In early April 2019, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) released a Farmers Manifesto for Freedom. It was a progressive document, and said, “Seven decades after India won independence from British colonial rule, the largest section of our population, the farmers, have remained bound by the chain of laws and regulations”.
The manifesto sought “freedom to trade” and bemoaned that existing laws were restricting farmers from “where, how and at what price they can sell their produce”, and underlined that Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) have only helped in creating “legal monopolies” of a few “licensed traders”, who now have a “stranglehold on farmers”. It called for removal of restriction on land use including “contract farming”, and abolition of “such laws as the APMC and the Essential Commodities Act”. It even sought facilitation of “future trading” in all agricultural commodities.
APMCs were started in central India during British rule to force cotton farmers to sell their produce only to State-run markets so that cotton mills in England could have cheap raw material from India. After Independence, the powerful rural lobby ensured that this legacy continued. It helped farmers in the initial years when Indian agriculture was in dire straits until the Green Revolution. But today, as the BKU manifesto highlights, APMCs have become dens of ”middlemen” from whom the farmers have to be ”saved”.
This is what the three recent agriculture reform acts intend to do. Strangely, the same BKU is on the streets leading the so-called farmers agitation against the reforms. They argued earlier that the farmers were “bound by the chains” of British-era laws. Now, they argue that the same chains should be restored because the farmers may, in future, be bound by the chains of private agri-entrepreneurs.
Incidentally, through a tweet on April 4, 2019, the BKU leadership had expressed happiness about the Congress and Rahul Gandhi adopting ”some parts” and said, ”Let us see what the BJP and Narendra Modi adopt”. The Congress is now supporting BKU leadership’s duplicity, while the Modi government is working for the implementation of its manifesto. The acts are the most historic and boldest reforms in agriculture since Independence. The farmer is the only private producer in India who didn’t have freedom to sell until now. “Farmers of India! You are henceforth the masters of the harvest”, said Ram Manohar Lohia in 1963 articulating his vision for agricultural reforms. Modi has transformed that vision into a reality.
The APMC regime was an anomaly, with farmers forced to sell their produce only to APMCs. For political reasons, government after government, in states as well as at the Centre, went on extending the Minimum Support Price regime leading not only to a distorted pricing regime but also the production pattern. The new laws end that anomaly. They essentially extend three benefits to farmers. They are now free to sell their produce wherever they get better prices — in mandis or to private procurers anywhere. They can now price their produce as per the demand. They can now enter into agreements with corporate and private agribusinesses and engage even in future trading.
Opposition to such historic reforms is suicidal for the farming community. Yet, some sections of the farmers are on the streets blockading Delhi arteries. There could be some genuine apprehensions, such as the need for an MSP protection in case private businesses try to exploit farmers. The government has been open to discussion on such concerns. But the propaganda that the new acts make the farmers slaves to private businesses is far-fetched. The acts protect the land of the farmer from any kind of exploitation even if the farmer defaults.
The agitation is led by a section of the farmers, misled by false propaganda. On the other hand, the majority of the tilling class, Dalits and the poor, are conspicuous by their absence. The government must engage with the farmers directly and explain the benefits. A couple of amendments could be considered, but anything beyond that would be detrimental to the future of agriculture.
Ram Madhav is a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader and director of the India Foundation