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Protesting farmers on Sunday rejected the Indian government’s offer to hold immediate talks if they ended their blockade of key highways they’ve held as they seek the scrapping of legislation they say could devastate crop prices.(AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

by Nandika Ravi

India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered an indefinite hold on the implementation of new agricultural laws, Chief Justice Sharad Bobde said that the Supreme Court would set up a panel to hear the farmers’ grievances.

“We have the power to make a committee and the committee can give us the report,” he said, ordering the stay for an undisclosed period on the laws passed in September.

India is now witnessing one of the largest farmers’ protests post independence. Farmers from Punjab and Haryana have been protesting at the borders of Delhi since 26 November 2020, demanding the removal of the farm laws enacted in September 2020 – farmers allege that these laws will destroy their source of income and livelihood.  Their demands are to the revoke these farm laws, and a written statement that their crops will have a Minimum Support price.

What are these reform laws?

In September 2020, the President of India approved  three agriculture bills proposed by the ruling party in India, making them law.

1.The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill: This act controls the production, supply and distribution of essential commodities such as fertilizers, pulses, fruits, oil seeds, seeds of food crops (fruits and vegetables). When any commodity comes under this act, supermarket chains and private companies cannot stock pile these products in times of shortage. However, the new version of this amendment removes essential foods such as cereals, pulses, potato, onions, edible oilseeds and oils from the list, unless the country is in ‘extraordinary’ circumstances such as a war, famine or inflation. The Indian government claims that the implementation of this bill will allow them to directly deal with the private sector that will result in price stability of products, which in turn will end any harassment from traders and middlemen.

2. The Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill: Farmers usually sell their produce at local ‘mandis’ (markets) set up by the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) of each state, permitting them to sell their products only within that state. The APMC guarantees farmers a Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their produce. According to the Indian government, MSP cannot be included in the law. The government claims the bill will remove any acting middle man/commission agents, giving farmers the freedom to sell their commodities to anybody who is willing to purchase their goods. The government also says, the bill removes all barriers that were set against interstate trade, creating a national market. The bill states that it will penalize traders/corporations who harass farmers by not accepting the delivery of the farm’s produce, or if the trader does not make payments for the products agreed upon, within three days from the date they received the goods.
3. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill:  This bill states that farmers can enter into ‘farming agreements’ with anyone who is willing to purchase their produce, for a specific time period. The minimum period is one crop season, or one production cycle of livestock.  The maximum period is five years, unless the production cycle is more than five years. The union government says that this will safeguard farmers from buyers/traders who try to cheat them. A key clause in this bill states that “no farming agreement for the sale or purchase of a crop will be valid unless the price paid for such agricultural produce is equal to or greater than MSPs, announced by the Central government for that crop.” The farmer and their trader need to set the price for the produce, the standards and qualities beforehand.

An elderly farmer argues with policemen standing by a barricade as they attempt to move towards Delhi, at the border between Delhi and Haryana state, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

What do farmers fear happening?

While farmers are protesting against all three ordinances, they’re opposing mostly against the provisions of the Trade and Commerce Bill. Their concerns are mainly about sections relating to traders and market fees. Most farming unions fear that reforms will make it less challenging for the private sector to control the pricing for these essential commodities, resulting in privatization of the agricultural sector. The opposition parties say that this law is made to suit big corporations and not farmers who own small pieces of land. They fear that they will lose control to these corporate giants, exporters, wholesalers etc. According to a local news agency, farmers are worried about letting go of the Minimum Support Price, and conducting trade outside the marketplace set up by the APMC, stating that they won’t make enough money. This could lead to farmers auctioning their assets at lower rates, leaving them vulnerable to big corporations.

Why are only farmers from Punjab and Haryana protesting these reforms?

The protests are loudest in these states, as the government’s procurement system and MSP mechanism do not benefit farmers from all states. The Indian government sets MSP on 23 crops, but only wheat and rice are procured in significantly larger quantities. In both Punjab and Haryana, the MSP on wheat has been high, making it tough for farmers in these states to let go of this Minimum Support Price. 

Protesting farmers shout slogans as they clash with policemen while attempting to move towards Delhi, at the border between Delhi and Haryana state(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

What is the government’s take on this?
The central ministers and prime minister Narendra Modi have constantly tried to reassure farmers that the government has no plans to end the government procurement system nor the MSP policy. Union home minister Amit Shah said these reform laws were made for the welfare of farmers.
“The new farm laws are meant for the welfare of farmers,” he said at a rally in Hyderabad.
“After a long time the farmer is going to come out of a locked system. Whoever wants to oppose it politically let them do it. I have never said the farmers’ protest is political and would never say (that it is political).”

 

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi also tried to pacify thousands of farmers protesting these agriculture laws.
“The new agricultural laws have been brought in for benefit of the farmers,” Modi said at a rally in Varanasi.
“Reforms are being done in the interest of farmers, which will give them more options.”