Rajya Sabha passes two key farm bills amid protests
The Rajya Sabha on Sunday passed through a voice vote two key agricultural reforms bills, which have been opposed by farm groups, even as the opposition protested against the legislations and stormed the well of the House.
Opposition members from the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were seen on camera tearing documents – some reports claimed it was the rule book --- and rushing to the chairman to register their protest. This led the Centre’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to demand action over violation of rules.
No division of votes was sought as opposition members continued to oppose the chair’s decision of extending the house beyond the scheduled 1pm closing time to complete the voting process.
On Thursday, the Lok Sabha passed by a majority voice vote the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020.
In the Rajya Sabha on Sunday, a section of the opposition demanded that the two bills be sent to a select committee for further scrutiny. The opposition members, who had earlier moved amendments, refused to participate in the proceedings when the bill was being put to vote.
Earlier in the day, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar introduced the legislations in the House. “The two bills are historic and will bring a change in the lives of the farmers. The farmers will be able to freely trade their produce anywhere in the country,” Tomar said in the House, reassuring farmers.
Speaking to the media outside Parliament, parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi said the people of the country have given a mandate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and “this (ruckus) is an insult of the people’s mandate”. If the Opposition wanted, they could have asked for a division, the minister said. The deputy chairperson was ready, he added.
BJP president JP Nadda said the bills will bring in historic reforms in the agriculture sector and those opposing these bills have proved that they are “anti-farmer”. Commenting on the protest by opposition MPs, he said their behaviour was “irresponsible and condemnable”, and that they broke the rules for physical distancing imposed in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trinamool’s Derek O’Brien said 12 MPs will sit in the Rajya Sabha chambers till 3pm to protest the passage of the bills. He said the MPs had to record evidence inside Parliament and denied that he tore the rule book. “We have all the footage with us and we will release it at the right time,” he said.
The main opposition Congress and a clutch of smaller parties are opposed to the government’s farm liberalisation plan. A key opposition to the bills came on Thursday from BJP ally Shiromani Akali Dal, whose minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the Union Cabinet over efforts to unshackle the farm sector.
PM Modi has accused detractors of spreading “misinformation and lies”, while reassuring farmers the reforms were in their best interests. Modi has called the reforms a “protective shield” around farmers, which would bring “more options and opportunities”.
The two legislations seek to liberalise farm trade, enable modern supply chains, allow agribusinesses and farmers to engage with one another more confidently, break interlocked markets and create a seamless commodities trade, currently fragmented.
India’s agricultural trade still requires licenced traders who must operate out of notified markets allotted to them. The bills aim to sidestep this system, called agricultural produce market committees (APMC), and free up market restrictions. But critics argue the new system will lack adequate oversight in its current form.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, allows buyers of farm produce to trade outside the mandi system or wholesale markets run by states under APMCs, which have become cartelised over time.
APMC laws require farmers to only sell to licensed middlemen in notified markets, usually in the same area where the farmers reside, rather than in open markets, which economists say scuttles price discovery, hurting farm profits. The bill enables farmers and buyers of their produce to trade outside these markets without any taxes and will therefore open up APMCs to competitions.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, lays down a new architecture for contract farming. It provides for a national framework on farming agreements, enabling a farmer to engage with agri-business firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters or large retailers for sale of future farming produce at a mutually pre-agreed price.
Major farmers’ organisations, such as the Bharatiya Kisan Union and the umbrella All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a front for nearly 200 farmers’ groups, have opposed the bills.
After the Upper House passed the bills, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh tweeted: “The dictatorial attitude of the Chair in not wanting to get a sense of the House, which is the convention to extend the session beyond the scheduled 1 pm, led to bedlam & chaos. The anti-farmer Bills were passed in the din without voting. Why the tearing urgency? On whose orders?”