Stir across ‘food bowl’ today over farm laws
Farmer bodies and opposition parties on Thursday intensified protests in food-bowl states in the northern plains amid a call for a nationwide stir on Friday to oppose three bills that they say could pave the way for the government to stop buying grain at minimum guaranteed prices and benefit corporate entities and traders.
In a session that was curtailed because of the spectre of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, Parliament passed three bills that the government said were aimed at unleashing reforms in agriculture and allow farmers more flexibility in selling their produce. While some experts have hailed the move, farmer bodies and opposition parties allege that the laws will benefit only big businesses.
On Thursday, farmers from Punjab and Haryana, which are key producers of wheat and rice, blocked railway tracks, forcing the cancellation of some trains on local routes.
Several farmer bodies have come together under the banner of All India Kisan Sangarsh Committee for Friday’s Bharat Bandh, which is expected to disrupt road and rail traffic in several states on Friday. All major opposition parties, including the Congress, Left outfits, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Trinamool Congress (TMC), have decided to participate in the bandh. From the ruling National Democratic Alliance, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) will join the nationwide protest.
Last week, the SAD’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the minister for food processing, resigned over her opposition to the bills that she termed as “anti-farmer”.
The Congress said it will begin a two-month agitation against the new laws by holding news briefings in all state capitals and district headquarters. Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said the party workers will support the agitation by farm organisations during this period against “Modi’s anti-farmer” policies.
During the nationwide “bandh”, the most intense protests are expected in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and some parts of Maharashtra, where farmers have already been protesting over the last one week by blocking road and rail traffic, hampering the supply of essentials such as food grains.
“Nothing will work in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh tomorrow (Friday),” said Bharatiya Kisan Union president Rakesh Takait. All farmer and mandi committees in Punjab and Haryana have called for stopping road and rail traffic at various locations and closure of shops.
A senior Haryana Police officer said on condition of anonymity: “Additional police force has been deployed to maintain law and order and railways have suspended some of the trains passing from the region.”
“We have asked police personnel not to use force,” he added.
Strikes are also expected to be observed in Opposition-ruled Kerala and TMC-ruled West Bengal. In Bihar, the opposition parties led by the RJD have made a call for a prolonged agitation coming just before the forthcoming assembly elections in the state. In Opposition-ruled Jharkhand and Rajasthan, All India Kisan Sabha and Congress workers have announced protests at various places.
Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghathana, a major farmer outfit in Maharashtra, has decided to burn copies of the bill outside revenue offices. Farmers bodies in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have called protests to show solidarity with farmers in north India, who are expected to be worst-affected by the farm laws.
The three farm bills approved by Parliament this week are: Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill; Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance; and Farm Services Bill and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill.
The new laws aim to liberalise the agriculture sector by removing hurdles created by the Agriculture Marketing Produce Committee (AMPC) Act in direct procurement of agriculture produce by buyers and create a level-playing field for all, thereby allowing private players a bigger role in farm trade.
Farmer bodies and opposition parties say that these reform bills take away price protection provided through Minimum Support Price (MSP), whereas the government maintains that MSP will remain in place and the bills will ensure higher remuneration for farmers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the passage of the bills, which will now need to be signed by the President, a “watershed moment in the history of Indian agriculture”.
The Prime Minister has accused the Opposition of misleading farmers on the legislations that he said were similar to the economic reforms of 1991.
“The bills were passed in a hurry. They lacked greater scrutiny of select committees. They create a system which will leave farmers vulnerable to exploitation. Our protests will continue,” said VM Singh, convener of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee.
Raju Shetti of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghathana said: “If the government is so concerned of farmers’ interest, then it should have added a provision that no entity will be allowed to trade less than the MSP.”
The evening before the nationwide strike, Union agriculture minister NS Tomar sought to address the concerns by saying there were no provisions in the legislations to end APMCs.
He said the bills will promote inter-state trade and farmers will receive more options to sell at the right price. “The new bills allow a farmer to sell their produce outside APMCs, giving them a wider range of buyers,” he said.
“In Punjab, there’s 8.5% tax in the mandis on several items. Now, because of these bills, farmers will be able to sell their produce even outside of the mandi, even outside of the state at any price they choose,” he said. He also said that fixing MSP is an administrative decision and it will continue.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath praised the laws and said they will not only guarantee MSP to farmers but will help in getting them prices higher than the MSP.