India’s farm reforms face stern test in opposition-ruled states

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India’s main opposition Congress Party joined hands with several smaller groups to block the introduction of key farm laws to overhaul agriculture markets.

The Congress has asked state governments where it is in power to explore ways and means to prevent the new laws that it calls anti-farmer and says encroaches upon state’s powers.

Under the laws, farmers would have the freedom to sell their produce anywhere in the country, breaking away from a requirement that they sell their produce to the nearest notified market.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended his government’s decision to roll out the new laws, saying that they will free farmers from the clutches of middlemen who charge hefty commissions for sale of farm produce. 

However, opposition leaders say that the new laws will result in private traders cornering agricultural produce as they will allow private markets to come up in direct competition to state-run Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC).

On the other hand, Modi has highlighted that growers had benefited after fruits and vegetables were removed from the ambit of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act in 2014.

Political moves

Opposition workers have, however, brushed aside Modi’s contention and have started blocking roads and railway lines, especially in the northern state of Punjab.

On Monday, Punjab Youth Congress workers torched a tractor at the iconic India Gate memorial in New Delhi in protest. against the new laws.

Opposition parties say that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party pushed through the legislation in both houses of parliament without giving adequate opportunity to debate and amend the new laws.

Under the Indian Constitution, agriculture policies fall within the domain of the central government but states have the power to implement the measures relating to the sector.

Meanwhile, Congress Party members of parliament have moved the Supreme Court to challenge the introduction of the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement Of price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020, saying that they are unconstitutional.

They have sought strengthening of the existing legislations to ensure that farmers are not exploited by middlemen in state-run Agricultural Produce Market Committee. 

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has also said he will challenge the introduction of the new laws in the Supreme Court.

The decision is likely to further sharpen the divisions over the new laws as states power to override central laws may be subject to presidential assent for the same.

Farm laws are particularly sensitive because the livelihood of hundreds of millions of poor and marginal farmers are at stake, who comprise around half of the country’s workforce.

Procurement begins

Meanwhile, the central government has launched procurement of summer season crops about a month early, apparently to douse the farmers’ anger in certain regions.

The government also announced the minimum support price (MSP) for crops for the winter season. Opposition parties had expressed concerns that the new laws would lead to dismantling of the MSPs.

The fiery debate over the new farm reforms shows the inherent difficulty in trying to change rules and regulation relating to the farm sector because of deep sensitivity. 

Experts say though the move to reform agricultural markets appears a step in the right direction, any faults in implementation would have huge implications especially in current times as millions of people had left city jobs to go back to their villages during the Covid pandemic.

The farm sector has lagged behind the rest of the sectors in India’s three decades of economic reforms, but the government now appears to be making a concerted bid to liberalise the sector.

Though India has one of the highest proportions of arable land under agriculture, farm productivity has remained far behind many other parts of the world. Still, the sector is seen as the brightest hope for the economy amid the pandemic.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at Indoasiancommodities.com. He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at biman.mukherji@indoasiancommodities.in

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