Indian agriculture sector achieved record foodgrain production and registered positive growth despite the coronavirus pandemic but the massive farmers' protest at the borders of the national capital against the new farm laws overshadowed its remarkable performance this year. Notwithstanding the cold weather and pandemic concerns, the protest by thousands of farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, started in late November and is continuing even as the government and around 40 farmer unions have so far held as many as six rounds of formal discussions to break the deadlock.
Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, who is leading the negotiations with the unions, was hopeful of finding solutions before the year end, but it was not meant to be. Later, Tomar said he expects the new year to herald new solutions to end the crisis.
In the last meeting between the government and the unions on Wednesday, both sides reached at a consensus regarding concerns about the proposed electricity amendment bill and the ordinance on air pollution that penalises farmers for stubble burning. The government has promised to decriminalise stubble burning by farmers and also assured continuation of power subsidies.
But the talks on the contentious issues and two main demands — repealing of three news laws enacted in September and legal guarantee for MSP (Minimum Support Price) procurement system — remained inconclusive. Now, both sides hope for a resolution in the new year and the next round of talks is scheduled to be held on January 4. The country's agriculture sector, which contributes around 15 per cent of the GDP and employs more than half of the population, saw good, bad and ugly moments in equal measure this year. Nevertheless, the sector remained the only bright spot in the Indian economy, which was battered by the pandemic.
At a time when almost all the industries were severely impacted, the agriculture and allied sectors grew 3.4 per cent in both first and second quarters of this fiscal while the economy contracted 23.9 per cent and 7.5 per cent, respectively, during the same period. The country had record foodgrain production of 296.65 million tonnes in 2019-20 crop year (July-June) and the output could cross 300 million tonnes in the current 2020-21 on good monsoon, which has led to higher sowing of kharif and rabi crops.
Just before the outbreak of the pandemic in the country, the Union government in the Budget in February enhanced allocation for agriculture and allied sector by 30 per cent to Rs 1,42,761 crore for this fiscal. Besides, several new programmes were announced. As the government was busy preparing for roll out of the Budget decisions, including Kisan Rail and Kisan UDAN, the nationwide lockdown was imposed for little over two months from late March to curb spreading of coronavirus infections.
The lockdown was imposed at a time when the rabi crops like wheat were ready for harvesting. The government eased lockdown restrictions for farm activities to ensure food security. While many farmers, especially those growing perishables items, suffered in the initial days of the lockdown and were forced to dump their crops, paddy and wheat growers were able to sell their crops. The government purchased a record 39 million tonnes of wheat at the MSP.
Thanks to good southwest monsoon and relaxed lockdown norms that ensured timely supply of farm inputs, farmers sowed kharif crops like paddy on time and harvested the crop. Like wheat, the government has already procured record 45 million tonnes of paddy so far in this kharif marketing season. The government, which was sitting on huge buffer stocks of foodgrains because of bumper production and procurement in the last several years, provided free ration to whopping 80 crore poor from April till November, a major relief for people severely impacted by the pandemic.
While wheat procurement was underway, the Centre saw farmers facing problems in marketing of other commodities during the pandemic as they were forced to sell their produce in regulated mandis without waiting for better rates in the absence of proper agri-infrastructure. This prompted the government to announce slew of incentives in May for the agriculture sector and allied activities, including setting up of a Rs 1 lakh crore agri-infrastructure fund. The announcement was part of the Centre's Rs 20 lakh crore fiscal stimulus package to fight the COVID-19 crisis.
The government also announced amendments to the Essential Commodities Act to deregulate food stuffs and a central law to provide adequate choices to the farmers to sell produce at an attractive price, barrier-free inter-state trade and framework for e-trading of agricultural produce. To ensure that farmers do not face problems in selling their kharif produce when harvesting begins from October, the government hurriedly in June came out with three ordinances to deregulate selected food commodities (cereals, edible oil, oilseeds, pulses, onions and potato), permit trading outside regulated mandis and encourage contract farming.
There was not much opposition when these ordinances were brought during the lockdown but all hell broke loose when these were replaced with laws passed by Parliament in September as the Opposition voiced concerns that the bills were an attempt to bypass state laws on agriculture. Shiromani Akali Dal, which was part of the NDA, opposed the bills and Union food processing Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal resigned from the Cabinet. Later, Akali Dal walked out of the NDA as well.
After the passage of the laws, farmers' protest started in Congress-ruled Punjab. Initially, representatives of 31 farmers unions confined their protest to Punjab where they blocked trains for nearly two months. Later, with their clarion 'Delhi chalo' call, they moved to the borders of the national capital where other frontal organisations like All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) joined the protest and played a pivotal role in bringing together farmer unions from different parts of the country.
In total, 40 farmer unions, especially from Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh, are protesting at Delhi borders for over a month now and the logjam continues. The Opposition parties, too, have lend their support to the protest. The unions have kept the government on tenterhooks with their demand for repeal of the three pro-market farm laws enacted in September. The government has been maintaining that these laws are for the benefits of farmers and launched a massive campaign to create awareness about these laws as well as share success stories after implementation of these legislations.
The Centre blamed Opposition parties for misleading farmers and also accused them of taking U-turn on these reforms. Some ministers even alleged that anti-social elements and naxals have hijacked the farmers' protest. It remains to be seen whether the Centre and the unions are able to find some common ground on January 4 meeting or the protest continues for a longer period of time.