25/09/2020 7:50 AM IST

Maharashtra Farmers, Politicians Ambiguous About Controversial Farm Bills

While the bills have led to massive protests in Punjab and Haryana, some Maharashtra farm leaders have actually welcomed them, while a few politicians seem to be playing it safe.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Members of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana protesting in a file photo

NAGPUR, Maharashtra: While farmers in many parts of India, especially Punjab and Haryana, are protesting against three contentious bills recently passed by the Narendra Modi government in Parliament, Maharashtra isn’t seeing much outrage. This may strike some as strange, given that the state has recorded the highest number of farmers’ suicides for over a decade now.

The most prominent farmer leader in the state, Raju Shetty, head of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, says he is against the bills, but doesn’t expect Maharashtra’s farmers to react like those in Punjab and Haryana.

“My organization is opposing it but it is not being opposed in Maharashtra the way it is in Punjab and Haryana, because the purchase by the government is very less in Maharashtra as compared to Punjab and Haryana and the farmers also sell their produce outside APMCs,” Shetty told HuffPost India.

APMCs, or Agriculture Produce Market Committees, are government-run mandis set up to ostensibly protect farmers from exploitation and ensure a fair price for their produce. But over the past few years, Maharashtra had taken a series of steps that meant farmers weren’t dependent on APMCs. In 2016, the state government had delisted fruits and vegetables from the purview of APMCs. Two years later, the Devendra Fadnavis government attempted to expand this for all agricultural produce but was forced to backtrack after protests. 

The Narendra Modi government has claimed that the three bills that were controversially pushed through Parliament—Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020—will make it easier for farmers to sell their produce directly to even private players but this has also made farmers anxious as they fear they might be left at the mercy of big corporates. 

Another concern of the protesting farmers is that minimum support prices (MSP) might be done away with in a phased manner with these “reforms”. MSPs refer to crop-specific prices which are announced before each cropping season by the Indian government. While some crops such as rice and wheat see a large-scale government procurement at MSP, it is a notional remunerative price for most other crops.

While farmer organisations have called for a nationwide protest on Friday, at least one major farmers’ union in Maharashtra is planning to come out in support of the bills.

“We are supporting these agricultural bills as we are the supporters of a free economy and free market. Giving free access to farmers to markets is always welcome,” claimed Wamanrao Chatap, a farmers’ leader from the Vidarbha area of the state and former president of the Shetkari Sanghatana.

Anil Ghanwat of the Shetkari Sanghatana has also welcomed the bills, terming them “landmark reforms”.

Senior journalist Parthasarathi Biswas, who reports on agriculture for The Indian Express, said that in Maharashtra, where paddy and wheat are not the major crops, the bills are unlikely to affect farmers much.

“In Punjab and Haryana, it is mono-cropping—either paddy or wheat—and within 15 days after harvest, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) buys more than 95% of the harvest of each and every farmer there. In Maharashtra, the MSP operations are just not there. The CCI and NAFED (Cotton Corporation of India and National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation) come into the picture only when prices fall below MSP,” said Biswas.

Biswas also pointed out that Maharashtra was one of the first states to issue private market licences.

The government’s decision to ban export of onions earlier this month had angered farmers in the state, leading to protests. NCP chief Sharad Pawar had tweeted that the “sudden decision” had led to “strong reactions from the onion growing belt in Maharashtra”.

Gajanan Ahmedabadkar, a farmer himself and a former associate of Raju Shetty and Sharad Joshi, thinks the APMC and the current market system does not really favour farmers, but warns against the dangers of the new bills.

“The farmer unwillingly sells his produce nowadays. The APMCs have also looted the farmers. But this government has brought in these laws without complete transparency. The farmers cannot even approach the courts if a dispute arises between a corporate and the farmer. They say they haven’t done away with MSP but where is the provision for it in the Act?” Ahmedabadkar pointed out.

These APMCs have built and nurtured trust and networks for decades. You cannot simply take them out of the game one fine morning

Raju Shetty thinks that through these laws, the government wants to exit the agriculture produce purchasing process.

“The PM says the MSP will continue but this is not true. There is no law in the country which stipulates that the MSP needs to be honoured. But the FCI and NAFED do it out of obligation. Do you really think the corporate companies will follow any such obligation?” Shetty questioned.

In an interview with HuffPost India’s Akshay Deshmane, TISS professor R. Ramakumar had pointed out that Maharashtra’s experience with agricultural reforms actually proved the need to strengthen APMCs instead of replacing them with private markets.

“These APMCs have built and nurtured trust and networks for decades. You cannot simply take them out of the game one fine morning,” he said, adding that their framework needed “basic and meaningful reform measures”.  

The ambiguous reaction to the bills hasn’t been limited to farmers’ groups. Even major political parties seem to be playing it safe.

While Congress has clearly stated its opposition to the bills, the NCP and Shiv Sena’s stance in Parliament triggered speculations about the Maha Vikas Aghadi partners not seeing eye to eye on the issue.

Supriya Sule, Lok Sabha MP, and Sharad NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s daughter had opposed the bills in the Lok Sabha but Pawar’s absence from Rajya Sabha when the contentious bills were being passed led to some eyebrows being raised.

Pawar was forced to come clear on the issue by addressing a press conference in Mumbai on Tuesday.

The Shiv Sena also hasn’t taken a clear stand against the bill but spokesperson Sanjay Raut has said that the government should have taken the opposition into confidence before passing the bills.

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