Three contentious bills which will change the way India’s farmers do business have roiled the country’s parliament and sparked protests that have spilled onto the streets.
The upper house or Rajya Sabha passed two of the bills on Sunday during a charged session. The bills will become laws once the president approves them, which may be a formality at this stage.
Opposition parties accused the govt of flouting order by passing the bills hurriedly and not taking note of their demand of sending the bills to a parliamentary committee for further deliberations.
The row led to the suspension of eight opposition members, who staged a sit-in outside the parliament through Monday night.
But beyond the political fracas, the bills have also split opinions – while Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the reforms a “watershed moment” for Indian agriculture, opposition parties have termed them “anti-farmer” and likened them to a “death warrant”.
Angry and worried farmer groups see them as unfair and exploitative. Pro-reform economists have partly welcomed the move, but say it is a piecemeal approach that’s unlikely to try to to much.
What exactly do the bills propose?
Taken together, the reforms will loosen rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – rules that have protected India’s farmers from the free marketplace for decades.
They also allow private buyers to hoard essential commodities for future sales, which only government-authorised agents could do earlier; and that they outline rules for contract farming, where farmers tailor their production to suit a selected buyer’s demand.
One of the most important changes is that farmers are going to be allowed to sell their produce at a market value on to private players – agricultural businesses, supermarket chains and online grocers. Most Indian farmers currently sell the bulk of their produce at government-controlled wholesale markets or mandis at assured floor prices.
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These markets are travel by committees made from farmers, often large land-owners, and traders or “commission agents” who act as middle men for brokering sales, organising storage and transport, or maybe financing deals.
It’s a complex system underpinned by regulations, and a number of private and business relationships.
The reforms, a minimum of on paper, give farmers the choice of selling outside of this so-called “mandi system”.
So, what’s the issue?
The issue is that it’s unclear how this may play call at reality. For one, farmers can already sell to non-public players in many nations but what these bills do is offer a national framework.
But farmers are mainly concerned that this may eventually cause the top of wholesale markets and guaranteed prices, leaving them with no back-up option. That is, if they’re not satisfied with the worth offered by a personal buyer, they can’t return to the mandi or use it as a leverage during negotiations.
“First, farmers will feel attracted towards these private players, who will offer a far better price for the produce. the govt mandis will close up meanwhile and after a couple of years, these players will start exploiting the farmers. that is what we fear,” Multan Singh Rana, a farmer within the northern state of Punjab, told BBC Punjabi.
The government has said the mandi system will continue, and that they won’t withdraw the Minimum Support Price (MSP) they currently offer. But farmers are suspicious.
“This may be a warrant for little and marginalised farmers. this is often aimed toward destroying them by delivering agriculture and market to the large corporates. they need to grab away our land. But we’ll not allow them to do that ,” Sukhdev Singh Kokri, a farmer, told BBC Punjabi.
The protests are the strongest in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana state, where the mandi system is robust and therefore the productivity is high – so only the govt has been ready to buy that volume of produce at a group price.
“Giving the liberty to the farmer to sell outside the mandi system, to whoever, may be a welcome step, in unshackling the farmer,” says economist Ajit Ranade.
“But you would like the mandi system to coexist with private trading system. Perhaps the govt must begin with a written law that they’re going to not withdraw the MSP or the mandi system.”
Other analysts also say that much greater reforms – in land use as an example – are needed to offer private players any real clout.
India still has stringent laws round the sale and use of agricultural land, and high subsidies that protect farmers from economic process .
Why has it caused such a political row?
Farmers have long been an important voting block for parties, and therefore the controversy has certainly divided the parties.
But the row is partly also the results of the way during which the 2 bills were passed.
Despite repeated requests from the opposition, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refused to increase the talk over the bill to subsequent day, or refer it to a special committee, where members could discuss it and refine it further.
Even as pandemonium erupted – opposition MPs stormed the well of the house, threw their microphones, tore up papers – the deputy chairman of the house, who is an MP from a celebration that supports the govt , chose to travel ahead with the vote.
But, to the ire of the opposition, he conducted a voice vote instead of a physical ballot. The latter, which allows individual MPs to cast their vote, is more accurate. The voice vote, opposition MPs alleged, wasn’t just rushed but also unclear – within the din of the protest, they say, it had been hard to work out if the BJP had enough votes to pass the bills.