We need a new Farm Act that looks at the issues afresh: Punjab FM Badal

Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal
With the farmers’ stir at the borders of the national capital against the Centre’s three Farm Acts refusing to die down even after over 20 days, Punjab Finance Minister Manpreet Singh Badal says that while the Union government has finally given a verbal assurance on minimum support price (MSP), the actual intent remains doubtful. He said that unlimited procurement of crops will cease and the way in which MSP is fixed will adversely impact farmers’ income and lead to food insecurity. In an interview with Dilasha Seth and Indivjal Dhasmana, Badal says that repealing the Acts was the only feasible solution as too many changes have been proposed and the original purpose has been lost. Hence, a need for new legislation is needed to look at the issues afresh. On the talks between the Centre and farmers, Badal says that it remains unclear who is leading the talks from the Centre’s side, and the move comes after much dilly-dallying. He adds that while the state welcomes corporate houses to invest, it cannot create a system where farmers could be exploited and inequalities will increase. Edited excerpts:

The Centre has assured the continuation of the MSP. What is the problem in accepting these laws now?

The verbal assurance has only come after a massive agitation. Even this is suspicious as most of the institutions including the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) have time and again reiterated that the MSP system should go. There is a difference between what the Centre is saying and what its various organs are doing. The fear is that unlimited procurement of crops will cease and the way in which MSP is fixed will adversely impact farmers’ income.

What is the solution you have in mind to break the impasse between farmers and the Centre?

If there is so much opposition from farmers, the intended beneficiaries of these Acts, the only solution that seems feasible is to repeal these Acts. So many changes have been proposed in the Act that the original purpose has been lost. We need a new Act that looks at the issues afresh.

Punjab has made central farm Acts inoperative in the state. Why are farmers up in arms against these legislations then?

Punjab is still awaiting the assent of the Governor and the President for the laws to become operational. Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh was even denied a meeting with the President. The agitation is against the laws enacted by the Centre, it is against the attempt of the government to dismantle a time tested system. The farmers, the intended beneficiaries of these Acts, are of view that they have been denied their basic democratic right of consultation before the enactment of laws by the central government. They rightly fear that the terms of trade will become worse over time.

Will the move by Punjab to nullify the central Acts in the state stand the test of law in courts?

The matter is sub judice, but I would like to point out that being an elected government, we are well within our rights to protect the interest of our farmers and certain provisions in the new Acts fall within the purview of the state according to the Constitution of India.

Why are farmers' protests restricted to just Punjab, Haryana, parts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan?

Media has painted this picture that protests are restricted to these four states only. It is just that farmers/farmers' organisations from these states have taken the lead. The farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan have benefitted from the functioning of mandis and realise what they will lose if their fears come true. Farmers in other parts of India have not experienced the benefits of functioning mandis and MSP procurement, so they do not understand the full value of the gain of public investment in marketing infrastructure. So, rather than duplicating the success of the Punjab mandi system for the rest of the country, it is being proposed to throw the farmers under the wheels of the corporate houses. We welcome corporate houses to invest, but we cannot create a system where farmers could be exploited and inequalities will increase.

Prime minister Narendra Modi has said that the new farm Acts provide more options to farmers to sell their produce and raise their income. Is Punjab against these choices being given to farmers?

This is a great lie being spread by vested institutions. Sir Chhotu Ram made the Mandi Act in 1938 whereby farmers had the freedom to sell produce anywhere in the country, but traders had to procure the produce from mandi premises and traders were regulated by the state. These new Acts instead of than giving freedom to farmers to sell anywhere, actually give traders the freedom to procure from the farmer's field. Leave aside new options, the centre government is actually taking away a time-tested option that has successfully served the nation for five decades. It will throw the nation back into food insecurity once again. It is because of the existing system that people do not go hungry today in such a vast country like ours. Snatching their livelihoods, pauperising the farmers, endangering the nation's food security is reprehensible and repugnant. Do not destroy a functional system that is feeding the nation. The option could be given in the present mandi system also. The new Acts free traders from the ambit of regulation and accountability. These Acts inhibit transparency and restrict farmers from exercising the legal recourse from Civil Courts. When sale transactions aren’t recorded, as will happen with this Act, the government will not be in a position to get data to make informed decisions. Mandi is a platform where farmers bring their produce to sell to traders. When traders can buy their produce from farms and will not be subject to regulation or liable for their actions, they will refuse to come to the mandis and mandis will fail. Mandis provide a place for price realization, when that ceases, farmers will suffer.

If out-of-mandi transactions are brought into the tax net, will it satisfy one of the key demands of the farmers. But, mandi tax itself is quite high in Punjab. Will it bring it down further?

Farmers do not pay mandi charges. They are paid by the buyer. The mandi charges a certain commission to build and maintain the marketing and rural infrastructure. Punjab has one of the best marketing infrastructures in the country and it has to be maintained. We have reduced the charges for certain commodities such as fruits and vegetables to promote diversification. Mandis need to improve. Punjab has made a start and earlier this year the Act was changed so that traders could apply online for a trading license and receive one license, with which they could trade anywhere in the state. We need to improve governance. The state has already reduced the fees on trade on fruit and vegetables by half.
             
Some say that the farmers' protest has been hijacked by extremists. How would you respond to those charges?

When you do not have logic, and when you realise that protestors have exposed your machinations, the easiest way out is to level allegations. One day they allege that rightists are taking over, the next day they allege that leftists are taking over. Allegations will lead to hardening of positions. Instead, the Centre needs to soften its rhetoric. Secondly, this charge was leveled against the protestors. So you should direct this question to the protestors. I suggest, travel to the protest site, and talk to the farmers.

The Centre has broadly agreed on a dispute resolution mechanism. Do you suggest any further changes in that?

Where is the Centre's dispute resolution mechanism? Please look at their approach, they did not even talk to farmers when they were protesting on the railway tracks. Even now it is not clear who is leading the talks from the Centre's side. Earlier it was the agriculture minister, now the role has been taken over by the home minister. Initially it was the defence minister and the railway minister. It is clear that the Centre does not have any process or mechanism. The approach is to dilly-dally so that the protests fizzle out. However, this time it seems this is not working.



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