New Delhi The three new agricultural laws to push reforms in the farm sector completed a year of being promulgated on Saturday, first as ordinances, but achieving little so far as millions of farmers continue to oppose them.
The feisty protests by farmers, especially from food-bowl states, such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, have brought cultivators and farm policies back to the centre stage, which could impact political outcomes too, analysts said.
The country has not seen such mobilisation among peasants since 1988, when Mahendra Singh Tikait, a farm union leader from western Uttar Pradesh, stormed Delhi and laid siege to Boat Club, a landmark near the nation’s Parliament, forcing the government of the day to agree to make concessions.
On June 5, 2020, the Union government promulgated three ordinances, which were signed into laws by Parliament in September: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance, Farm Services Act, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act 2020.
The laws allow businesses to freely trade farm produce outside, permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of commodities for future sales and set new rules for contract farming.
The government has said the laws would bring competition and widen farmers’ market access. Besides, allowing firms to stock large quantities of food commodities will incentivise them to invest in supply and storage, which is scarce.
Farmers say the laws will threaten their livelihoods by forcing them to sell to corporate giants with greater bargaining power at poor prices instead of government-run markets, which offer assured prices for cereals.
Unregulated markets will ultimately lead to a collapse of crucial minimum support rices, farmers argue, although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has denied this will ever happen.
“The crux of the matter is that the laws are centred around large corporations, which have great bargaining power and which are against the interests of farmers and consumers. Why can’t markets be farmer-led?” asks Kavitha Kuruganthi, one of the farmers’ appointed negotiators with the government.
The government has so far held 11 rounds of talks, which hit a dead end on January 22. The Supreme Court has put the laws on hold since.
Economists point to growth-fuelling reforms in industry, currency markets and manufacturing, but such measures have bypassed the farm sector.
“It is easier to do a stock market reform or financial reform because its scope is limited to a certain elite section of the population. But when it comes to hard reforms affecting masses, such as labour or agricultural reforms, these are areas where we will see big challenges,” said KK Kailash, who teaches political science in the University of Hyderabad.