Interview: Pawan Khera

Pawan Khera: 'There will be no level playing field between APMCs and corporates'

Print edition : October 23, 2020

Pawan Khera, Congress spokesperson. Photo: ??

Interview with Pawan Khera, Congress spokesperson.

The Congress and the rest of the opposition parties walked out of Parliament to protest against the content of the farm Bills and the manner in which they were passed. Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera spoke to Frontline on why his party felt that the Bills needed to be opposed. Excerpts.

The government has described the opposition as obstructionist and anti-farmer. It also says that Members of Parliament were consulted as were farmer organisations before the Bills were finalised.

The opposition, led by the Congress party, has been at the forefront of the farmers’ agitation because the fears of farmers are totally real. Some pro-National Democratic Alliance parties like the Biju Janata Dal and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti too have voiced their concerns over these new laws. Their concerns were also ignored. Of course, the Shiromani Akali Dal made a U-turn and walked out of the alliance owing to immense pressure from aggrieved farmers. Parliamentary procedure was subverted to pass these Bills in a hurry as if the government was under pressure.

The government said that when the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress was in power it passed a record number of Bills in a single session. How is that different from the situation today, barring the fact that there is an ongoing pandemic?

More than the number [of Bills], it is the sanctity of parliamentary processes and procedure. Why was there a need to ignore demands for a division of votes? Why was there a need to ignore the demands to send these Bills and the Bills on labour Codes to the select committee?

The Union Agriculture Minister has said that minimum support price (MSP) was never part of any law. There are references to 1991 when the economy was liberalised and industry delicensed. Therefore, the opening up of agriculture to market forces is seen as a natural corollary to what was set in motion by a Congress government. The Finance Minister has also alluded to the Congress being the progenitor of such reforms. How would the Congress distinguish itself from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s model of reforms?

Under the new laws, Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees [APMCs] will eventually become defunct for the simple reason that there will be no level playing field between the APMCs and the large corporates who will now get into agricultural trade. The latter will not have to pay either market fees or development fund. The grower loses out in the absence of the mandi mechanism of “price discovery”. Where will the grower get the MSP if the APMC itself becomes defunct? Hasn’t the government removed some commodities from MSP recently? What is the guarantee that more and more commodities will not get removed in a similar manner, [with the government] using its brute force of majority or through an ordinance? Why is the government not agreeing to the basic demand of farmers to make MSP mandatory through legislation? Here, I must remind you that Mr Narendra Modi raised a similar demand in 2011 as Chief Minister of Gujarat.

The rationale for amending the Essential Commodities Act stems from the understanding that India has attained self-sufficiency in foodgrains and that hoarding is no longer a threat. Hence, stocking limits on traders have been removed with some caveats. Is this amendment a viable alternative?

If agricultural trade is completely out of the monitoring mechanism of the APMC-MSP-Food Corporation of India regime, the government will have no data on demand, supply and stocks. This will not only endanger food security but will also encourage black marketing and hoarding. In the absence of data, how will the government calculate food inflation?

The government and its apologists say that the Congress promised in its manifesto in 2019 that it would repeal the APMC Act and make trade in agricultural produce free from restrictions. They argue that the Bills are not very different from the farmer markets proposed in the manifesto. Could you explain how exactly the Bills are different in substance and spirit from what your party proposed in 2019?

The Congress had spoken about setting up farmer markets “with adequate infrastructure and support to enable the farmers to bring their produce and freely market the same” every two to three kilometres. We promised a commission on marginal farmers and agricultural labour to help this category to augment its income through horticulture and floriculture. All this and more was proposed as a necessary precursor to any reform in the current agricultural marketing regime.

Does opposition unity against the farm Bills have the potential to translate into something more politically coherent in the near future?

The anti-people policies of this government are necessitating political articulation to [address] the angst of almost every section of society. Political parties cannot remain divorced from the ground reality for long. And the ground reality shows us the extreme helplessness of farmers, labour, micro, small and medium enterprises, the youth, etc.

It is getting increasingly obvious that the government has the numbers to legislate on anything it wants to at any time. Do you feel that the opposition is hamstrung by its lack of numbers to prevent Bills getting passed or getting them referred to a select committee?

When the Modi government tried to bulldoze changes in the Land Acquisition Act through Parliament, the Congress rose to the occasion and forced the government to backtrack. We may not have the numbers, but our resolve to not let the government get arrogant and anti-people can be seen in the fight being put up in the streets and villages of the country.

 

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