Chandigarh: The three farm ordinances passed by the government of India are snowballing into a major political issue in Punjab, with the ruling Congress and the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) facing off and farm bodies all set to take to the streets.
After a marathon all-party meeting chaired by Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh Wednesday, the government had claimed that all parties apart from the BJP had jointly resolved to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar to convey their reservations on the “anti-farmer” legislations.
However, the next day, SAD president and MP Sukhbir Singh Badal told the press that his party had never agreed to any such move, and the Congress had misled the public by issuing a press statement not endorsed by the Akalis.
“We never agreed to meet the prime minister along with the other parties,” he said.
The SAD is in alliance with the BJP in the state, and a partner at the Centre, with Sukhbir’s wife Harsimrat Kaur Badal serving as the Union Minister for Food Processing.
At Wednesday’s all-party meeting, Amarinder made an impassioned appeal to rise above party differences and work in favour of the farmers. “Listen to your heart and don’t let politics rule your decision,” he said.
The CM added that the ordinances, in line with the Shanta Kumar committee report of 2014 that had recommended gradual withdrawal of MSP and dismantling of the Food Corporation of India, were “dangerous”.
Punjab has to take decisions in its own interests, Amarinder stressed, questioning the rationale behind the Centre “usurping” agriculture, which is a state subject.
He pointed out that the Centre had come out with these ordinances without waiting for the report of the committee formed under Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to assess all aspects of the issue.
State Congress president Sunil Jakhar questioned the timing of the ordinances, which were brought in when the country was in the middle of the Covid battle and a face-off with China, with the economy in shambles.
Calling the ordinances a bid to promote corporate culture for the benefit of private business houses, Jakhar said the move would lead to exploitation of farmers, who would be reduced to becoming labourers, with the corporate houses becoming owners of agriculture, without paying a penny for it.
SAD’s support for ordinances
Addressing the press Thursday, Sukhbir released a video of his comments at the all-party meeting, where he said “no ministry, government and alliance” was beyond the welfare of the farmers, which is something his party and its leaders had always supported.
However, Sukhbir went on to defend the various provisions of the ordinances, pointing out that an act very similar to the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce Ordinance, 2020, had already been passed by the state government in another form in 2017 when Captain Amarinder had come to power.
When Amarinder pointed out that the new ordinance would ultimately lead to the dismantling of the MSP-based farm produce procurement system, Sukhbir said: “There is no provision in the ordinance that MSP will end. In fact, the Punjab government has already amended the State APMC Act to implement the provisions of the ordinance in August 2017. These include creation of private yards, direct marketing and e-trading.”
Reacting to Jakhar saying corporate houses purchasing farm produce would not be paying any mandi fees, Sukhbir said even today, multinationals and flour mills do not pay any tax to purchase food grains.
“When multinationals can do trade today, why are we resorting to scare tactics by claiming they will capture the entire market… when the Union agriculture minister has already clarified that the entire government procurement will take place from mandis,” the former deputy CM of Punjab said.
Sukhbir added that the ordinance on contract farming would make companies legally bound to purchase crops according to agreements with farmers. He said the amendment in the Essential Commodities Act would allow storing, which would be beneficial to farmers in a glut scenario.
After Sukhbir’s press conference, Amarinder lashed out at him for his “double-speak”, daring him to come out with a categorical statement if his party was supporting or opposing the all-party resolution.
“And do you or do you not agree that agriculture is a state subject and the Centre should not interfere?” the CM asked in a press statement issued Thursday evening.
“The Akali president is evidently caught between political exigency, which required him to support the BJP for survival in the ruling coalition at the Centre, and the party’s vote-bank in Punjab. It seems Sukhbir is now under pressure from his political masters in the BJP to retract his conditional support to the resolution,” he added.
Farmer bodies to launch protest
Meanwhile, Punjab farmer bodies are set to launch an indefinite state-wide campaign against the farm ordinances passed by the government of India.
Terming them as “anti-farmer” and intended to end the procurement and MSP regime, farmer bodies are expected to unite under a common forum and take to the streets next month.
Rejecting the decision of the all-party meeting, farmer bodies said they had no hope in the political system coming to their aid, and were gearing up for a long battle ahead.
“We are trying to get the various farmer organisations under a single banner and launch a state-wide protest next month after the farmers get free from paddy cultivation. Our first step is a tractor march, after which the protest will continue for as long as it is required and the ordinances are withdrawn,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Rajewal group.
“We have already launched a protest against the ordinances and intend to broadband it. Yesterday, we held a meeting of the All India Kisan Coordination Committee to draw out a plan of protest. The next meeting will be held on 18 July in Moga to plan further action,” added Jagmohan Singh, president of the BKU (Dakonda group).