As the middlemen, farmers’ Union leaders and the Opposition are politicising the three new farm laws, the Central Government is adopting a cautious appproch to solve the imbroglio
–R Veera Raghavan
Farmers’ agitating against farms laws at Singhu border
What is common to the average Indian farmer, a private school teacher and housewife? Well, we view them mostly as a struggling and unrewarded lot forever. For them, a well-deserved redemption is not easily imagined – not even by themselves, as the protesting Punjab and Haryana farmers show.
What is unique about the farmers’ agitation at borders of Delhi, now running for 49 days?
In a democracy, people may protest when their rights are restricted or when they ask for more. Here a group of farmers agitate against three new central laws that enlarge farmers’ rights nationwide, liberating them from existing restrictions on trading what they grow. This is unique. And perplexing. And tells us more if we look deep.
You have been reading and hearing the abbreviation ‘APMC’. What is an APMC? What does it do? The answer helps us understand more about the ongoing farmers’ agitation.
Under the Constitution, States have exclusive power to enact laws on some subjects for their territories (e.g., public health and sanitation). The Centre has complete power to make laws on certain other subjects, for India’s whole (e.g., defence of India). On certain other subjects, the Centre and States have concurrent authority to make laws (e.g., trade and commerce, and production, supply and distribution of foodstuffs).
What happens if both the Centre and some States make laws on concurrent subjects, and the central law conflicts with State law? Then the central law prevails over differing State law, and the divergent part of the State law is invalid. This has come to the fore amidst the farmers’ agitation, drawing focus on an ‘APMC’.
Many states have made laws on the trading of farmers’ produce within their borders. For instance, the Punjab law – since Punjab and Haryana farmers comprise bulk of protesters near Delhi, mostly from Punjab. The Punjab law enables the State Government to “exercise control” over the sale, purchase, storage and processing of agricultural produce.
The Punjab law mandates – with negligible exceptions – that the first trading in agricultural produce should happen only at a specially established market place or market yard in the State. If it happens within Punjab, further trading of the same should also be at one of those market places or yards in that State. Such a market place or market yard is commonly called a mandi( grain market. A mandi and an ‘APMC’ are linked to each other like a husband and wife. Here is how.
Numerous such mandis have been established across Punjab. Brokers or commission agents, weighmen, measurers, surveyors and other functionaries who need to enter a mandi and do their job have to get a licence. Under the Punjab law, one or more mandis in a particular geographical area are administered by a committee with authority to issue all such licences. That committee is called an Agricultural Produce Market Committee. So we have the term, APMC. Each APMC committee in Punjab has twelve to sixteen members.
Do the Punjab or Haryana farmers believe they don’t benefit from the new free trading option which the Farmers’ Produce Free Trading Law gives them? Do they imagine they are better off with their old mandi system and APMC’s? If so, no problem. Farmers may coolly ignore the new option and stick to the mandi system and APMC regimes, which are also preserved by the new Central Law. They have a choice, this way or that way, one day here and another day there as they may like
Several such statutory committees or APMC’s function across Punjab, regulating mandis and overseeing a huge number of functionaries in those mandis. So these APMC have control over the sale and purchase of all agricultural produce of Punjab. Most other States too have similar laws, each with APMC’s of their own. APMC’s in Punjab and Haryana is however more entrenched.
Quoting a former Vice President of the Punjab Mandi Board, The Indian Express of September 18, 2020 reports: “There are around 1,850 purchase centres, including 152 big mandis across the State where around 28,000 registered arhtias (i.e., commission agents) in Punjab work with a supporting workforce of around 2 to 3 lakh labourers and others like accountants.” In the end, the mandi system is an all-pervasive sarkari affair. It is a regime or kingdom by itself. That says many things in India.
Now, the farmer. Food being an everyday need, foodstuffs are purchased throughout the year. Food processors and eating houses too make profits. How then, the average farmer who makes agricultural produce for all cannot make good money for himself? There must be a good difference between what he makes by selling his produce and the price ultimate consumers pay, and that goes into the pockets of others in the middle. Whatever, the average farmer remains underpaid and unrewarded. For example, does anyone else make leather, paper or steel, suffer a similar fate? No. That simply means the farmer is not smart enough to get the best deal for his labour and produce and is exploited by smarter people around him and an unsympathetic system.
With the objective of helping the farmer realise a better price and in an easy way, the Centre enacted three new laws recently, two of which are substantial and the third one consequential.
What is the first new Central Law, and what does it do? Of course, it has a very legal name, The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020. Let’s refer to it, “Farmers’ Produce Free Trading Law”. In one stroke, it does a great thing for farmers throughout India. It enables the sale and purchase of farmers’ produce in every State outside all APMC mandis – thus bypassing the regulations and restrictions and the system of APMC laws in all states. This new law is valid, as one passed by the Centre on a concurrent subject.
Farmers are now free to sell their produce, wholesale or retail, to any person, trader or dealer or corporate purchaser, within or outside his State. Simultaneously, if the farmer or a trader wishes to go only through the mandi system and trade only under an APMC law of the State, he could very well remain with the same old process. The Farmers’ Produce Free Trading Law gives a new option to all in the trading of agricultural produce. It preserves the regime of the existing mandi system of any State APMC law, but only for those who wish to submit to it voluntarily. Earlier everyone was bound by the mandi system whether he liked it or not.
Boost to Contract farming
What is the second new central law and what does it do? It has a long legal name, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020. Let’s refer to it, as “Contract Farming Law”. This law is also a boon to farmers throughout India. It enables the farmer to do what is called ‘contract farming’ on his land, by entering into a farming agreement with agri-business firms, wholesalers, exporters or large retailers. Under that agreement, a farmer can get support in production through the supply of inputs like seed, feed, machinery and technology, etc., and technical advice too, and the other party will purchase farming produce of the farmer at a mutually agreed price. Any transfer, lease, or mortgage of the farmer’s land and premises are forbidden under contract farming. The farmer’s interests in a contract farming agreement are fully protected under the Contract Farming Law. This central law overrides all State laws, as one on a concurrent subject.
The third new central law is consequential but is not really in focus. None of these new central laws deals with Minimum Support Price (MSP), an agricultural product price set by the Central Government to purchase directly from the farmer. So, MSP is an “out-of-syllabus” question in a discussion on these laws.
Freedom of Choice
Do the Punjab or Haryana farmers believe they don’t benefit from the new free trading option which the Farmers’ Produce Free Trading Law gives them? Do they imagine they are better off with their old mandi system and APMC’s? If so, no problem. Farmers may coolly ignore the new option and stick to the mandi system and APMC regimes, which are also preserved by the new Central Law. They have a choice, this way or that way, one day here and another day there as they may like. Why should the farmers bother?
Next, if farmers anywhere do not wish to do contract farming, that is fine too. The other central law, Contract Farming Law, does not compel farmers into contract farming. As usual, they can produce and keep looking for buyers, and sell a lot by lot. A choice of contract farming is kept available to them for any crop season in any year – that’s all.
Can the new Central Laws aggrieve any farmer? No. But do others in the trade stand to lose, do others have a stake in opposing the new Central Laws and are they powerful too? Obviously, yes.
Trading through APMC mandis has its costs such as market fee, user charges, levies and commission for the commission agents. APMC’s in any State and all those earning their incomes from the mandi system – including state governments deriving revenues from APMC– will lose heavily if farmers skip the mandis and avail the new option of free trading under the Farmers’ Produce Free Trading Law. In Punjab, stakeholders lose the greatest since mandi costs and expenses are relatively high over there, that too on a large volume of farmers’ produce traded in numerous mandis. The countless functionaries and operatives in mandis, especially the arhtias and their representatives, affected by the new central law have close ties with farmers. Those middlemen would also enjoy a systemic dependence from and influence over farmers.
Think about this. With the new Farmers’ Produce Free Trading Law, middlemen alone suffer heavily, and farmers can only benefit. So, who would be really interested in protesting against this law? Yes, the APMC middlemen. And if they can brainwash, lie to and instigate the farmers against this new central law, they would do it. Men with high stakes in the mandi system know how to do it artfully. Likewise, the same men will have to forget much of their commissions and other incomes if farmers opt for contract farming and directly deal with corporates and other wholesale buyers.
Farmers of Punjab and Haryana form the bulk of the protesters, while those from other States have shown no worthwhile protest despite active Opposition parties. Protests have come only from those States with a strong longstanding APMC-mandi system with a huge number of middlemen. Put two and two together to gauge the real picture.
The farmers’ agitation can only be a proxy agitation, at the behest of rich and powerful middlemen. Otherwise, can you imagine farmers declaring at the very beginning of their protest that they had many months of food stocks ready at the protest sites around Delhi and they would not withdraw their agitation until the three new farm laws were repealed entirely? The all-day non-stop sumptuous food prepared and served to protesters and their families, including elderly women, at the different protest venues, the many entertainment programmes organised for them, and a general excursion atmosphere kept alive there point to this – the money-power of the organisers and their huge stakes against the new central laws, both of which the farmers don’t have.
Opposing the new Central Laws and aligning with the protesters is honey for Opposition parties and their leaders, as they could heartily denounce Narendra Modi, the strong Prime Minister. Never mind if they do amazing flip-flops in the process, as the Congress and Rahul Gandhi demonstrate. The manifesto of the Congress Party for Lok Sabha elections of 2019, begins this way in Chapter 7: “Many years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru said, ‘Everything can wait but not agriculture’ “. Down below, the manifesto proudly declares: “Congress will repeal the Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act and make trade in agricultural produce – including exports and inter-state – free from all restrictions”. This election promise of the Congress now stands fulfilled by the new central laws, and yet that party opposes these laws, coolly burying its election promise.
What value did the Congress attach to its election promise to the nation, put in a written manifesto? That was emphasised by Rahul Gandhi in his foreword to that manifesto, as President of Indian National Congress. He wrote: “Every single word in the Congress manifesto reflects your voices and the aspirations of crores of Indians”. Concluding his foreword, he proudly said, “This is our commitment. Congress promises. Congress delivers.”
As Congress in going against its election promise, the APMC middlemen are supporting the farmers agitation to protect their interest.
Opposing the new Central Laws and aligning with the protesters is honey for Opposition parties and their leaders, as they could heartily denounce Narendra Modi, the strong Prime Minister.
The Supreme Court recently passed an interim order in the farmers’ agitation cases, staying the three new central laws and appointing a four-member committee “to listen to the farmers’ grievances on the laws and the views of the government and make recommendations.” But even a day earlier, when the SC indicated its mind to order a stay and appoint a committee, leaders of the agitation publicly welcomed the stay but announced – without knowing who would be on that committee – they would not appear before the court-appointed committee. In dialogues with the government, farmers’ unions just want a decision they insist and nothing else. In cases before the SC, they want a judgement they expect and nothing else. Can these farm leaders be the real face of simple farmers – turning their backs to the SC order? They are just anarchists.
Several thousand protesters have gathered at many points on Delhi’s borders, blocking traffic on highways for a month and a half. They want to break the police barriers and forcefully enter the heart of Delhi. Their leaders have been declaring that, as a high point of their defiance, the protesters will ride their tractors on the coming Republic Day at the venue of the traditional Republic Day parade in the Capital.
The Central Government is handling the protesters with caution and subdued firmness. The Government knows that any show of force on them and any severe injury or loss of lives in police actions could be blown up by the Opposition parties and the media, with more problems for the government to handle. APMC middlemen, farmers’ union leaders and Opposition leaders are playing their game of anarchy. The Central Government is tactful and biding its time, so as not to buckle and at the same time not let anarchists worsen public peace.
We are witnessing a fact of life. In a battle between right people and wrong people, does the right side always win? No, it is the more influential people in a circumstance who win, right or wrong. They may win partly or in full. We will learn about this as we wait and watch an intense political battle around Delhi, called farmers’ agitation.
(The Writer is a Advocate)