The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, along with the deregulation of commodities such as cereals, pulses, oilseeds and potatoes through the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, not only brought the farmers of Punjab to the highways, streets and bylanes, but also drove a wedge between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), partners in a long-standing alliance. The partnership had proved durable and enabled the BJP to form the government as a junior partner in Punjab. However, the agriculture Bills forced the Akalis’ hand and with farmers leaving nothing unsaid in their criticism of the Modi government’s decision, the party decided to part ways, albeit in stages. First, Harsimrat Kaur Badal quit the Modi Cabinet as the Minister for Food Processing, prompting the Punjab Congress chief, Sunil Jakhar, to label it as an act of “compulsion”.
In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, the party’s decision was apparently influenced by the feedback it received from its cadre and farmers. Interestingly, Harsimrat Kaur Badal attended the Cabinet meetings where the Bills were discussed before being presented in Parliament. Shortly, after the Bills were passed in an acrimonious fashion by the two Houses of Parliament, the Akali Dal formally quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), of which Parkash Singh Badal was one of the founding members. It thus became the third long-standing partner to quit the BJP-led alliance, after the Telugu Desam and the Shiv Sena had quit it earlier. It brought to an end the almost four-decades-old ties between the BJP and the Akali Dal.
Naresh Gujral, noted Akali Dal leader and a Member of the Rajya Sabha who gave a rousing speech against the farmers’ Bills in the House, spoke to Frontline a little before the party quit the NDA. Throwing broad hints about the imminent departure from the NDA, Gujral recalled what he had said in Parliament: “Don’t let the spark in Punjab and Haryana turn into a big fire across the country…. Punjab has fed the nation since the Green Revolution. Do not victimise the farmer.” Excerpts from the interview.
How do you assess the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce, and the Farmers’ Empowerment and Protection Bills and the changes to the Essential Commodities Bill?
I see it from the perspective of Punjab’s farmers. I understand the Bills will have repercussions across the country, but since I belong to Punjab and the State has been the nation’s granary, the effect will be felt in a much more pronounced fashion by the farmers in the State. The farmer might not be educated but he understands where the Bills are coming from. He has not been taken into confidence on the subject and that is why we see the anger we do.
Right from the time of the Green Revolution, Punjab has led the way in not only making sure that we as a nation became self-sufficient in food grain production but there was a surplus. Nobody can deny that. For the last six years, the minimum support price [MSP] was increased. Yet, today, the farmer suffers from a trust deficit. He feels cheated and shortchanged. He fears the mandi , the local market, which was at his doorstep, moving away to a distant place. He feels robbed.
Your party’s objections to the three Bills stem from their content or the disputable process of their clearance?
Both. There are certain provisions in the two Bills that leave the farmer vulnerable to market forces. For instance, the MSP has not been fixed for the entire produce. For years, the farmer brought his stuff to the mandi and the Food Corporation of India [FCI]procured it. The farmer knew the MSP and was sure of getting a certain sum. Tomorrow, with the MSP not being fixed, even if the FCI buys, say, 75 per cent of the produce, the farmer will still incur losses on the other 25 per cent. He will have to sell it in the open market, where there will be no MSP.
The farmer is angry. I repeat, the farmer might be illiterate but he is not a fool. He understands the market. He has seen it around him…. He has seen it in the aviation and telecom sectors. He has seen what happened to BSNL, which was once making profit and is now incurring losses. Same for Air India. The farmer understands all this and fears agriculture could be next.
There is a fear that corporate houses will step in and farmers, particularly those with small holdings, could lose out to them.
Yes, there is a palpable fear at the ground level that the big business houses could come and offer the farmer a great price one year, and then virtually force the hand of the farmer. The farmers’ interests have been sold to corporate houses.
There is, definitely, the issue of contract farming. The small farmer can be offered a very lucrative price one year. Next year there could be a dispute. The farmer does not have deep pockets for dispute resolution. The Bills do not provide a [mechanism for] amicable grievance resolution. The Bills should have a process in place for this.
So, our opposition is to the content and the process by which the Bills were cleared. They needed to be discussed. They needed to be sent to a select committee for consideration. We do not understand the tearing hurry to clear them. We are very clear that the Bills have far-reaching ramifications not only for Punjab but the entire country and needed to be discussed in a non-partisan fashion, cutting across party lines.
Talking of the Bills being cleared in a hearing hurry, there were ordinances issued during the pandemic before the Bills....
Yes, we fail to understand that. Are the Bills some genie, some Aladdin’s lamp that, once passed, all problems will be gone? No. We have seen how the National Food Security Act worked in places like Bihar. So a mere piece of legislation does not help.
You talk of the pandemic but there is China too at our doorstep. This hurry at such a critical time for the nation seems pretty inexplicable.
Harsimrat Kaur quit the Cabinet before the Bills were passed by Parliament. What is the next step?
Ours is a cadre-based party. The Akali Dal is a party of farmers. It is true our leadership’s action was based on the feedback from the average farmer and the cadre of the party. The farmers were agitated over the proposed Bills and the decision to quit the Cabinet was a reflection of that sentiment. But our relationship with the BJP goes back to the time of Indira Gandhi and to the time after her assassination. The Akali-BJP partnership helped heal many wounds and brought the two communities (Sikhs and Hindus) together. It brought communal harmony and peace to the State.
But there is a trust deficit between the Akalis and the BJP today....
I agree, today there is a trust deficit at the political level. But if this trust deficit spreads to the cadre, it will not be good for the relationship. Remember, ours is a farmers’ party and the leadership will always pay heed to their resentment and their grievances.