25 Dec 2020 06:00 IST

Impasse over agriculture Bills continues

With both sides firmly sticking to their stands, a resolution remains far away as ever

The protest by farmers sees no signs of ending. The stand-off between the agitating farmers and the government continues despite several rounds of talks between the two sides. For the farmers, nothing short of the repeal of the three Bills passed in Parliament is acceptable. The government on its part is willing to talk about everything except the repeal of the Bills. Neither side is willing to back down from its rather "maximalist" position. Both seem to be content to play a game of attrition waiting to see who blinks first.

The farmers seem to suffer from an utter lack of trust towards the government. The government on its part too left its "outreach" initiative too late to gain any credibility. Those who support the new farm laws, both inside and outside the government, argue that it is wrong to say that there were no deliberations or debate over them. They argue that these reforms have been in the public domain for at least more than a decade. They say that the first model APMC Act, which the States were urged to adopt, came into being way back in 2003, under AB Vajpayee’s regime.

These reforms have also been part, in one form or the other, of the various manifestos of political parties including the Congress.

So why then did the government rush through these crucial Bills within just three days in Parliament without any meaningful debate? These Bills were not directed to a standing committee, as it is usually done, where it could have been analysed and dissected, giving an opportunity to the farming community’s side to be heard.

MSP, the sticking point

The government has categorically said that if the market prices dip below minimum support prices, floor prices at which the government promises to pick up grain, will not be scrapped. But that hardly seems to assure the farmers who are demanding a legal or Constitutional stamp for the continuation of MSPs, which no government will be willing to do.

There seems to be some serious misconceptions regarding the MSP. Though the government announces MSP for 23 crops, it purchases only rice and wheat from farmers, largely to store them as buffer stock at the Food Corporation of India, only to be released to the fair price shops under the Public Distribution System. Most of the other crops, such as pulses, millets and oilseeds, are sold to private traders.

Busting a few myths

In a recent newspaper column, economists Prankur Gupta, Reetika Khera and Sudha Narayanan, bust a few myths about MSP. One of the myths is that only six per cent of farmers benefit from government procurement. The economists point out that this figure is much larger, at around 15 per cent. The second myth is that only farmers from Punjab and Haryana have benefited from government procurement which is why they are protesting the loudest. They point out that States such as Madhya Pradesh (wheat) and Odisha and Chhattisgarh (rice) have been become major suppliers to the procurement system.

The third myth bust is that only large farmers benefit from the procurement system. They argue, based on National Sample Survey data, that in the case of rice more than 70 per cent of suppliers to the procurement system have been small and marginal farmers, owning less than two hectares of land. And for wheat this figure is at 56 per cent.

These facts do queer the pitch for the carefully constructed argument that the current, wasteful and expensive, system of grain procurement favours only a narrow (both geographically as well as economically) section of Indian farmers. Some sections of the media have also gone to town on how this narrow section of farmers has been pampered by free power and no income tax over the years and it is they who are now pitching tent on the Punjab-Delhi and Haryana-Delhi borders.

The ongoing stand-off points to the complete lack of trust of the farmers towards the government. The farmers feel, with good reason, that these farm reform Bills will eventually result in the winding up of the current public procurement system and pave the way for direct cash benefits to farmers. That some economists, some of whom have served in the government in the past, are huge votaries of the Telangana’s Rythu Bandhu scheme and Odisha’s ‘Kalia’ scheme (both of which involve direct cash transfers to farmers), has only deepened the farmers’ suspicions.

This time last year the nation was roiled by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC, which was easy for the government to dismiss and ignore. But the farmers protests are a different ball game, both economically and politically. Though these protests are hardly a threat to the government’s existence, all eyes will be on how it resolves this issue, its first serious challenge in its seventh year in power.