Karnataka farmers protest against pro-corporate market reforms

Image credit: P Mahamud, Varthabharathi

Indian government push for opening up agriculture markets through a new centralized law has sparked protests and massive opposition from farmers’ groups and movements in Karnataka. 

On May 14, mounting up to the pressure from the central government, the Karnataka State Cabinet amended the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act through an ordinance [1] based on the Model Agricultural Produce and Livestock Marketing (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2017.  With this ordinance, farmers will no longer be bound to sell only in APMC markets, and they can sell the produce anywhere and to private players as well. 

India’s finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has claimed that this new legislation will ensure barrier-free inter-state trade and a framework for online trading of agricultural produce. It would open the doors of national markets for farmers, allowing them to sell their produce “wherever” and to “whoever,” thereby eliminating the current restriction that requires them to sell only to the licensees at the mandis. And that the farmers should have the choice to sell their produce through various channels and extract the best price for their produce.

Contrary to the remarks made by the finance minister, farmers’ movements say, “The ordinance to amend the APMC act will take away the regulatory authority of APMCs over procurement of agriculture produce by private entities. This move will allow private companies to dictate the supply and demand, threatening food security and guaranteed prices for farmers. The entry of big corporate groups will create more trouble as they will use their financial might to drive down prices, accentuating the crisis that the farmers already face.”

Badagalapura Nagendra, the state president of KRRS, says – ” The central government has made a fundamental mistake. According to the Constitution of India, agriculture is in state control. It is the responsibility of the state government to form agricultural market Acts. The government has invested lots of money and created infrastructure, APMC has grown big today. But still, it has many problems, it is highly politicized, and the middlemen are looting farmers. We have been fighting against all these problems; the government barely responded and has not done anything to control this.”

APMC played a crucial role in procuring the crops and agriculture produce at MSP. Through MSP procurements, APMC has delivered better prices and has ensured a fair deal for the farmers which will now be lost in the absence of APMC, he said.

Opposing the amendment to APMC Act, KRRS farmers staged silent protest at various places across Karnataka

The government is weakening the APMC Act instead of strengthening it. As per the norm, one APMC has to be created every 5 kilometers, and there should be 42,000 APMCs in the country. However, there are only 7,000 APMCs in the country. Farmers have incurred massive losses due to the lockdown, and the Centre should have compensated farmers. We were looking for immediate relief. If the government wants to help farmers, it should extend MSP to all the crops and strengthen the existing marketing systems, said farmers leader JM Veerasangiaha.

“Coronavirus pandemic has affected the lives of everyone. The government, which should have stayed with the public, has now tried to strike them. We have been opposing the government’s moves to amend the APMC Act since 2017. We have explained to the then agriculture minister and now Defence Minister Rajnath Singh about the problems the amendment would cause. Farmers unions have opposed the amendment and staged a protest. We have personally written a letter to the Chief Minister and requested him. But our requests have fallen on deaf ears. The government has not listened to the Opposition parties as well. They have no intention to discuss with farmers about this amendment,” said KT Gangadhar, the ex-president and senior leader of the KRRS.

The amendments proposed to the APMC Act had been dropped by the Centre earlier in 2017, now the government is bringing changes as it’s the right opportunity to push such reforms since there was no provision for large- scale protests in the wake of lockdown. “These amendments are more dangerous than COVID-19,” said Kodihalli Chandrashekar of KRRS.

He alleged that the proposed amendments would not only dilute the authority of the APMC but also provide for the establishment of private markets by big players. “In essence, farmers will be under the mercy of big buyers such as MNCs and big retail chains,” he said.

Speaking to the Front Line newspaper, Mr. Prakash Kammaradi said; the State is giving away its right and admitting that it is incapable of carrying out its role. Through this amendment, it is diluting its purpose and giving way to the private sector. The State government is undermining the role of democratic institutions like APMC. It is proven conclusively, the world over that agriculture requires state intervention. The COVID pandemic has taught us that government and state role is predominant in food security and distribution of agricultural commodities. Still, instead, the government is doing away with this in the time of the pandemic. APMCs are the last hope for the farmer regarding price and marketing, and with that hope gone, the government is cheating the farming community.”

Graphics courtesy : The Telegraph

Agriculture policy analysts fear that the move to dilute the APMC Act and abolish the Essential Commodities Act points to increasing footprints of the corporate sector, which could open the doors to expansive contract farming and the corporatization of food supply chains.

Afsar Jafri, farm policy and trade analyst look at these legislations as a threat to the farming community being pushed by corporate interests of the richer countries. He says, Instead of immediate relief, GoI using pandemic to push the corporate agenda to break the MSP and APMC linked procurement structure. Once APMC gets sidelined, and farmers are left at the mercy of private mandis, the instrument of MSP will die its own death.

Afsar also highlighted, saying, “The United States desire to dump its subsidized produce in the Indian market couldn’t have been fulfilled due to India’s price support system (MSP). Now, this MSP mechanism for India’s farmers will get broken forever once contract farming and private mandis start operations. These are the new mantra for the US-style corporate agriculture system pushed through the agricultural reforms announced recently. Not surprising, US corporate consultants from McKinsey, BSG, Bain, and AT Kearney are currently giving free services to Government of India to drive open market reforms and not relief for labor and peasants under distress.”

[1]  The Ordinance amends the Karnataka Agricultural Produce Marketing (Regulation and Development) Act, 1966. The 1966 Act regulates the buying and selling and the establishment of markets for agricultural produce throughout the state. Key amendments made under the Ordinance are as follows: Markets for agricultural produce: The 1966 Act provides that no place except the market yard, market sub-yard, sub-market yard, private market yard, or farmer – consumer market yard shall be used for the trade of notified agricultural produce. The Ordinance substitutes this to provide that the market committee shall regulate the marketing of notified agricultural produce in the market yards, market sub-yards and submarket yards. Thus, the Act no longer bars any place for the trade of notified agricultural produce. Penalty: The 1966 Act provides that whoever uses any place for purchase or sale of notified agricultural produce can be punished with imprisonment of up to six months, or a fine of up to Rs 5,000, or both. The Ordinance removes this penalty provision from the Act.