ਗਗਨ ਦਮਾਮਾ ਬਾਜਿਓ
In addition to the continuously raging corona virus pandemic, Punjab and its residents, particularly its peasantry is passing through a rough patch. As if the burden of agricultural inputs, unrumenerative prices of agricultural produce, occasional crop losses, endemic indebtedness and diminishing returns from agriculture were not enough, the passage of three perceived- to -be anti-farmer Bills by the parliament on September 21, 2020 appears to be the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back. More than the contents of these three bills namely “Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Felicitation) Ordinance 2020; (FPTC) The Farmers (Empowerment and protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farmer Services. Ordinance 2020; (FAPAFS) and The essential commodities (Amendments) ordinance 2020, what has caused utmost resentment amongst the farmers ,in particular, and enlightened citizens ,in general, is the timing of first introducing these so called agricultural reforms as ordinances and then changing these ordinances into Bills on the basis of the brute majority of the ruling dispensation in the Lok Sabha and thereafter passing these bills in the Rajya Sabha first without adequate discussion and rejecting the opposition demand for subjecting these bills to the parliamentary select committee for finalizing these bills after assimilating the views of all the Stake holders and then passing these bills without any division of votes. What has made the situation more poignant is the difference in the perception of the farmers and that of the central government. To simplify the intricacies of these three bills, the passage of the first bill: The farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Felicitation) Ordinance 2020 amounts to bypassing the time tested and farmers friendly APMC system in vogue at present especially in Punjab and Haryana. Farmers fear that this Act will bring in the big corporate players in agriculture trade in the purchase and sale of agricultural produce with the corporate traders initially offering slightly higher prices than the current MSPs as they will be exempt from the payment of local APMC taxes amounting to roughly Rs 164/- per quintal and thus reducing trade volumes through APMCs. But when they have monopolized the trade, they will continue to reduce the prices arbitrarily. The second bill “Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement Price Assurance and Farmer Services Ordinance 2020 amounts to bringing contract Farming system where the dispute resolution system is loaded against the farmers as this system has been kept out of the ambit of civil courts.
Similarly, the third Bill “All Essential Commodities (Amendment) ordinance 2020 amounts to lifting the limiting of Food stocking by the Agri businesses and allowing them hoarding of unlimited food stocks and then selling at their own convenience and benefit without being prosecuted. The government perception behind the passage of these bills is to liberalize the farm markets in the hope that doing so will make the system more efficient and allow the better price realizations for all concerned, especially the farmers.
On the other hand, the farmers’ view point is that by passing these Bills, Government wants to get out of its obligation of being a guarantor of minimum support price (MSP) as the MSP provision works in formally regulated APMC Mandis but is not going to be mandatory in private business deals. While the farmers can exert pressure on the even most powerful elected state and central Governments through electoral processes to safeguard their economic interests, they will be minor players vis-à-vis big corporate trading players and incapable of bargaining effectively for the sale of their produce.
While there may be some merit in both the view points, what is most irksome is the ham-handed passage of these bills in Rajya Sabha ignoring the twelve opposition parties demand first for sending these bills to the Parliamentary select committee for a thorough analysis of the involved issues and then for a division of votes. What this sordid drama reflects is the majoritarian authoritativeness of the ruling BJP dispensation. It hates and does not tolerate dissent even if it is based on merit and believes in bulldozing and railroading its viewpoint be it the now-proved futile demonetization and cumbersome GST regime and now not-well-thought-out farm Bills. It is a reflection of the Hubris of the ruling party and especially the prime minister. Passage of these bills at a time when the pandemic has already created the worst economic crisis and a war-like situation at the Indo-China border, it could be easily avoided and taken up at a later date. Moreover, agriculture being a state subject, it violates the federal structure of the Indian State and is a move towards the centralization of the powers by the Union government. To be at cross purposes with the Indian peasantry which not only sustains the nation more than any other sector even in the worst pandemic times and also provides bulk of manpower for the nation’s security and defense forces, bodes ill for the nation. A similar reducing of all the existing labour laws into four Labour Codes including several anti-Labour laws like the freedom to hire and fire by corporate units and almost wiping out the trade union movement in India, rendering millions of factory workers at the mercy of capitalist industrialists.
Of all the states, Punjab and its peasantry are likely to be hit the hardest by this new development in the agricultural marketing, because the APMC system has been working quite successfully providing an assured MSP to the Punjab farmers and procuring bulk of two main crops and providing lacs of jobs to the laborers, shopkeepers and transport personnel. From the market fee charged by the marketing committees, the State has laid down a network of rural roads and provided for their maintenance and other farmer welfare facilities to the State farmers. With the absence of any written assurance regarding the continuance of MSP incorporated in the text of the farmers Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm services Ordinance/ Bill 2020 and the possibility of big corporate entry into agricultural marketing ,the Punjab farmers and those from many other states feel genuinely threatened . The existing APMC and MSP regime has been the most reliable safety net particularly for the Punjab, Haryana and many northern states’ farmers. Otherwise also as Harish Damodaran has pointed out (The Indian Express, September 27, 2020), the institution of Mandi is as old as markets where wholesale trading in primary produce has been taking place since times immemorial. The APMC or agricultural Produce Market Committee in its rudimentary form, was created by the legendary farmer leader Sir Chhotu Ram in 1939 when, he as Development Minister in the Provincial Government of his Unionist Party, got the Punjab Agricultural produce Market Act passed. It provided for the constitution of market committees; having two third farmer representation to oversee the functioning of mandis and curb malpractices by traders. This was complemented by another law that made the use of false or no-standard weights and scales in mandis a cognizable offence. These mandis later on became APMC mandis. In course of time, almost all States enacted their own APMC Acts to regulate mandis and outlaw any wholesale transactions outside these market yards or notified areas. At the last count, there were over 7300 APMC mandis, both principal and submarket yards across India. To further stop the exploitation of farmers, Dr Frank W. Parker, the Chief agriculturalist of USAID and advisor to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in 1959 had recommended to the then Agricultural Minister Ajit Parsad Jain to establish minimum or support prices for all the major crops atleast one year before the harvest. It goes to the credit of C. Subramaniam, the food and Agricutlural Minister of India in 1964, who supported by the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri and fiercely opposed by the then Union Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari, got this policy passed of providing incentive prices or MSPs for the agricultural produce. He was also instrumental in founding two other major institutions of Agricultural Prices Commission later renamed as Agricultural costs and prices Commission (CACP) and the food Corporation of India (FCI). The MSP was based on a detailed study of the cultivation costs of crops. Later on, Dr Swaminathan, another legendary Agricultural Scientist devised and recommended that MSP must include the cultivation cost + 50% profit for the cultivator. The present day MSPs include cultivation cost plus some profit for the cultivator, though not to the extent of Dr Swaminathan’s recommendations. The present three Farm Bills passed by the Modi Government seek to dismantle all these farmers protection practices and systems being used and usher in the entry of big corporate houses into agricultural trade without providing any guaranties of retaining MSPS and proper checks against exploitation of millions of Small and Marginal farmers. It is this lifeline which the main political party of Punjab, Shiromani Akali Dal representing the Punjab peasantry and a partner in the Union Government has failed to protect and maintain. Its belated withdrawal from the Union Government without withdrawing support from the political dispensation which has passed these legislations has seriously dented its age-old pro-farmers’ image and credibility among the Punjabi/Sikh farmers.
Besides being a farmers’ political party, it has also been a representative voice of Sikh aspirations and Sikh minority rights since India’s independence. Now when every political decision being taken by the ruling dispensation is being oriented by its majoritarian and authoritarian ideology and intentional weakening of country’s federal structure and laid down parliamentary procedures, it is now obligatory for the Shromani Akali Dal to be in the forefront of a movement for the protection of minority rights and the rights of the States and the nation’s federal system. The Presently raging farmers’ agitation against the increasingly pro-corporate, pro-capitalist and the ideologically communal ruling dispensation has provided a golden opportunity to the Shiromani Akali Dal to launch a vigorous political campaign in cooperation with the other regional farming based and minority representative parties in order to restore its glorious image of a farmers’ and Sikh minority party. The recent Delhi police investigation report filed in the Delhi court after investigating into the recent North -East Delhi riots naming all the accused from the Muslim minority community despite all the riot victims beings Muslims and maximum property losses also being that of Muslims and naming the leading social activists, a Gandhian, economists and university teachers , students and intellectuals as instigators and omitting altogether names of known BJP instigators including a union minister proves the anti-minority and anti-dissent, highly intolerant character of the ruling dispensation. The erosion of Muslim minority rights and their increasing marginalization in the country’s political fabric and other social platforms bodes ill for the rights and status of other minorities including the Sikhs as well. The continuous, strategic RSS interference into Sikh religious affairs such as prime Minister’s recent reference to tenth Sikh Guru’s purported composition of a Ram Avtar Ramayan and recently dismissed Sikh high priest’s declaration of Sikh Gurus being descendants of Rama’s sons Lov and Kush are matters to be seriously and urgently addressed by the Akali Dal Controlled SGPC in cooperation with Sikh scholars. The hitherto unsettled issue about the authenticity or otherwise of the some of the compositions included in the Dasam Granth and some other religious controversies calls for an urgent resolution. It is a wake up call for the Akalis, Sikhs and all those Indians who believe in federalism , pluralism and secularism as an integral part of the basic structure of the Indian constitution.