Explained: What farm law repeal means for farmers, govt, Opposition and PM

A look at why and how the government had pushed these laws, why it has now withdrawn them, and the implications of the move, politically and economically.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced the repeal of the three contentious farm laws, which had witnessed protests from farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, on the borders of Delhi for more than a year. A look at why and how the government had pushed these laws, why it has now withdrawn them, and the implications of the move, politically and economically.

What were the farm laws that have been repealed?

They are:

  • The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, which is aimed at allowing trade in agricultural produce outside the existing APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) mandis;
  • The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, which seeks to provide a framework for contract farming;
  • The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020, which is aimed at removing commodities such as cereals, pulses, oilseeds, edible oils, onion and potato from the list of essential commodities.

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced these laws as part of the third tranche under Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan to support the economy during the fight against Covid-19. On June 3, 2020, the Union Cabinet chaired by Modi approved the three laws, then in the form of ordinances. Two days later, the President promulgated the ordinances. During the Monsoon Session of Parliament, the government introduced Bills to replace the ordinances, which were eventually passed.

Why had the need been felt?

There has been a long-pending demand for reforms in agricultural marketing, a subject that comes under the purview of state governments. The Centre took the issue up in the early 2000s by pushing for reforms in the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Acts of the states. The Agriculture Ministry under the then NDA government designed a model APMC Act in 2003 and circulated it among the states. The subsequent UPA government, too, pushed for these reforms. But given that it is a state subject, the Centre has had little success in getting the states to adopt the model APMC Act.

It was in this backdrop that the present government went for reforms in the sector by passing these laws.

In what circumstances were the laws passed?

At the time the government announced the reforms and initially cleared them as ordinances in June 2020, there were token protests with the country’s attention gripped by the first wave of Covid-19. When the government moved them as Bills in September 2020, they faced protests in Parliament. Opposition parties demanded a thorough scrutiny of the Bills by a parliamentary panel. The government dismissed these demands and pushed the legislation through.

The Akali Dal, then a partner in the government, had been a party to the Cabinet’s decision to move the ordinances, but began to get restive over the legislation subsequently. Harsimrat Badal of the Akali Dal quit the Union Cabinet as the government pushed the legislation in Parliament, and eventually her party itself quit the NDA. Over half a dozen Rajya Sabha MPs from the Opposition benches were suspended for a week for their “disorderly conduct” while protesting against the rushed passage of the laws.

When and how did the farmers’ protests start, and how did the Centre react?

Although farmers in Punjab had been expressing their reservations about the proposed reforms since the announcement in the summer of 2020, the protests gained momentum when the Centre pushed the Bills in Parliament in the Monsoon Session. Farmers feared that the existing APMC mandis, where they sell their produce, mostly wheat and paddy, would be shut down once private players started trading in agri-produce outside the mandi premises, and that once the APMC mandi system became redundant, procurement based on minimum support prices (MSP) too would come to an end.

After sporadic protests against the farm laws, including a nationwide road blockade on November 3, farmers’ unions in Punjab and Haryana gave a call for a ‘Delhi Chalo’ movement. The Delhi Police rejected their request to march to the capital, citing Covid-19 protocols. Various farm unions of Punjab, coming together under the umbrella of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), reached the borders of Delhi on November 26, 2020.

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How did talks between the Centre and farmers begin, and how did they proceed?

Although the protests had started much earlier, the Centre engaged with the farmers only from the first week of October 2020 when Agriculture Secretary Sanjay Agarwal invited union leaders to Delhi for talks. On October 14, Agarwal began the first round of talks with 29 representatives of the agitating farm unions at Krishi Bhawan. The union leaders, however, came out demanding the presence of Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar. They tore copies of the Bills outside Krishi Bhawan, and shouted slogans.

This turned out to be the beginning of a long haul. In all, 11 rounds of talks were held between the government and representatives of farmer leaders between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021. Apart from Tomar, two other ministers — Piyush Goyal and Som Prakash — participated in all these meetings. On December 8, even Home Minister Amit Shah went to Pusa complex in New Delhi for a late-night meeting with farm union leaders, but that effort did not yield any result either.

What resonance did the protests in Delhi and Punjab have elsewhere, and why?

The protests that began in Punjab moved to the outskirts of the national capital in November 2020. Starting from Punjab, it went on to involve farmers from Haryana, Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Although farmers from different states lent their support to those agitating on the outskirts of Delhi, the physical protests were mainly steered by farmers from Punjab, Haryana, western UP and parts of Rajasthan, with farmers from Punjab being the core driving force.

The protesting farmers, however, were pushed to the back foot after a section broke a commitment given to the authorities and stormed the Red Fort on Republic Day this year. This seemed to cause a dent in the support their cause had found among the public. Subsequently, following an unsuccessful attempt by the UP police to remove protesting farmers from the Delhi-UP border, BKU leader Rakesh Tikait galvanised the farmers and brought fresh energy to the protests, which have sustained for almost a year since.

In practical terms, what was the status of the three laws until the repeal?

The Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the three laws on January 12 this year. “My Government respects the decision of the Apex Court and shall abide by it,” President Ramnath Kovind said in his address to the joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament at the start of the Budget Session.

The farm laws were in force for only 221 days — June 5, 2020, when the ordinances were promulgated to January 12, 2021, when the Supreme Court stayed their implementation. Since the stay, the laws have been suspended. The government has used old provisions of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 to impose stock limits, having amended the Act through one of the three farm laws.

So if the laws have been lying dormant, how has the PM’s announcement changed things?

As the implementation of the laws has already been stayed, there will be no impact of the Prime Minister’s announcement in terms of the administration of these laws. It will, however, bring some relief for the government ahead of the Winter Session of Parliament and the crucial Assembly elections early next year in five states, including Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

After a year of refusing to yield, why did the government suddenly do so?

There are contrasting suggestions about the timing of the decision to announce the repeal. The Prime Minister sought to underline that the announcement was being made on Guru Nanak Jayanti. It is being widely seen as a concession to the Sikh community, to which a significant segment of protesting farmers from Punjab belongs. There was a risk that anxiety among the largely Sikh protesters could lead to tension ahead of and during the upcoming elections.

From the Opposition perspective, the decision has been timed with the elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in mind. The Opposition believes that the protests have raised the political costs for the BJP, and the party needed to act before it became too costly, particularly in Uttar Pradesh.

Politically, how does the about-turn impact the government, the BJP, and the PM himself?

In the immediate term, the repeal exposes the government to charges of being on the wrong path and against popular sentiments, notwithstanding its claims to the contrary. Given that the Budget this year had announced a clutch of privatisation and monetisation measures, the repeal exposes the government to the risk of protests from employees’ organisations to try and get these moves stalled, too.

This is the second rollback by the NDA government — the first was of land acquisition reforms in 2015 —and on both counts the issue related to rural farmers. This will add fuel to the Opposition’s constant allegation that the BJP’s moves are not in tune with the needs of rural farming communities. Given that it took the government a year to realise the socio-political costs, the repeal also signals a weakened political feedback mechanism within the party.

For the Prime Minister, his announcement appeared to suggest that it was a tactical retreat. His suggestion was that the three laws were in the interests of farmers, and that his decision to repeal them was in the national interest, although he did not elaborate how a decision in the interest of farmers was being repealed in the national interest. The PM was clearly balancing his political posture that has thrived on the image of a strong and decisive leadership. While the Opposition has cheered the move, it has disappointed the PM’s cheerleaders who had backed these reforms for the last one year.

How is the Opposition impacted politically?

No Opposition party can claim credit for forcing the government’s decision. The credit lies solely with agitating farmers, who dug their heels in through winter, summer and rains for a year now. The issue the Opposition had raised was that such significant legislation was being pushed through Parliament without being referred to a parliamentary panel for scrutiny. But no Opposition party pursued the cause through any sustained agitation outside Parliament like the farmers did.

The Opposition parties did lend their support to the agitating farmers against the government’s attempts to create a different narrative. As Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee and other leaders maintained continued support to the farmers, the government tried to discredit their support as being against the national interest. The PM’s announcement to repeal those laws, in a way, flies in the face of this year-long attempt, and instead adds to the impression that the Opposition was lending its voice to a popular sentiment. This impression will, in the future, take the sting out of attempts by the BJP to discredit the Opposition as being against a public cause.

How far is this decision guided by the coming Assembly elections?

While this is most likely the case, it remains to be seen which aspects of the elections — eventual outcome, or electioneering amid this anxiety in society – weighed how much on the rollback. The Opposition will suggest that the retreat was forced by the risk of an electoral defeat for the BJP, particularly in UP, as well as in Punjab where the issue had become a sentimental issue which, if unresolved, could have manifested itself in other ways during electioneering. Either way, the elections have played a role in the decision.

Will it have a bearing on the protests against other major government decisions that are facing protests?

While the land acquisition law, and now the three farm laws, remain the most tangible example of the government retreating from moves initially projected as a reflection of the PM’s decisive leadership, there is another example, although not as stark — the Citizenship Amendment Act, enacted in 2019. Although the anti-CAA protests were called off after the pandemic struck in March 2020, it seemed to have partially succeeded in stalling its implementation. Almost two years on, the Home Ministry has not yet framed the rules for implementation of the CAA.

As for Article 370, the political dynamics are different. Unlike the land acquisition reforms, farm laws or CAA, on which most of the Opposition was united against the government, there is no such unanimity over Article 370. In fact, none of the Opposition parties has categorically demanded restoration of the pre-August 5, 2019 position on the special status of Kashmir. Most of these parties have largely been united only to the extent of restoration of statehood to J&K, and early elections.

How does the repeal impact the political economy of rural India?

There may be some deficiencies in the exact design and mechanism of the reforms proposed in the three farm laws, but most advocates of agricultural reform would agree that they were in the right direction. That the government chose to push these reforms through its own set of consultations left many stakeholders feeling left out, and created a backlash. The repeal underlines that any future attempts to reform the rural agricultural economy would require a much wider consultation, not only for better design of reforms, but for wider acceptance. The repeal would leave the government hesitant about pursuing these reforms in stealth mode again.

The SKM has said its demands for a statutory price guarantee and withdrawal of electricity amendment Bill remain. Is there a new chapter yet to unfold?

In a statement, the SKM has welcomed the repeal but has hinted it will raise the other pending demands. “… SKM hopes that the Government of India, which has experienced a major climbdown in this repeal-related announcement will not allow the announcement to go waste, and will go the full length to fulfill all the legitimate demands of protesting farmers, including statutory legislation to guarantee a remunerative MSP,” the SKM said.

The SKM has said it will assess all recent developments in its next meeting and take the necessary further decisions.

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