Punjab bills offer little on ground

Three out of four bills passed by the Congress-led Punjab government on October 20 to negate contentious central legislations on how farmers do business are unlikely to invalidate the laws already passed by Parliament, and amount to not much more than a political message at this stage, analysts say.

Last month, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government signed into law three bills amid protests by farmers groups — The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance, Farm Services Bill, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020.

The laws allow agribusiness to freely trade farm produce, permit private traders to stockpile essential commodities for future sales, and lay down new rules for contract farming. A crucial change is that traders, agribusinesses and supermarkets can buy produce from any market, rather than buy only in notified markets where they are licenced to operate.

These rules have frightened some farmers, who fear that the reforms could pave the way for the dismantling of the minimum support price (MSP) system, which offers growers an assured price, and leave them vulnerable to powerful agribusinesses and in an even weaker negotiating position than before.

The Punjab government has brought three parallel laws, which say that none of the central legislations will apply to Punjab.

A fourth bill, The Code of Civil Procedure (Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2020, is unrelated to the Centre’s reforms. It seeks to exempt agricultural land of small farmers, not exceeding 2.5 acre, from Section 60 of The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. With this, banks won’t be able to auction land of small farmers who default on farm loans to recover dues.

Governor’s assent unlikely

The three Punjab bills are not laws yet, and require the assent of the Governor, which he is unlikely to give. The Governor has three options, according to Subhash Kashyap, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha.

If the Governor doesn’t give his assent, he can withhold the bills indefinitely.

“There is no time frame by which the Governor must take any action [on the bills],” Kashyap said. The Governor can also send the bill for the President’s “consideration”, which means these bills will be vetted by the law ministry to see if they violate any central laws or constitutional provisions.

“More Congress-ruled states may follow suit [in passing counter-bills], but given the politics around the issue, it is extremely unlikely that any governor will give assent to these bills. This reminds one of former President Giani Zail Singh, who withheld bills, such as the Postal Bill, indefinitely,” Kashyap said

‘Nothing substantial’

Farmers organisations say the bills offer nothing substantial.

“The Punjab bills fail to conceptually counter the imposition and facilitation of corporatisation of our farming systems; in fact they validate the concept,” said Avik Saha, the convener of the All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, spearheading the farmers’ protests.

Let’s look at the specific provisions of the three bills. The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2020 seeks to amend to Sections 1(2), 19 and 20 of the Centre’s Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, apart from adding three new Sections, namely 4, 6 to 11.

The bill’s preface lays down the context. It says “the direct consequence of this central Act would be to introduce several other infirmities and distortions operating to the grave detriment and prejudice of agriculture and communities associated with it…”

No real MSP relief

The bill has 11 provisions. Notably, Section 2(1)(b) gives legal protection to MSPs but only to wheat and paddy. It also prescribes punishment of three years in prison in case any trader “compels or exerts” pressure on farmers to sell below MSP. “This is not a full victory because farmers still haven’t got anything in hand. It is a victory of principles,” said Yogendra Yadav, national president of Swaraj India. Farmers, anyway, are offered MSPs for rice and wheat under the present system and it will be difficult to prove that a farmer has been compelled to sell below MSP.

“What the Amarinder Singh government could have done, had it wanted, is to give a legal backing for all 23 commodities to say that if these commodities are sold below MSP, the government would start procuring these commodities at MSP,” Yadav said.

Therefore, by limiting the legal right to MSP to rice and wheat, the bill offers nothing new. If the Centre withdraws MSP for rice and wheat, the bill has nothing to state that the MSP will be borne by the Punjab government.

Other provisions

The second bill, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2020, seeks to amend Sections 1(2), 14 and 15 of the Centre’s Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020. It brings the whole of Punjab under the ambit of the Punjab Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act and states that Punjab government reserves the right to levy fees in any market, including those set up outside the APMC.

The Centre had passed the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 to take out a host of items, such as pulses, potato, onion, etc, from the purview of the Act to allow traders to build up stocks for future sales. To counter this, the Punjab government passed the Essential Commodities (Special Provisions and Punjab Amendment) Bill, 2020 and amended section 1(2) and section 3(1A) of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 to maintain “status quo ante as on June 4, 2020”. It further states that the Punjab government reserves the right to impose stock limits and decide which commodities will qualify to be categorised as essential.

“We have passed the bills to check the shortcomings in the farm laws enacted by Parliament last month. We have done our best to address the concerns of farmers and other stakeholders. However, we understand these bills require assent from the President to take shape of laws, and we are not very sure about that. We may have to approach the Supreme Court to implement the bills passed by the state assembly,” Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Punjab’s food and civil supplies minister, said.

Other states are likely to follow the Punjab model, but experts say it may not lead to much.

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