Farmer Protests

Maharashtra: Political hot potato

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Outside the Nampur APMC market to protest against the Union government’s decision banning the export of all onion varieties, in Nashik, on September 15. Photo: PTI

The ruling coalition is up in arms against the Central farm laws, but the Shiv Sena will find it difficult to defend its support for the ordinance issued earlier.

As one of India’s top agricultural producers, Maharashtra has much at stake in implementing the new farm laws. Many provisions in the newly enacted Bills already exist as an option in the State. But the fact that the farmers are still protesting only shows how flawed the new Bills are.

Experts say that apart from the major blow to the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and the aggressive push towards contract farming, there will be very little change in the State with the new laws. Nonetheless, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi, the ruling coalition of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, has declared it will not implement the newly passed farm laws and will take legal recourse if required.

The agriculture sector plays a significant role in the State’s economy (contributing to approximately 13 per cent of the GDP) and keeping farmers’ interests in mind is essential for any party to gain political mileage. The State has 305 APMCs; the one in Navi Mumbai is the largest in India. The State also produces 90 per cent of the crops that come under the Minimum Support Price (MSP) mechanism, which farmers’ organisations say is now under threat. Several crops that are removed from the Essential Services Act are cultivated in the State.

Political manoeuvres

On the whole it appears the coalition partners are in sync on the farm Bills issue, but the fact that Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has not yet made a public statement is causing speculation about the political dynamics at play. Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who belongs to the NCP, has categorically stated that his party will not buckle under the Central government’s pressure on the farm and labour laws. Pawar told mediapersons he was seeking legal advice on how the State could stand its ground and protect its farmers.

The Shiv Sena is in a bit of a spot on the issue. In June this year, when the farm ordinances were laid out in the Lok Sabha, the party supported the move and congratulated the Centre on its progressive thinking. In early August, the State’s Department of Agriculture asked the district authorities to implement the ordinances “in letter and spirit”.

The department’s circular states: “As per the provisions in the ordinances, the farmers are free to market his produce at field, factory, warehouse or cold storage without any hindrance and without any market fee applicable under APMC Act. Any other fee or charges applicable under APMC Act cannot be charged now as per the provisions made in the ordinances. The law and judiciary department has vetted the ordinances and validated its applicability. Though the existence of the APMCs has not been affected by promulgation of the ordinance, the farmers will have a parallel mechanism to get fair prices for their produce. The market committees are expected to implement the provisions in the ordinances effectively.” When the details of the circular became public, the Shiv Sena issued a statement saying the matter would be discussed in a coordination meeting of the three parties.

The NCP and the Congress have banded together and made representations to the Governor to look into the issue. Both parties realise that the issue, if handled well, could gain them their lost political base. Said Prithviraj Chavan, former Chief Minister from the Congress: “The Bills will lead farmers to slavery and safeguard the interests of a bunch of industrialists who are close to the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] leaders in power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that farmers’ income would double by 2022, but farmers are deprived of even the MSP. The Central government is ‘suit-boot ki sarkar’ and do not represent poor farmers.”

Farmers’ protests

Lakhs of farmers across 21 districts have participated in rallies and road blockades (rasta rokos) in protest against the new laws. Farmer’ groups, Left parties, and rights and environmental organisations are united in the fight. Additionally, there are widespread online campaigns against the laws. Already severely affected by the lockdown, farmers say they urgently need government procurement in order to survive.

Vilas Kondse Patil, a cotton farmer in Wardha, says the MSP on cotton this year was Rs.5,500-5,800. The government did not start procurement in time and so they had to sell the crop at Rs.4,800 in the open market. “This has been happening for years. The rate in the open market does not cover the cost plus profit. We will be subject to this in the new law, leading to a severe crisis in the region,” said Patil. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were more than 50,000 farmer suicides in the Vidarbha region alone from 1995 to 2019. The distress arises largely from poor procurement systems and non-payment of the MSP.

Said Vijay Jawandhia, leader of the Kisan Shetkari Sangatana: “The problem is the Central government keeps changing the goalpost. Modi promised farmers their income would double by 2022. He never said how. Now he changes his tune, saying the new Bills will help farmers. The fact is he has caught himself in a trap. He cannot fulfil this promise, he cannot afford the MSP demanded, so he is finding a way to absolve the Centre from procurement. He is beholden to corporates, and the WTO [World Trade Organisation] has said India has exceeded its limit on subsidies given to farmers. This has nothing to do with liberating farmers.”

Jawandhia, who himself is a cotton farmer, added: “If they want to open the market, they need to retain the MSP and say no trade will take place below the formula. This will give some assurances, particularly to the small farmer who is dependent on the market committees.”

He explained how Maharashtra has struggled with issues relating to the MSP, particularly in cash crops, for decades. It was introduced in 1965 during the Green Revolution to keep prices in check. However, in recent years State agencies have been starting the procurement late and stopping it early, leaving farmers to the mercy of ruthless middlemen.

Said Ajit Navale, State secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS): “Farmers are not begging for anything. All they want is a support mechanism. Why is it so difficult for our governments to understand that farmers are critical for food security and their demands need to be understood in that context? Small farmers who constitute at least 80 per cent of the country’s farming community need support in matters such as where and to whom to sell. The new Bills do not give that.”

Navale, who has been spearheadingprotest rallies, said: “They have been looting the farmer anyway, this is just one more method. In Maharashtra, the export ban on onions has been a form of looting; allowing import of produce has been another. We are not asking to procure everything, but given the condition of our farmers, post a lockdown particularly, I believe they should be given protection in in the case of both non-perishable and perishable products. A strong rule not allowing to buy below the MSP will go a long way.”

APMCs unshackled

Maharashtra has initiated several measures with regard to APMCs. In 2016, it delisted fruits and vegetables from APMCs and allowed them to be sold in the free market. Two years later, the then BJP government unsuccessfully tried to pass an ordinance to amend the Maharashtra Agricultural Produce and Marketing (Development and Regulation) Act, 1963. However, the open market system was an option that is exercised by farmers, says a committee member.

A member of the Navi Mumbai APMC says the delisting has not had a major effect on farmers, who still prefer to come to the mandis–one, because it is a well-oiled system; and two, because they do not know any better. But over time farmers were exploited, mainly on those items that did not have an MSP. Furthermore, farmers are left with little profit as they need to pay the APMC a cess which earns the APMC a substantive revenue. Farmers are charged anywhere between 0.5 to 1 per cent on sales.

According to the Maharashtra State Agriculture Marketing Board, the State’s APMCs have a collective annual turnover of approximately Rs.50,000 crore. That is another reason for the government’s worry: the exchequer will stand to lose this if the APMCs are done away with.

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