Congress Says Agri Reforms Of Modi Government Will Be Death Knell For Farming: Here’s Why It Has Got It Completely Wrong  

Congress Says Agri Reforms Of Modi Government Will Be Death Knell For Farming: Here’s Why It Has Got It Completely Wrong  Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala during a press conference. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • All the three ordinances ensure the benefit and convenience of farmers directly.

    Then why is it that the Congress is opposing them and, how does it plan to do so?

Last week, the Congress party suddenly hit out at the three ordinances promulgated by the Narendra Modi government on 5 June this year.

Party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the Congress would fight “tooth and nail” against The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020.

The Congress reaction comes at a time when some groups of farmers have begun protesting against these ordinances and expressing the fear that these are aimed at denying them the minimum support price (MSP) for their crops.

Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar today (14 September) denied that MSP would be done away with, saying “MSP hai aur rahega” (MSP is there and will remain).

These protests indicate two possibilities. One, silent preparations have been underway to take on the government during the current monsoon session by misleading growers.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs), too, are currently raising the pitch against these ordinances, evoking more suspicion over their moves.

Two, this could be also a short-term strategy by the Congress in preparation for the Bihar assembly elections scheduled to be held next month.

Far from these, the opposition party, perhaps, realises that these ordinances could contribute to a “Congress Mukt Bharat” (India rid of Congress).

First, one has to understand the objectives and implications of these ordinances. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, gives power to the grower to sell his produce to the buyer of his choice anywhere across the country.

Until now, a farmer had to mandatorily sell his/her produce only at the nearest Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) mandi (market) where he/she is registered with.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020, provides for a farmer or a user/buyer to enter into contract farming. This ensures an assured price to the grower even as he/she begins cultivation and has provisions to register with an authority set up for this purpose.

The Essential Commodities Ordinance will help the farmers to sell their produce during peak harvest period without any worry. Till now, buyers might not buy all that the farmers brought to the market in view of the stock limit prescribed under the Essential Commodities Act.

Former chairman of Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) Ashok Gulati has termed the agricultural reforms as one equivalent to the 1991 economic reforms of the P V Narasimha Rao government. Some have even termed these as “real ease of doing business”.

His comment came as soon as Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced these reforms as part of the Centre's Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Self-Sufficient programme) to tackle the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Why then this sudden opposition? No doubt, the farmers’ protest last week in Punjab, Haryana and some parts of Uttar Pradesh against the dangers of the MSP being discontinued is an indication of farmers being misled.

At the outset, the argument that all the three ordinances are loaded against the farmer is false.

One of the amusing facts is that they call The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, as one against the farmer. If a consumer had raised an issue over this, there would still be a point.

This ordinance has been promulgated to actually prevent farmers from resorting to distress sale of their produce. Under the Essential Commodities Act, there is a cap on the stock that the industry, wholesale or the trade could hold.

Often, especially during the peak harvest period, this cap was used as a ruse from buying the produce brought by the grower to the mandis. As a result, farmers often resorted to distress sale, selling to vested interests and thus ending up not getting their due remuneration.

Such an excuse will no longer work with these growers. So, why should they protest against the ordinance amending the Essential Commodities Act?

The Congress has also a vested interest in ensuring that farmers do not have the freedom to sell to buyers of their choice which The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, offers.

Rural markets and mandis have been functioning as power centres for some politicians, especially the Congress, until now. In some states, the mandi chief wields more power than the panchayat chief.

Such politicians decided who will buy what and fixed the price for it. These politicians also joined hands with the buyers’ cartel. The ordinance giving freedom to farmers to sell their produce anywhere now ensures that they are no more dependent on the local politician.

Thus with the politicians’ role reduced, parties hold on the rural mass, especially farmers, loosens. Congress, in particular, owes its hold in rural areas to these politicians.

This is why the Amarinder Singh government in Punjab passed a resolution rejecting the ordinances last month.

What Congress and the others, especially NGOs, are trying to hide is the oft-repeated statement of the Modi government that the mandis will co-exist with the new system that could emerge from the ordinance.

The new system could be an extension of the National Agricultural Market (eNAM) or a new electronic one or even an e-trading portal now being offered even by buyers abroad.

The Contract Farming Ordinance, on the other hand, leaves it to the grower to decide if he/she would prefer getting an assured price even before he/she begins raising a crop or risk facing the demand-supply situation in the market.

One of the fears raised here is that of a corporate takeover, including through contract farming. This gain is misleading since the ordinance has provisions to protect the growers’ interest.

The contract between the farmer and the sponsor/user/buyer has to be registered with an authority, which will also arbitrate in case of any dispute.

One of the critics has used the example of Pepsico filing a case against 11 potato farmers in Gujarat to oppose the three ordinances. This, too, is to mislead the farmer against the government.

Pepsico withdrew the cases following the government’s intervention. Even before that, it was well-known that its case was weak as farmers’ rights are protected under Section 39 of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPVFR) Act, 2001.

Farmers’ right is an essential part of the Intellectual Property Rights and the government has come up with a sui generis (legal protection) law of PPVFR complying with the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement of the World Trade Organisation.

One of the unique features of the PPVFR Act is that a farmer can save, use, resow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce including seeds of a variety protected under the act.

Thus, the Congress and others, mainly NGOs, are trying to mislead farmers and provoking them to agitate against the ordinances so that the government could dilute or withdraw them. The ultimate objective, however, is to ensure that they are not reduced to mere spectators.

For the Congress, it is an attempt at survival amidst various controversies it is immersed in, including a rudderless leadership.

Much to the Congress chagrin, 16 states have issued circulars to implement the three ordinances. If they have no problem, wonder what the opposition parties’ grouse is.

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