjab gets some 2.5 per cent as mandi fees and rural development cess. Even procurement of rice or paddy by the Centre for buffer stock is not exempt and thus, this also seems to engage their minds.

The objection over the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill is indeed surprising since it has got nothing to do with farmers. In fact, the growers should be doubly happy about this.

Again, let us look at what the Congress said in its 2019 manifesto on this. Twenty-first on the list of what the party will do in the chapter on agriculture, farmers and farm workers makes an interesting mention:

“The Essential Commodities Act 1955 belongs to the age of controls. Congress promises to replace the Act by an enabling law that can be invoked only in the case of emergencies,” the party proclaimed.
Congress 2019 Lok Sabha Elections Manifesto

Now, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill has these same features. The problem with the 1955 act is that it stipulated a cap on the stock holding limit of users, traders and wholesalers.

This proved to be a nemesis for farmers during the peak harvest period. Often, this has resulted in panic sales at very low prices to unscrupulous elements by the growers.

The amendment to the act will now help farmers to take their produce to the buyer during peak harvest period without any worry. The bill also talks of invocation of the act only during emergencies, which can be a spurt in the prices of essential items.

The recent ban in exports of onion is an example of how the government could step in to check a surge in prices.

Akalis could have explained that this again is a farmers’ welfare-enabling move and drive home the point that it was no different from what the Congress envisaged.

More than real concern for the farmers, the Congress and, now, Akalis have perhaps raised the issue to ensure that their hold in rural areas through the APMC mandis does not get diluted.

The APMC mandis have been hitherto used by Congress and other regional parties such as Akalis and Nationalist Congress Party as power centres to retain their hold on the farmers.

The mandi chiefs are more powerful than village sarpanches and panchayat chiefs and this has been used to further their agenda, including by forcing farmers to agree to sell at a price fixed by them in collusion with cartels.

The Modi government’s move to ensure farmers get a better remuneration also happens to be a development that will shake up their rural dominance.

It is unfortunate that Akalis have fallen to petty politics and short-term interests than to really work towards the farmers’ welfare and well-being.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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