Protest against Farm laws

State governments in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan get their acts together and pass amended farm Bills in their State Assemblies

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh speaking against the Central farm Acts during a dharna at Jantar Mantar, in New Delhi on November 4. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

A protest against the farm Acts organised at a vegetable wholesale market in Amritsar on November 6. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

The Congress governments in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan introduce amended farms Bills in their State Assemblies to counter the Central Acts and to safeguard the interests of farmers.

IN September, Parliament passed three controversial Bills deregulating the sale of agricultural produce, legalising contract farming and liberalising stock limit norms. The three pieces of legislation—the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill—got presidential assent on September 28.

In October-November, the Congress-ruled governments of Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan drafted and legislated their own farm Bills on the grounds that the Central laws not only were against farmers’ interests but also violated federal principles. Agriculture is a State subject under the Constitution. The Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition government in Maharashtra declared that it would not implement the Central farm laws and issued an order to that effect.

Farmers staged protests across the country against the Central Acts. Protests led by the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti have been continuing in parts of northern and north-western India, with Punjab and Haryana being the epicentre of the opposition to the Acts. One of the main objections to the Central laws is the absence of a legal guarantee in the form of minimum support price (MSP)-based procurement by Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs).
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However, the new Bills introduced by Chhattisgarh and Rajsathan have not given any legal backing for procurement at an MSP, whereas the Punjab Bills have. They include provisions such as punitive measures for violations in the sale and purchase of notified agricultural commodities, and features such as deemed mandis, as in the case of Chhattisgarh.

Punjab’s amendments

Punjab was the first State to declare that it would not implement the farm laws enacted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government, which it called “anti-farmer”. On October 20, the Captain Amarinder Singh government passed a resolution in the State Assembly seeking the annulment of these laws and introduced its own farm Bills making purchasing below the MSP under farming agreements an offence punishable with a jail term of three years.

Its version of the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance Bill enjoins contractors not to purchase below the MSP rates, failing which punitive measures would be invoked. Likewise, the Essential Commodities (Punjab Amendment) Bill retains the powers of the State to fix stock limits to prevent hoarding and black-marketing, features that were integral to the original piece of legislation before its amendment by the Centre.

The Assembly also passed by voice vote an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure giving exemption from attachment to landholdings below 2.5 acres (one hectare) in any recovery proceedings. The Punjab Land Revenue Act lays down specific conditions under which agricultural land may be attached.

The Bills were passed with the near- unanimous support of the opposition parties, which included the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Aam Aadmi Party and the Lok Insaaf Party. When the Bills were passed, the SAD had already walked out of the NDA over the farm Bills issue. The State Bills are yet to receive the Governor’s assent. The Punjab government has declared that it would fight it legally if need be.
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On October 27, the Bhupesh Baghel government in Chhattisgarh introduced new farm Bills to protect farmers from the fluctuating market prices and the risks of payment. Although the Chhattisgarh government did not move a resolution rejecting the Central laws unlike Punjab, it said the Central laws favoured “capitalists” instead of cultivators.

Slightly different from the Punjab legislation, the Chhattisgarh Krishi Upaj Mandi (Amendment) Bill includes provisions for “deemed” mandis (farm produce markets) apart from the privately managed grain markets. Envisaging a greater role for the state, the Bill allows for the designation of private markets as deemed mandis to regulate the sale and purchase of notified (by the state) agricultural produce. The Bill provides for the setting up of electronic trading platforms (for the sale of produce) and seeks to introduce a system of inspections on storage (of stock) and transport to be conducted by dedicated government officials.

While introducing the Bill in the Assembly, State Agriculture Minister Ravindra Choubey explained that 80 per cent of the farmers in the State were either medium or small cultivators and their interests needed to be protected. Unlike Punjab and Haryana where large landholdings were not uncommon, the average size of landholdings in Chhattisgarh did not exceed 2 ha. An estimated 40 per cent of the State’s paddy production was procured by the Food Corporation of India as part of Central procurement. Chhattisgarh clearly could not do without state procurement and support.
Also read: Farmers stand their ground against new laws

The Bills do not mention making the MSP mandatory, nor do they provide for any punitive measures for selling below the MSP. Instead, the government has been careful to clarify that the provisions in the State Bills safeguard the interests of farmers and do not violate any Central laws.

Rajasthan’s legislation

On November 3, Rajasthan became the third State to enact its own farm Bills. After a marathon debate stretching over eight hours, the Assembly passed by voice vote four amended Bills. Three of them arethe Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2020; the Essential Commodities (Special Provisions and Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2020; and the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation and Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2020.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill says: “Provided further that no farming agreement for the sale or purchase of a crop shall be valid unless the price paid for such agricultural produce is equal to, or greater than, the prevailing minimum support price, announced by the Central government for that crop.”

The Rajasthan farm legislation stipulates that agricultural produce will not be allowed to be bought or sold below the MSP declared by the Centre, but unlike Punjab, it does not make MSP mandatory, nor does it include punitive provisions for any possible violations. While the provision for an MSP has been included, it does not provide for an enforcement mechanism.

One of the amendments to the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation and Rajasthan Amendment) Bill aims to regulate “notified agriculture produce”. The amendments are similar to the provisions in the Chhattisgarh legislation. These promise that the State government may notify a fee or a cess on such produce bought or sold by a corporate or a trader in a trade area.
Also read: Agricultural market 'reforms' by stealth

The Bills give an assurance of price protection for contract farming for a maximum of seven crops. Traders could face imprisonment upto seven years or a fine upto Rs.5 lakh if they compel farmers to sell their produce below the MSP rates in contract agreements. Like Punjab, the Rajasthan farm Bills have punitive provisions, ranging from three to seven years imprisonment, for “any person, company or association” found harassing farmers or reneging on farming agreements relating to the sale or purchase of farm produce.

So, while the MSP has been made mandatory for contract farming agreements, it is not mandatory for the sale of farm produce at the mandis or the APMCs. On the lines of the Punjab Bills, Rajasthan passed the Criminal Procedure (Rajasthan Amendment) Code Bill to disallow banks from attaching landholdings below 2 ha.

Amendments gain traction

The amendment Bills passed by the three States are yet to receive the Governors’ assent. Yet, given the nature of the protests and the anger among farmers, the symbolism inherent in the act of passing amended farm Bills and countering the Central legislation has received traction within the farming community. The opposition unity, for instance, in Punjab on the issue of farmers, within and outside the Assembly, is a significant development.

Even in Haryana, where farmer protests have been accentuated, BJP leaders have appealed to the Central leadership to talk to farmers. Moreover, observers feel that if the protests continue with farmers’ sentiment mounting against the BJP, it might affect the fragile BJP- Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) government in Haryana with the latter pulling out of the coalition.

In fact, Haryana farmers have demanded the resignation of Deputy Chief Minister and JJP founder Dushyant Chautala. It is not surprising that the farmers’ ire is directed at the Chautala family, which is seen as betraying the interests of the rural vote bank it claims to represent.

Dushyant Chautala is the son of former Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala and grandson of theJat leader Devi Lal. Dushyant Chautala’s defence of the Central farm laws infuriated farmers further.
Also read: Farmers' resistance to new laws hardens

The farmers do not expect much from the BJP as they see it as a party representing non-Jats and the urban, middle and trading classes.

As protests continue to rage in Punjab and Haryana, the Haryana government has demurred from taking any steps to implement the Central farm Acts.