As protests by farmers ,mainly from Punjab, against three farm laws completes eight weeks this Republic Day, one stark message emerges from the spirited men encircling Delhi. Which is that the highway logjam is no ordinary protest about a few laws . It is more of a hard political bargain that is being driven in the name of farmers. The protests seem more aimed at reviving fortunes of a moribund political party than is connected to improving the lot of the ordinary farmer ; it is more intent on hobbling the Narendra Modi Government that decisively won 2019 Lok Sabha elections than perhaps finding ways to end the logjam .
Clearly, the Congress, which managed to only marginally improve its worst tally of 44 MPs secured in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it seems has still not come to terms with the 2019 Lok Sabha mandate. And the party is now hoping to ride on an agrarian discontent that is limited at best to one or two states .
Or else how does one explain deliberations at the Congress Working Committee that met on January 22 and moved a resolution on new farm laws . The CWC made no reference to the two-day old Government offer to farm unions to put on hold the farms laws in abeyance for 18 months or even to the Supreme Court order that had temporarily stayed it . Agreed the CWC no longer has eminent men who would have bothered about such details like late former President Pranab Mukerjee. But then there were other men familiar with law and governance who for some reason chose to let it pass. The CWC resolution adequately revealed that the party had a major role in stoking the farm unions’ obduracy in dealing with the Government and also a vested interest in ensuring that no amicable solution is found to the imbroglio.
In fact just ahead of the last 11th round of talks between farm leaders and the Government on January 22 , the CWC resolution dubbed the laws as ” anti agriculture” and reiterated that it should be repealed .It was too obvious that the Congress was merrily pulling the strings and the farm unions were play acting as prompted. That’s why when farm union leaders met with the Government the same day, the farm leaders summarily rejected the offer and the Government too threw in the towel saying it had ” nothing more to offer”.
The Congress’s keen interest in the farm stir became all too evident when the Punjab Government also offered to give jobs to those who had died while participating in the dharna . ” What is the logic of this offer? If the state government is going to provide jobs to the next of kin of 170 odd people who presumably died during the dharna , it only shows the entire protest has been sponsored by Congress Government in Punjab, ” points out Haryana BJP leader Raman Mallik.
Mallik also revealed that it was odd for Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh to mobilise farmers and arhatiyas against central farm laws when he himself had provided for similar provisions in state legislation way back in 2006– Punjab Agricultural Produce Market Law, 2006. Under this law, no order of the court would have any validity on action taken by officers of the state government vis a vis mandis ; the law also provided for working of private mandis. It was ironic that Punjab farm leaders flagged these very concerns of vesting dispute resolution powers with district magistrates in central laws as a matter of concern.
Sanjay Nath Singh of All India Farmers Association, who backs the new farm laws, dubbed Punjab’s opposition to new legislation as “hypocrisy of politics”. He feels the new laws have the potential to develop India as a food bowl of the world. ” Already we hear small and micro farmers have hugely benefited from the kind of access to markets these new laws have given to them. Soon after the laws came into force , APMC mandis lost up to 49 % of farm trade . I even heard a Srinagar apple grower who said he was happy with the law as he is able to sell directly his produce to buyers without APMC or middlemen.”
Singh admits the cut and thrust of the farm protest is the MSP( Minimum Support Price)– the fear that MSP-linked public procurement of grains would go away and it would be replaced by corporate procurement. These fears have lurked in spite of assurances from the Government. MSP was introduced in an era of food shortage to incentivise farmers in the 60s and to protect them from cartelisation of traders and it covers 23 crops and is availed by 7 per cent of Indian farmers.
” Now we are in an era of surplus. We need new policy frame-work for this age. It is odd that Punjab farmers have chosen to be stuck on MSP- in fact I will say MSP that has simply taken talent out of Punjab. It is because of MSP, the farmers are stuck with water guzzling cereals,” says Singh.
In his paper on new farm laws, Niti Aayog member Prof Ramesh Chand explains why Punjab doesn’t have reason to worry about losing MSP but only focus on re-working its mandi tax in a more market friendly way. The real threat to APMC mandis and their business , Prof Chand feels would be from excessive and unjustified charges levied by states in these markets. The new FPTC Act(Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2000 will only put pressure on APMC markets to become competitive. “Discussions with mandi officials revealed that a maximum of 1.5% of total charges, including market fee and commission for arhathiyas, is sufficient to maintain and run mandi operations.
” Of the 25 states having APMC acts, 12 do not charge commission on notified crops. The service charges, like mandi fee for representative crop, in these states vary from 0–1% in 9 states and 2% in Madhya Pradesh and Tripura. The second category of states has Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana, where the service charge for mandi is 1% of the value of the produce and the commission varies from 1–2%.
It is the third set of states like Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh, where the total charges vary from 5–8.5%, with the highest in Punjab followed by Haryana. Ultimately, for the states in this category, market charges and commissions need to be brought down to 2% or less.
In this backdrop it just seems that the Government has handled the protests with remarkable patience and sagacity. A team of three Union Ministers led by Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar have engaged with Congress proxies of farm leaders exercising considerable patience –holding 11 rounds of talks that were spread over 4 months and 45 hours .This at a time when all that farm leaders were pushing for was a replay of a October 1988 Mahendra Singh Tikait moment – when they could storm Delhi for a week and claim a win-win. Maybe their well wishers are still hoping there would be a nasty scene with the Government and its agencies and that doesn’t seem to be happening. Perhaps all their hopes are pinned on a tractor rally on January 26. Even that could turn out to be a non-event !
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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