Zia Haq
Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Thousands of protesting farmers have marched towards the capital and are camped at several entry points. They largely oppose the laws saying they will be swallowed by big corporations. (Ravi Kumar/HT Photo)



Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked ministers negotiating with farm unions to explore “all possible measures” to secure farmers’ rights and incomes to end the ongoing agitation, a person familiar with the matter has said. The PM is open to amendments or new rules, if necessary, the person added.

Modi has advised his key ministers that the government should explore more safeguards to protect farmers against exploitation, strengthen existing notified markets, known as Agricultural Produce Market Committees, bring stricter provisions to secure farmers engaging in contract farming, and also expand procurement of crops at state-set minimum support prices (MSP).

The ministers are likely to draw up their final proposal along these guidelines. Agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar, railways and food minster Piyush Goyal, and minister of state (commerce) Som Prakash are set to meet farmers’ representatives again on December 9 — the sixth round of talks — a day after a nationwide Bharat Bandh called by the unions on Tuesday.

“The PM’s message is that all safeguards possible for farmers should be created. If amendments are needed to strengthen farmers rights over their land and resources, there should be no hesitation. Procurement should be strengthened…,” the person said.

Also Read| Bharat Bandh: Police warn strict action against disruptors, to use drones to keep an eye on protesters

Government officials on Monday hastily went over proposals they think might help resolve the stand-off: while the government hasn’t showed any signs it will rescind a set of pro-market policies, farmers have stuck to the demand for a complete repeal of three new farm laws. “If the farmers had cited specific provisions and objections, we would have been in a better position to come up with proposals,” the person cited above said.

The government pushed three laws in September to deregulate markets and permit private traders to stockpile large quantities of essential commodities for future, which, officials say, will spur investments in supply chains.

Farmers in India, on average, receive lower-than-global prices because of rising costs of cultivation and policies to keep food cheap. Farmers are seeking a law prohibiting sale of any farm produce below MSP. Many economists say such a law could turn demand-supply laws upside down, causing private traders to exit markets during gluts, when buying at MSP will not be profitable. On the other hand, the government cannot be a monopoly buyer of all farm produce.

Thousands of protesting farmers have marched towards the capital and are camped at several entry points. They largely oppose the laws saying they will be swallowed by big corporations.

A background note from the government-run think-tank Niti Aayog, which the negotiating team will draw on, says farm sectors, such as horticulture, milk and fishery – where government intervention is low – has grown on average 4-10% annually, compared to a flat growth rate of 1.1% in cereals where government intervention is high.

“This clearly indicates that in recent times liberalized markets are more favourable to agricultural growth than government support and intervention in markets,” an official said. The government is likely to argue that there are ways to ensure existing notified markets can co-exist with free markets, the official said.

Also Read: Farmers say they will block roads, seek support

Some economists say competition could lead to better price discovery. It is a fallacy that APMC markets offer any price security for produce other than rice and wheat, according to noted farm economist Ashok Gulati.

A second official contended there will be no impact of free markets to reformed APMCs in at least 12 states that “do not charge commission on notified crops”. Nine such states charge only a reasonable fee and service charges from 0–1%. The “real threat” to APMC mandis and their business is from “excessive and unjustified charges in these markets”, the second official said.

Farmers aren’t convinced. “The issue is not about one particular clause, but about the direction in which the government is pushing farming in India,” said Avik Saha, a farm activist.