By Tathagata Satpathy, ex-MP
WHAT is touted as a major agriculture reform legislation, when it came, is facing limited resistance from the unorganised farming community. The Union Government, in passing the three agriculture related Bills, has tried to play a game similar to the earlier move it made in reforms in the tax system.
The government had claimed that the One Nation One Tax slogan would make the Goods & Services Tax (GST) the ultimate solution of easing up business and stopping pilferage. Today, barely three years later, the pitfalls created by the implementation of GST has hammered small and medium businesses and, at the same time, in this critical economic crisis period, the GST collections have sharply declined. The Union Government is unwilling or incapable of paying the states their due. Instead it has compelled states to borrow at high rates of interest for keeping the wheels turning.
These agriculture Bills should not be compared to a financial or taxation regulation. These could cause immense hardships not only in the farm sector for marginal, small and medium farmers but also for the weaker sections of society who are in non- farming sectors and buy their food. The resignation of the lone Akali Union minister Harsimrat Badal from the Modi government is an indication of the ground realities in states like Punjab and Haryana.
Farmers in states like Orissa are not aware of the dangers of these new laws and how negatively these will impact them in the near future, unlike their counterparts in other agriculturally developed states. States like Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh have not yet reacted since their major cash crop – sugarcane – is already in a loose contract farming set up.
The government’s claim that the new farm bills will help eliminate middlemen and the transactions will be directly between the farmer and the trader, and that this will largely benefit the farmers, sounds very good. However, there seems to have been no thought given as to who will fill in the vacuum that will be created by the supposed vanishing act to be put up by the middle men.
In a state like Orissa, it is these middle men who offer advance payment to marginal or small farmers for the future produce. Once they are eliminated, the cash crunch will immediately affect the already debt-ridden farmers.
The trader is probably expected to be the ambassador of a large corporate like Adani or Reliance. For these companies to enter the market and commence periodic or seasonal procurement at every panchayat of this vast nation will take considerable time. End result will be poorer procurement, resulting in more distress sale. But there may be no one around to pitch in when the farmer goes in for such a desperate sale.
The devil is in the details. The farm legislation allows farmers to ‘trade freely without any licence or stock limit.’ This could be painted as a positive turn but ground realities speak of farmers being incapable of transporting their produce to mandis located in adjoining panchayats. With poverty levels being so acute, it would be a matter of great wonder if marginal or small farmers who form the bulk of that community in a state like ours would have the economic holding power to remain afloat and sell their produce outside their district, let alone the state.
Creating these vacuum spaces will bring whole different systems into play that have not been thought through properly. Most likely, a parallel to the hurried implementation of the GST can be expected here too.
Setting up a grievance-redressal machinery sounds good too but which poor farmer will have the capacity to go through a three- fold adjudication set up is also a matter to ponder over.
The Gramin Agricultural Markets scheme envisages a haat system for agriculturists in each panchayat and sponsored by the central government. Presently, agricultural markets are mostly regulated by the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) and this entity, no doubt, has its flaws. But will the central government, in spite of its greed to usurp powers of the state governments, be able to create the wherewithal to reach every panchayat across the length and breadth of this vast country and execute such a massive and, at the same time, equitable marketing facility for the immensity varied agricultural produce? Should it even be bothered with such a gigantic task in these times of economic distress?
It is claimed that APMC markets were set up with the objective of fair trade between the seller(farmer) and the buyer (trader), from whom the product reached the consumers. There are problems in this, of a kind that only limited traders are involved in the operations, and this has led to cartelization. New players are not allowed in, and this has limited competition and worked to the disadvantage of the farmer. Now when the existing system is demolished, there is no clarity as to what and how soon a new system will be in place and functioning smoothly. A comparatively easier taxation system like the GST still seems to have teething problems even after three years of implementation.
Laws alone will not help. The APMC model act was introduced in 2017-18 period, and the idea of contract farming was to get a fillip. The aim was to allow restriction-free trade of farm products, promote competition by encouraging multiple marketing channels, and encourage farming through pre-agreed contracts. In reality, most states shied away from implementing several provisions of the reforms suggested in the model law. The present legislation seeks to facilitate barrier-free trade of agricultural products outside the markets, define a framework for contract farming, and impose stock limit option only if and when there is a sharp increase in retail prices.
Exploitation of the farm sector has always been rampant. The Indian farmer, the true toiling class, has always been neglected and kept under subjugation. Not only in the present modern-day India but historically too, all past rulers have always made efforts to keep the farmer poor and impoverished. That suited the powers that be. It is not difficult to imagine where all these new legislations will take this country in the matter of food security. No one dares to speak up now as the money bags favour all sides of the political spectrum. The farmer is voiceless and therefore it is easy to trample on him.
—The writer is a former Member of the Lok Sabha and functioned as Chief Whip of the Biju Janata Dal.
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