Three farm-related Bills were recently passed in the Parliament by the BJP led government at the Center, which have subsequently received presidential assent. The Mahila KIsan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM) opposes the unilateral and undemocratic passage of these bills and argues that though these legislations were brought in in the name of farmers, these are meant to facilitate the businesses of agri-corporations.
What are these acts and what could be their impacts?
- Farmers’ Produce and Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020
- Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 aka Contract Farming Act 2020
- The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020
MAKAAM argues that these Acts will adversely and disproportionately impact a majority of women farmers and agricultural workers, who form the bulk of the small and marginal sections in the Indian agriculture and depend on the sector for their survival and livelihood.
In a context where women farmers in India already face multiple pre-existing challenges in terms of lack of recognition as farmers, unequal rights over key resources such as land, water, forests, etc., gendered access to support systems and services related to agricultural credit, inputs, subsidies, budgets and marketing their produce, these three latest legislations will subject them to a new set of vulnerabilities and livelihood threats.
Farmers’ Produce and Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020
This Act is primarily aimed at bypassing the state level APMC regime. Although not explicit, it holds the potential to do away with determining remunerative prices and guaranteeing those to the farmers by shunning a transparent price discovery mechanism with government oversight as of now. Evidence shows that only 10.5 percent agricultural households sell their food grains to any procurement agency at MSP while only 36 percent of the produce is sold in regulated markets. Then there is no new ‘freedom’ that this Act offers to the farmers given that most farmers sell most produce outside the regulated regime. Further, most state APMCs already give that statutory freedom to farmers to sell wherever they like. In fact, by weakening the APMCs by placing them on an unequal footing compared to the new “trade areas” to be regulated by the Centre, it opens up the field for big players to exploit the small and marginal farmers without any regulation or oversight.
The Act is premised on the assumption that all farmers are equally mobile and have equal access to transportation facilities to become potentially mobile to sell or purchase their agricultural produce anywhere in the country.
Impact on women farmers
Women farmers, with their poor mobility and access to transport facilities, are especially on an unequal footing when it comes to traveling to another place to trade their produce or bargain around better prices. In fact, what women farmers need is proximal markets but with oversight to protect them from exploitation by buyers/traders.
Exploitative as the private traders may have been, they still provided the support that a woman farmer needed by way of seed, credit and purchase of her small quantities of produce and paid her upfront. The new Act defines a trade area outside of the mandi which is likely to bring in new and bigger private players who may not see profit in trading with smaller farmers and would finally move towards the aggregation of produce through a new set of intermediaries who will operate in a very different ecosystem than what the women farmers were familiar with or even have access to due to the pervasive gender discrimination and restrictions on their mobility.
Although many women farmers sell to private traders, the existence of an APMC ensured that prices remained somewhere close to MSPs and therefore narrowing the margins of exploitation. The role of the APMCs to signal prices has allowed for some bargaining power to negotiate prices and is thus important even if they sell outside of the APMCs.
Instead of bringing in reforms that regulate the traders outside of the APMCs and correct the anomalies in the APMC to make it more women farmer-friendly, the Act has proposed to bypass the APMC and usher in an era of fragmented and unregulated markets.
MAKAAM believes that MSP and procurement regime can be strengthened, expanded and recast in a decentralised manner with farmgate procurement that focuses on food grains other than rice and wheat too, to have universal PDS that ensures food as well as nutrition security, thereby supporting neglected farmers, neglected grains and neglected areas, even as environmental sustainability that has gone wrong with the earlier procurement regime is addressed squarely.
The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020: Food security at stake
The PDS has been a lifeline for food access for all citizens during the pandemic, with even the government using it for distribution of relief food rations under the PMGKY.
The proposal to remove cereals, pulses, potatoes from the list of essential commodities is bound to impact food security goals. It is also an invitation to attract big corporates FDI into grain trade at a time when rest of the industry is in the doldrums and 90 metric tonnes is lying in the godowns and more to come by way of Kharif procurement.
The haste in bringing in the act is quite evident. The current PDS system supports poor families with only one cereal grain on a monthly basis and this is inadequate to meet all food and nutrition needs of a family. Further, many households are out of the PDS net given the targeted approach rather than universalised approach adopted in this food security scheme. The changes in the ECA which now more or less de-regulates fully the food supply systems in India, except for potentially ineffective regulation during ‘extra-ordinary circumstances’ would have serious implications on the food availability of the most vulnerable populations when such food is (invisibly) hoarded and becomes unaffordable.
When 38 percent of our children under the age of 5 years are stunted, 50 percent of pregnant women (15-49 years) are anaemic, the government should expand its PDS to address hunger and malnutrition. The pandemic more than ever has reiterated the need for strengthening public systems and has demonstrated how despite some weaknesses, the PDS and MNREGA have been the saviours for the poor.
Under the Essential Commodities Act, with the cap on storage and pricing being taken away (except under extraordinary situations), women as farmers, agricultural workers, consumers as well as beneficiaries of the PDS will be adversely affected in the future.
Farmers (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 aka Contract Farming Act 2020
The Farmers Empowerment, Protection, Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020 seeks to legalise contract farming across the country while claiming to enable farmers to get into other agreements related to seeds, other inputs and prior agreed price etc.
Read from the perspective of a majority of women farmers, who are dependent on small and marginal holdings, either as direct cultivators or tenants, these provisions are neither empowering nor provide any protection in reality! This is because poor literacy levels amongst farm women and their differential situations based on caste, class and gender places them in a disadvantaged position while understanding or negotiating (written) agreements with traders and corporate entities who are seeking to enter into agreements with the farmers to purchase their produce or for other services.
Secondly, the conciliation or dispute arbitration framework that is provided in the above Act is clearly weighed against small and marginal farmers in general and women farmers in particular. The new Act seeks to transfer powers equivalent to the civil court to the SDM and the Collector in the event of any non-compliance or dispute related to the written agreements.
Also, women farmers in general and especially those who are single will barely be in a position to afford the time and financial resources to get their problems redressed under the new framework. Despite assurance from the Central Government that Minimum Support Price for farm produce will continue, this is not written into this Act either anywhere. There is no dearth of examples of how contract farming has in fact failed the farmers on many an occasion. Agrarian distress caused due to such an agricultural paradigm is known to increase farm suicides, the burden of which again falls on women farmers of the household.
What needs to be done
MAKAAM, therefore, makes the following demands:
- In the medium to long term, protecting farmers’ rights is not only about assuring markets and remunerative prices, but also about ensuring the necessary supports to improve yields without harming nature, promote bio-diverse models based on agro-ecological principles in agriculture that ensure diversification of crops, provide for protective irrigation for promoting bio-diverse models, and provide support for other agricultural inputs and practices. -In brief, reforms in agriculture need large scale investments in protecting farmers and not just agri-businesses. Small and marginal farmers among whom are a significant number of women form the backbone of this sector and need to be protected through robust investments towards enhancing their capacities and knowledge.
In the immediate term, MAKAAM appeals that:
- President withdraws his approval to the Acts or the Government of India itself repeals the Acts.
- Government must direct its attention to supporting the small and marginal farmers who are in distress due to the pandemic by a) providing cash transfers and loan deferments and b) supplement those with expanding the MNREGA, providing seed and market support.
- The Government should guarantee at least the MSP in all market transactions involving farmers, whatever the marketing channel might be. This should be a legal entitlement for all farmers.
- Government must bring in reforms in the APMCs that would ensure easy access to women farmers who trade at the local level. This could be on the lines of the initiatives taken by the government of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to hand over procurement to women’s SHGs at the village level and also support direct marketing initiatives.
- The government ensures (a) incentivising decentralised procurement including procurement of coarse grains; (b) geographical diversification of procurement operations; (c) augmentation of adequate decentralised modern and scientific storage; (d) giving top priority to the movement of foodgrains and providing sufficient number of rakes for this purpose, including expanding the line capacity of railways to facilitate foodgrain movement from surplus to consuming regions.
- The government rolls out a time-bound plan to ensure at least the mandated 30% representation of women farmers in the local market committees. For this MAKAAM calls for a large scale study on systemic obstacles in women farmers’ safe access to markets.
- Create an enabling environment that promotes women’s FPOs by giving them higher equity grant and working capital at low interests; encourages it in procurement at the local level. This could be done by introducing a reasonable target of all women FPOs in the recently introduced operational guidelines of FPOs (July 2020).The government should also remove FPOs from the purview of the Acts brought in.
- Bring in a separate law that guarantees remunerative prices for farmers for diverse crops and ensure all payments are made jointly to farmer households, against the current practice of only remunerating the landowner.
- Universalise and expand PDS to include millets, pulses and oil that could be procured through decentralized procurement systems by guaranteeing remunerative prices. It would address the concerns of the procurement of farm produce as well as fulfill the goal of eliminating hunger. Women farmers often produce a diverse set of crops such as moong, urad, ragi and other millets which can find guaranteed markets if the PDS, MDMS and ICDS programmes are revised to include these foods.
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National Facilitation Team, MAKAAM:
Akole Tsuhah, Anita Paul, Archana Singh, C. Bhanuja, Dr. Rukmini Rao, Dr. Soma KP, Dr. Vaishali Patil,Fatima Burnad, Heera Jangpangi, Hiral Dave, Kavitha Kuruganti, Kavitha Srinivasan, Nafisa Barot, RajimKetwas, Richa Audichiya, Roshan Rathod, S. Ashalatha, Seema Kulkarni, Seema Ravandale, Sejal Dand,Shilpa Vasavada, Shubhada Deshmukh, Usha Seethalakshmi, Varsha Ganguly.
Contact: Gargie Mangulkar, National Coordinator, MAKAAM. E-mail: [email protected]