On Monday, farmers protested across Punjab, blocking three roads—including the Amritsar-Delhi national highway—urging the Centre to withdraw three farm ordinances. The contentious legislations in question are the 'Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020', the 'Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020', and the 'Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020'.
News agency PTI reported that members of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee blocked the Amritsar-Delhi national highway at the Beas bridge, about 40km from Amritsar. They also blocked traffic at Harike headworks in Tarn Taran and on Tanda-Hargobindpur bridge in Hoshiarpur. President of the outfit Satnam Singh Pannu said they would continue with their road blockades till their demand was accepted.
What are the ordinances about?
Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar introduced the bills in Lok Sabha to replace the ordinances promulgated by the government earlier.
The stated intention of the proposed legislations is to help farmers get a remunerative price for their produce, as well as to ensure private investments and technology. At present, farmers are allowed to sell their agriculture produce at the state government-run 6,900-odd APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees) mandis spread across the nation. There are restrictions for farmers in selling agri-produce outside the mandis. Looking to change that, the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020, bars state governments from imposing taxes on sale and purchase of farm produce undertaken outside the mandis and give farmers the freedom to sell their produce at remunerative prices.
To help the private sector to go into the agriculture sector, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, seeks to provide for a national framework on farming agreements that protects and empowers farmers to engage with agri-business firms, processors, large retailers for farm services and sale of future farming produce at a mutually agreed remunerative price framework in a fair and transparent manner. Tomar said the new laws will enable barrier-free trade in agricultural produce, and also empower farmers to engage with private investors of their choice. Tomar said the bill will help the farmers as they are unable to invest much in their farm and do not attract investments from others.
Tomar had earlier explained that the ordinance basically aims at creating additional trading opportunities outside the APMC market yards to help farmers get remunerative prices due to additional competition, he said. "The existing APMC mandis will continue to function. The state APMC law will continue to remain. But outside the mandis, the ordinance will be operational," he said.
One of the key features of the ordinance, Tomar said, was that farmers can sell even from their house directly to companies, processors, farmer producer companies (FPOs) and cooperatives and get a better price; farmers will have the choice to whom and at what rate to sell his produce.
What are the protests about
One of the biggest stated fears of the protesting farmers is that they feel the ordinance, which challenges the existing APMC system, is just a prelude to the government planning to end agricultural procurement at assured minimum support prices (MSP). MSPs are guaranteed procurement prices used by the state government to hedge farmers against unduly fall in prices. However, Tomar assured the Parliament that MSP "was there, is there, and will continue to be there".
The opposition parties alleged in the Parliament the new laws will undermine the safety net provided to the farmers by the MSP system and will lead to their exploitation by big companies. They alleged that the Centre brought in the legislations without consulting the states under whose domain agriculture and mandis fall.
"This is a case of legislative overreach and a direct attack on the federal structure of the Constitution," Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, while opposing the bills.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took to Twitter to allege the ordinances were a "deadly attack" on farmers and agricultural labourers. "The three 'black' ordinances of the Modi government are a deadly attack on farmers-agricultural labourers so that they do not get MSP and are also forced to sell their land to capitalists," the former Congress chief said.
Tomar argued the bill will help the farmers as they are unable to invest much in their farm and do not attract investments from others. "These agreements will be about the produce and not the farmland," he asserted, rebutting suggestions that farmers may lose ownership of their land.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said the bill violates the basic tenets of federalism enshrined in India's Constitution. TMC member Saugata Roy claimed that farming will move into the hands of capitalists due to these legislations.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh asserted that his government had been consistently opposing the "so-called reforms" brought in by the ordinances. In a statement, he said that at no point did Punjab endorse any such move, contrary to what was being projected by the Central government.
In Haryana, former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda said the three agricultural ordinances will completely destroy the farmers who are facing all-round losses which have been made worse by "government apathy.