The new farm laws aim to reform the Indian agricultural sector and will not only boost the country’s economy, it will also benefit global economy. They herald major agricultural reforms that seek to eliminate middlemen, enabling farmers to sell their produce anywhere in the country. The protests against them are ill-conceived, argues Nandini Parthasarthy.
The ongoing controversy and protests over the new farm laws in India has ‘not so surprisingly’ received attention globally, from select quarters. It was in September 2020 when the Indian government passed three farm bills based on the recommendations of two five-year planning commissions (2007-12 and 2012-17). Not only this, these farm bills had incorporated long-standing demands of various political parties and farmers organisations. In September 2020, the three bills were passed in the Parliament and came into effect.
The present government has initiated reforms in several sectors including agriculture to strengthen the economy and ensure the well-being and prosperity of the citizens. When the three farm bills were passed, a series of campaigns spreading rumour and misinformation about the laws began that culminated into protests that lasted for months on end. With motivated groups furthering disorderliness and unrest, things only snowballed further.
Understanding the ‘controversial’ farm bills
The new farm laws aim to reform the Indian agricultural sector that will improve the country’s economy and benefit global economy as well. The government assures the three farm laws will start major agricultural reforms where the middlemen will be removed and farmers be able to sell their produce anywhere in the country.
In September 2020, President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent to the three ‘Agriculture Bills’ passed by the Indian Parliament earlier. The three farm acts are as follows:
1) The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 that ‘permits intra and inter-state trade of farmers’ produce beyond the physical premises of Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) markets and other markets notified under the state APMC Acts.’ The Act allows the farmers to trade their produce in farm gates, factory premises, cold storages, etc., as opposed to earlier when trading could be done only in APMC yards or local markets i.e. mandis.
2) Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 that ‘creates a national framework for contract farming through an agreement between a farmer and a buyer before the production or rearing of any farm produces.’ Among other things, the Act provides for a three-level dispute settlement mechanism comprising the Conciliation Board, Sub-Divisional Magistrate and Appellate Authority.
3) Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 is an amended Act which was enacted in 1955 ‘to ensure the delivery of certain commodities or products, the supply of which if obstructed owing to hoarding or black-marketing would affect the normal life of the people. This includes foodstuff, drugs, fuel (petroleum products), etc.’
Motivated groups stirred unrest
The opposition to the farm bills soon transformed into protests in November 2020 where hundreds of agitating farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, started camping at the borders of the national capital. Around the same time, several rounds of talks between the farmer unions and the central government failed. The deadlock continued for weeks till the Supreme Court intervened.
In January 2021, the Supreme Court put on hold the implementation of the three farm laws and constituted a committee to look into farmers’ grievances. The Apex Court also said ‘the four-member committee will take over negotiations to resolve issues of farmers protesting at Delhi borders for over 40 days.’
The bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde said, “We are doing it but we are not catering to everybody’s idea of what would be a good committee. It is not for mediation. It is for us.”
The committee members included Bhupender Singh Mann of BKU, Anil Ghanwant of Shetkari Sanghatana, agricultural scientist Ashok Gulati and Pramod K Joshi of International Food Policy Research Institute.
Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait noted, “They (Central Government) want amendment in them (Farm Laws 2020) but we want these laws to be repealed. We don’t want changes. We will end our protest only when these laws are withdrawn. Like the government brought the three bills, they should also bring a bill on the MSP.”
Senior advocate V Chitambaresh for the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh said they were happy with the farm laws. And, Advocate Sridhar Potaraju for the Consortium of Indian Farmers Association that represents 15 farmers’ unions across 15 states in the country said they would be “badly affected” by the stay as their produce would rot.
Congress claimed that the laws threaten the country’s food security system. BJP, on the other hand, alleged that Congress had itself promised farmers abolishment of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act in the party’s 2019 election manifesto and was now doing a volte face.
Congress leader and former Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram said that “the Congress’s 2019 poll manifesto was based on foundational principles of minimum support price (MSP), public procurement and public distribution system (PDS) to ensure food security” and the BJP spokespersons have “deliberately and maliciously distorted” the Congress manifesto.
BJP leader and Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar reiterated the central government’s commitment to the welfare of the farmers and assured them the new measures will bring remunerative prices for their produce. He also added the Congress was “misleading farmers.”
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad maintained the Congress party’s ‘double-standards’ stand exposed. “Opposition parties have jumped into the issue but during UPA rule, they did exactly what the Modi government is doing today for reforms in the farm sector. Now that they are losing elections, they take part in any protest for the sake of their existence.”
‘Motivated’ foreign entities taking advantage
During the Supreme Court hearing, the bench noted Attorney General K K Venugopal’s “support” of a “specific averment” by the Indian Kisan Union that ‘Sikhs for Justice’ – an organisation banned for anti-India secessionist movement – is financing the agitation.
The Attorney General also orally remarked that there were reports that “Khalistanis” had infiltrated the farmers’ protests.
In February 2021, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg extended her support to the farmers protest through a Twitter post. This was soon after singer Rihanna shared a news article on the centre’s ‘crackdown on the farmers’ where she wrote “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” before adding “#Farmers Protest” on Twitter.
Greta also tweeted a link to a ‘toolkit’ which Indian authorities say was proof the Swedish environmentalist is part of an international conspiracy against India. Later, she deleted the tweet, saying it was outdated, and tweeted another one.
And, not just this, a UK Member of Parliament Claudia Webbe also expressed her solidarity with the ‘Indian farmers’. She shared a screenshot of Rihanna’s tweet and wrote, “Solidarity to the Indian Farmers. Thank you Rihanna. In an era where political leadership is lacking we are grateful for others stepping forward.”
Later, author and niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, Meena Harris spoke in favour of the farmers’ protest in India and wrote, “It’s no coincidence that the world’s oldest democracy was attacked not even a month ago, and as we speak, the most populous democracy is under assault. This is related. We ALL should be outraged by India’s internet shutdowns and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters.”