Propaganda is a legitimate tool in the hands of political parties in any democratic system. So long as it bears some correlation to facts, it is harmless, but once it distorts truth to mislead people, it impacts public welfare. Fear and panic about the long overdue reform in the farm sector stems from a completely wrong picture of the two farm bills being painted by the Opposition. Sooner than later, the misled farmers will regret their credulity and stop protesting against measures meant for their own benefit. Farmers are agitating in Haryana and Punjab while efforts are on to rope in farmers from other states as well.
Confident about the reform that would flow from these bills, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and the Farm Services Bill, 2020, the Rajya Sabha passed them by a voice vote on Sunday, amidst extraordinary scenes of bedlam and threats of violence by the Opposition members. Their failure to stall the passage of the Bills further incensed them. When the ploy to have the Bills referred to a committee for further scrutiny was rejected, some members threateningly advanced towards Deputy Chairman Harivansh while others yanked out mics and still others stood on the Secretary-General’s table raising raucous slogans. Little children denied candy behave better.
Members of the House of the Elders shamed themselves with their rotten conduct. On Monday, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha Venkaiah Naidu expressed anguish at the threat of violence against the Deputy Chairman while the House adopted a motion suspending the eight particularly chaotic members for the rest of the session. This was the least the House could do to retain a modicum of decorum and order. As for the Bills, the Opposition noises are of a piece with the wild propaganda that was unleashed against the Bhakra-Nangal Dam in the 60s. Naive rural folks were misled into believing that the waters from the dam henceforth would lose all 'potency’ since the government would extract all 'power’ from them. Such arrant nonsense also informs the current narrative against the Bills.
A desperate Opposition, in order to regain relevance in a polity completely dominated by the ruling combine, has thrown its weight behind an agitation which is essentially fuelled by the middlemen or 'arthiyas', who fear the loss of monopoly to sell farm produce at hefty commissions. Farmers can only gain from the freedom to sell to whoever offers them the best price. Consider the facts.
Well-respected agriculture experts such as Ashok Gulati,who have spent a lifetime rooting for farmers’ welfare, cannot, by any stretch of the imagination faulted for misreading the Bills. They have welcomed the Bills, describing them as overdue reform. Contrary to the falsehood, there is no move whatsoever to abolish the current system of foodgrain – essentially wheat and paddy --- procurement by the State at the Minimum Support Price for each crop season. This is a lie spread by middlemen/commission agents, who profiteer hugely by denying growers a fair price for their produce but themselves pocket a high percentage in unearned commissions.
In any case, the existing structure of the agriculture produce marketing committees (APMCs) will remain untouched, unharmed. There is no move to tinker with them. However, the new legislation would allow farmers the freedom to sell through APMCs or others inside their state or outside, to those offering a better price. In other words, the new legislation breaks the stranglehold of the 'dalals' who dominate the APMCs. Notably, Bihar had repealed the APMC Act in 2006. Yet, the mandis in Bihar still continue to thrive because viable alternative procurers of farm produce have not stepped forward to take advantage. Besides, over a period of time, farmers establish closer ties with the market operators in mandis on whom they rely for loans and other help from time to time. Such mutually beneficial ties are not likely to vanish overnight.
Even if various e-platforms selling fresh agri-produce, and food processors buy farm produce, they will do so through bulk sourcing from notified agents and even agri mandis, and not directly from farmers of small holdings. Eighty-six per cent of farms are below two hectares. In short, the fears of the 'arthiyas', who are fuelling the current stir, are wholly misplaced. They do a great disservice to the cause of the millions of farmers who, thanks to these reforms can only expect to get better price for their produce. Meanwhile, the Government should launch an intensive media campaign to allay apprehensions of farmers. A point-by-point rebuttal of the false propaganda will help in weaning credulous farmers away from the protests.