The government is considering convening a special session of parliament to amend parts of the agriculture reform bills which have become a cause célèbre for protesting farmers’ groups and the opposition, sources aware of the ruling dispensation’s thinking tell News18.
The government, sources said, is willing to accommodate “reasonable demands” of the farmers while not caving in to the street protests by farmers mainly from Punjab and Haryana who have blockaded roads to the national capital for 10 days.
The amendments could address three or four crucial demands, including those related to the Minimum Support Price, the price-guarantee scheme that assures farmers that they will get a minimum rate for 22 crops. Other than expanding the basket of crops eligible for MSP support, the government could strengthen this mechanism.
In addition, dispute-resolution for contract farming may be moved into the realm of civil courts from sub-divisional magistrates. Furthermore, private buyers in non-government markets may be required to register themselves.
A special session, these sources said, is intended to achieve several outcomes all at once. By making amendments that concede key demands by farmers’ the government will have shown flexibility while also calling the bluff of opposition groups. The government is confident that the amended laws will clear both the houses of parliament comfortably. There is also the opinion within the administration that once parliament passes the amended laws after an open debate, the street protests will lose the moral argument that the reforms were initially pushed through as ordinances, bypassing consultation with all stakeholders.
In September, the President signed into law three bills which are considered by many to be the equivalent of the industrial reforms initiated by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1991 by dismantling the licence-permit raj. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s version of liberalisation covers three core areas in the agriculture sector—marketing, price control of essential commodities and contract farming.
Ahead of Saturday’s meeting—the fifth round of discussions with farmers’ leaders—defence minister Rajnath Singh, home minister Amit Shah and agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar met at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s house to discuss the way forward to end the deadlock.
Despite the economic rationale that agriculture sector must be liberalised, farmers in India’s most prosperous farming states Punjab and Haryana are fearful. That is because these two states are major producers of rice and wheat, and most of their rice and wheat is procured at MSP, unlike in other states.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the far-reaching of the three reform laws, bypasses the state-level law which governs agriculture marketing. The central law limits the oversight and jurisdiction of Agriculture Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) to the government-run market yard.
Outside the market yard, entities are free to transact in agricultural produce in what is called a trade area. Transactions in the trade area are free of an obligation to pay a fee to the APMC and no licences are required by buyers. The law also permits electronic trading platforms. Thus, alternate marketing spaces have been created in the real and virtual worlds, and control has been taken away from state governments.
Thousands of farmers have been camping around Delhi borders, insisting that the laws be repealed. The government, however, has made it clear that there was no question of repealing the laws which are meant to make Indian agriculture more competitive and productive.
Two rounds of talks held this week fell through despite repeated assurances from the government that MSP will be strengthen and not removed. Farmer groups have warned of a Bharat Bandh on December 8 if their demand to repeal the laws is not met.
To rebuild the trust with farmers and find a middle ground, the government during these talks has signalled that it would not only continue with MSP regime but also expand its ambit to essential vegetables like potatoes and onions.