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Foreign protests over Farm Acts: Much ado over nothing

Updated November 21, 2020 20:27 IST
Punjab Farmers
Farmers raise slogans as they block railway tracks in protest against the farm laws in Amritsar on Oct 15, 2020 (Photo: IANS)

A forward-looking legislation that seeks to unshackle farmers and open up markets for Indian agriculture is unexpectedly facing protests on foreign lands—the UK, the US, Canada and even European nations. Within India, the protests against the three agricultural laws have been spearheaded by the opposition parties and some farmers’ groups. India Narrative delves into what really is happening.

What are the three laws

In September this year the Union government proposed three Bills—the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. All three have been enacted and notified.

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act allows farmers to sell their produce outside the mandis, hitherto regulated by the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC). The reality is that many farmers had already been selling their produce directly to companies and retail agencies outside the government setup.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act allows the farmers to directly engage with agri-business firms, exporters and other processors for future sale of their produce at a mutually agreed remunerative price.

Under the Essential Commodities Act, the Central Government had the power to regulate the production, supply and distribution of essential commodities. Now, after the amendment, certain commodities can be regulated only under extraordinary circumstances like price rise, war and famine.

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What is the controversy

The government says that the three Acts will allow farmers to sell their produce anywhere in the country. They can also sell their produce to non-government bodies, outside the mandis, and will be able to negotiate their own rates with the buyers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in 2017 that the government will double the income of the farmers by 2022—the year when India completes 75 years of its Independence. The idea behind bringing these bills is to create a large national market.

However, many farmers say that they will be exploited by the open markets as they will not be protected by the minimum support price (MSP) which the government provides. They also feel that the companies, retailers, wholesalers and the exporters would have better negotiating powers and will not give conducive prices to the farmers.

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A major concern for farmers is that with the withdrawal of the State from the agricultural sector, big business will dominate and will exploit the farmer. For this very reason, they want that the government should continue to provide the shelter of the MSP, which the government has agreed to verbally.

Besides all these pros and cons of the new Acts, the reality is that the mandis where the farmers currently sell their produce are controlled by local and state-level politicians. With the passage of these bills, many politicians will lose considerable control and also earnings. However, the Central government says that bringing the markets and the farmers closer will also reduce the roll of middlemen and other powerful individuals who control the mandis.

How did the opposition reach foreign shores

Some of the most vocal opponents to the farmers Bills have been the political parties in Punjab. This includes the Shiromani Akali Dal, which was an ally of the BJP till the farm bills were tabled before the parliament. The Congress was a natural opponent. Chief Minister of Punjab Amarinder Singh said: “Punjab, which would be the worst affected by these treacherous laws, would take this fight forward with all its might.” The protests by the Sikh farmers in Punjab now find an echo in foreign countries with a substantial Sikh population.

With Punjab a forefront agrarian state in India that has a large diaspora, opposition to the bills has reached Western countries. In a press release, Dr Kanwaljit Kaur, chairman, Global Sikh Council, said that earlier the farmers could sell their produce at MSP in the mandis but the new legislation would allow anyone to purchase any produce without any MSP as fixed by the government. “This will result in richer traders dictating the market price without any protection for small farmers”, she added.

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Already a large number of non-resident Indians (NRI) have organized protests against the farm Bills in Italy, France, the UK, Canada and the US. The protests have mostly been led by Sikhs with negligible participation from the rest of the considerable Indian diaspora. They feel that the small and marginal farmers will be rendered employees on their own land as corporates will begin to control agriculture. What they conveniently overlook is that the bills have a national outlook and implementation.

A fortnight back, a British Sikh organiser of a car rally for support to Punjab farmers was fined a hefty 10,000 pounds by the police in Southall district in west London. The man Deepa Singh plans to contest the fine in British courts. However, his protest fizzled out once the police asked the people to disperse.

Fears in India

For the Indian government, the big worry is that separatist organizations based in the US and Canada, which have been demanding Khalistan, are also jumping into the fray. Both the Punjab government and the Central government have been appealing to Sikhs in Punjab against radical and militant calls from western countries. The Indian government has also taken up the demands for Khalistan with the government of Canada as the Khalistani threat is becoming a headache for Canada also.

Indian intelligence agencies have been on extra alert in Punjab as the discontent among the farmers in Punjab does not inadvertently merge with the radical elements who have their origins abroad. Indian security and intelligence agencies are on the guard over Pakistani intelligence agencies exploiting political dissatisfaction in the country.

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