Farmers’ Rights are currently acknowledged as a global concern, yet consensus on how to implement Farmers’ Rights remains elusive. There is a certain level of acknowledgement worldwide that farmers are an important part of the economic, social and political fabric of society and require support. Growing recognition of farmers’ role in agro biodiversity conservation and innovation is particularly evident. However, there is no agreement on what should be the exact nature, scope and extent of Farmers’ Rights.
Recently, Supreme Court has said that farmers have a constitutional right to continue with their “absolutely perfect” protest as long as their dissent against the three controversial agricultural laws did not slip into violence.This ruling came by the Supreme Court during the hearing of a batch of petitions seeking removal of protesting farmers from the Delhi borders.
The Supreme Court in its verdict has stated that it is the fundamental right of the farmers to protest as long as the protest is constitutional and does not destroy property or endanger life.
Why are the framers protesting?
Farmer protests against the three new agriculture-related laws have gathered momentum.
The controversy pertains to:
- ‘Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020′
- Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020′ and
- Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020.
These bills sought to bring much needed reforms in the agricultural marketing system such as removing restrictions of private stock holding of agricultural produce or creating trading areas free of middlemen and take the market to the farmer. However, farmers are apprehensive that the free market philosophy supported by these bills could undermine the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system and make farmers vulnerable to market forces.
Why are only some states protesting?
- The protests are perhaps the loudest in northern states, traditionally India’s wheat basket and rice bowl.
- The MSP system, in place since the mid-1960s, was part of the country’s drive to reduce dependence on food imports.
- The MSP was meant to protect farmers against price crashes that could (and do) occur with large harvests.
- It is in its role as a floor price that a credible MSP matters to farmers.
- In principle, in deficit states (where demand exceeds local supply), market prices should be higher than the MSP, obviating the need for supporting the market at the level of MSP.
- However, this differential could be dampened or even eliminated by the distribution of grains under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
- Seen in this light, the MSP matters more in historically surplus states of Punjab and Haryana.
- Here, the government purchases over 80% of wheat and rice output for NFSA supply.
- In comparison, in Bihar, the government procures at most a quarter of rice output of the state and no wheat.
- Also, in practice there is wide variation in the implementation of the MSP, across crops, states and categories of farmers.
- A 2016 NitiAayog report notes that all surveyed Punjab farmers reported selling at the MSP.
- While other states often saw only one-third of farmers reporting sales at the MSP, and some, none at all (with sales at the lower open market prices).
- The report also finds that large farmers are able to sell a greater share of their produce at the MSP as compared to smaller farmers.
- Small farmers often rely on aggregators to sell their output.
Issues Raised by the Farmers
- Federal Angle: The provisions in the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, provides for unfettered commerce in designated trade areas outside APMC jurisdictions.
- Apart from this, the bill empowers the Centre government to issue orders to States in furtherance of the law’s objectives.
- However, matters of trade and agriculture being the part of subjects on the State list, have caused resentment in States.
- Lack of Consultation: First the ordinance route and now the hastily attempt to pass the Bills without proper consultation adds to the mistrust among various stakeholders including farmers.
- Also, by allowing ‘trade zones’ to come up outside the APMC area, farmers have become apprehensive that the new system would lead to eventual exit from the minimum support price.
- Absence of any regulation in non-APMC mandis: Another issue that is raised by the farmers is that the proposed bills give the preference for corporate interests at the cost of farmers’ interests.
- In absence of any regulation in non-APMC mandis, the farmers may find it difficult to deal with Corporates, as they solely operate on the motive of profit seeking.
- Non-Favourable Market Conditions: While retail prices have remained high, data from the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) suggest a deceleration in farm gate prices for most agricultural produce.
- With rising input costs, farmers do not see the free market based framework providing them remunerative prices.
- These fears gain strength with the experience of States such as Bihar which abolished APMCs in 2006. After the abolition of mandis, farmers in Bihar on average received lower prices compared to the MSP for most crops.
The contentious one: FPTC Act
- The FPTC Act is a bone of contention. It permits sale and purchase of farm produce outside the premises of APMC mandis.
- Such trades (including on electronic platforms) shall attract no market fee, cess or levy “under any State APMC Act or any other State law”.
- An issue here is the very right of the Centre to enact legislation on agricultural marketing.
- Article 246 of the Constitution places “agriculture” and “markets and fairs” in the State List.
- But entry 42 of the Union List empowers the Centre to regulate “inter-State trade and commerce”.
- While trade and commerce “within the State” is under entry 26 of the State List, it is subject to the provisions of entry 33 of the Concurrent List.
- Under this, the Centre can make laws that would prevail over those enacted by the states.
- Entry 33 of the Concurrent List covers trade and commerce in “foodstuffs, including edible oilseeds and oils”, fodder, cotton and jute.
- The Centre, in other words, can very pass any law that removes all impediments to both inter- and intra-state trade in farm produce, while also overriding the existing state APMC Acts. The FPTC Act does precisely that.
Right to Protest
- The right to protest is the manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech.
- The Constitution of India provides the right of freedom, given in Article 19 with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution.
- The Right to protest peacefully is enshrined in Article 19(1) (a) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression; Article 19(1) (b) assures citizens the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.
- Article 19(2) imposes reasonable restrictions on the right to assemble peaceably and without arms.
Reasonable restrictions do exist in practice
- Fundamental rights do not live in isolation. The right of the protester has to be balanced with the right of the commuter. They have to co-exist in mutual respect.
- The court held it was entirely the responsibility of the administration to prevent encroachments in public spaces.
- Democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but then the demonstrations expressing dissent have to be in designated places alone.
- The present case was not even one of the protests taking place in an undesignated area but was a blockage of a public way which caused grave inconvenience to commuters.
Supreme Court Judgements on Right to Protest
- Ramlila Maidan Incident vs Home Secretary, Union of India &Ors. Case (2012): The Supreme Court had stated that citizens have a fundamental right to assembly and peaceful protest which cannot be taken away by an arbitrary executive or legislative action.
- Shaheen Bagh Judgement: The Supreme Court has upheld the right to peaceful protest against the law but made it unequivocally clear that public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied and that too indefinitely.
Intended Benefits Associated with These Bills
- The Bills aim to do away with government interference in agricultural trade by creating trading areas free of middlemen and government taxes outside the structure of Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs).
- It will allow farmers an option to sell their produce directly to these new zones, without going through the middlemen and paying levies such as mandi fees.
- It sought to remove stock holding limits as well as curbs on inter-State and intra-State trade, and create a framework for contract farming.
- Also, these bills promote the creation of Farmer Producer Organisations (FPO) on a large scale and will help in creating a farmer-friendly environment for contract farming where small players can benefit.
- These bills may enable private players to invest in warehousing, grading and other marketing infrastructure.
- A combined effect of these bills will help in creating a ‘One Nation, One Market’ for agricultural produce.
What could be negotiated?
- If the protesting farmer union leaders were to sit down at the negotiating table, the government can possibly get them to agree to drop the demand on repealing all the three laws.
- Their problem is essentially about the FPTC Act and its provisions that they see as weakening the APMC mandis.
- These may be just fears, but they aren’t small.
- From the government’s standpoint, the elephant in the room would be if the farmers insist on an additional demand: Making MSP a legal right.
- This would be still impossible to meet, even if the three farm laws were to be put on hold.
How the government should deal with protesting farmers?
- There is a gross communication failure on the part of the central government to explain to farmers what these laws are, and how they are intended to benefit them.
- The apprehension about MSP and procurement going away comes from Acts being linked to some previous policy documents like the Shanta Kumar Committee report and the CACP reports suggesting reduced procurement and an end to open-ended procurement from states like Punjab to cut down costs of FCI.
- It is feared that FCI itself may start procuring directly from the new trade area to cut down buying costs like market fees and arhtiya commission.
- It is more about the changes in the “social contract” between the state’s farmers and the Union government that is the root cause of this apprehension.
- Improve Agricultural Infrastructure to Strengthen Competition: Government should massively fund the expansion of the APMC market system, make efforts to remove trade cartels, and provide farmers good roads, logistics of scale and real time information.
- Empowering State Farmers Commissions: Rather than opting for heavy centralisation, the emphasis should be on empowering farmers through State Farmers Commissions recommended by the National Commission for Farmers, to bring about a speedy government response to issues.
- Consensus Building: The Centre should reach out to those opposing the Bills, including farmers, explain to them the need for reform, and get them on board.
A democratic and peaceful protest based on substantive concerns should not be dismissed or discredited for momentary interests of political mileage and electoral expediency. Every ruling dispensation under democratic conditions must strive hard with good faith for constantly prioritising the possibilities of repeated negotiations and consultations for addressing the concerns of the protesting citizens and finding a solution, no matter how vexed the issue in question is.
The Centre must leave no stone unturned for finding a broad consensus around the issue by bringing on board all the stakeholders, including farmers organisations as well as opposition parties in order to resolve the exacerbating crisis, for the interest of the farmers as well as for the larger interest of the nation’s democracy.