INTERVIEW | National

Read farm Bills before stoking fears that farmers will suffer: Jal Shakti Minister tells Opposition

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. File   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Shekhawat speaks to Nistula Hebbar on the three farm Bills that have elicited protests from the Opposition, farmers’ groups, and some reservations in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated bodies as well.

What was the spur for bringing in these farm Bills first as Ordinances and later as Bills?

These policies have been thought through. The National Farmers Commission was set up when Atalji [former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee] was Prime Minister; the first report came around 2004; the fourth [report] in 2006. Not only the recommendations of this Commission but also that of the Swaminathan Commission were gone through threadbare and, since I was Minister of State for Agriculture in the last government, I can say this with responsibility that I myself went through all these recommendations. The recommendations were in multiple stages, to reflect the change in India’s status from a food deficit to a food surplus nation. Right from land reforms, which we worked on first with the Assured Income Purchase Bill and Farmer Producers Organisations, were all part of it.

We have to plan ahead, what we can do today with conviction, tomorrow we may have to do under compulsion. The Bills are based on recommendations of Commissions set up by successive governments and I would advise the Opposition to read the Bill before stoking fears that farmers will suffer through these much-needed reforms. The assured income via contracts, the rationalisation of price if there is a spike in commodity rates, the time-bound redressal mechanism are all safeguards.

It is not just the Opposition but the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagaran Manch [SJM] and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh [BKS] also have reservations, especially with regard to not inscribing the continuation of Minimum Support Price [MSP] in the law.

The issue is not of guarantee, it is of trust. Not everything needs to be inscribed in law. The government’s intent and success in terms of delivering has to be taken on board. We have increased the number of procurement stations from 38,000 to 64,000, there has been an 85% growth in these. Procurement is up by 43% over previous years, therefore MSP cannot be seen in isolation. When I was the Agriculture Minister, the guarantee given by the government to NAFED (National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Limited) for the procurement of pulses was ₹9,000 crore, now it is up to ₹75,000 crore. The procurement was of ₹3,000 crore in 2013-14, now it is at ₹75,000 crores. The Congress is playing the same game it played during the Citizenship Amendment Act issue — which is to misguide our minority citizens that this Act had anything to do with them or their citizenship.

But what about the reservations from SJM and BKS?

I don’t think these are huge obstacles, the BKS has a few apprehensions but we have tried to resolve their issues. The system in the RSS verticals is that the feedback is filtered from the ground up, and when farmer groups were being roused by the Opposition parties, this is filtered to the leadership of the BKS. I myself have spoken to Dinesh Kulkarni and have said that I am ready to speak to everyone. Just now I spoke to the mandi representatives of entire Rajasthan and I can tell you that they are satisfied with what I have explained to them about the Bill. Why is this unrest mainly in Punjab? I can tell you of my personal experience as a farmer — I have some land in Jodhpur and some in Ganganagar bordering Punjab. The land in Ganganagar gives a better yield obviously due to assured irrigation, better practices etc., but the homestead there is always in some debt, whereas with less yield my lands in Jodhpur are debt free. This is the situation in entire Punjab. This is because of the ecosystem of the adhatiya (trader) attached to the mandi, he is both the financier of farmers and also the facilitator — there is a circle of soft credit, settled against these high-yield crops, which the adhatiya extends to you for not just farm related but non-farm related expenses at interest rates as high as 24%.

Credit is extended because the land is fertile, for things not strictly farm-related either, and binds the farmer to one adhatiya for decades. The protests reflect the anxieties of the adhatiyas rather than the farmers. The farm Bills will break such circles of credit, of farmers being indebted to one adhatiya in the area, and the ecosystem of being chained to one market, one trader or one area. It will mean liberation for not just the farmers but also the traders, who can now look beyond local mandis.

But why not send the Bills to a Select Committee to build consensus?

Let me tell you my experience. I brought the Dam Safety Bill and the Inter River Water Dispute Bill — these were earlier in process for 20 years — it was tabled thrice in Parliament, it went once to the Departmental Committee, once to a Select Committee, and the third time the Lok Sabha term had ended. It was cleared unanimously in the Lok Sabha, but just before it was to be taken up by the Rajya Sabha, Punjab objected. Till now, it’s hanging fire.

There are some things that require a lot of deliberations and discussions, there are some that [have] proven to be good measures. When the National Farmers Commission with such a vast consultation has come up with recommendations, to ask for it to go Select Committee, etc., is nothing but a time-killing exercise.

Lastly, the Modi government backtracked and scrapped the Land Acquisition Ordinance in its first term after push back. Do you see that happening this time?

No way. No way.

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