Farm-Bill: A non-issue in J&K

The Government of India recently passed three farm bills namely Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill 2020 and Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill 2020. Government claims that these legislations would transform the agriculture sector as farmers’ income would double by the year 2022. Govt also claims that farmers will get Azadi from the government controlled mandis and markets and fetch them a better price for their produce. Farm Bills propose to create an ecosystem wherein farmers or agri entrepreneurs can sell their produce outside the Mandis. There are protests going on from North to South India and even a senior cabinet Minister from Punjab, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, resigned from the Union Cabinet. Badal belongs to Akali Dal which is an important and old ally of BJP. Kashmiri farmers will be little affected by this farm bill. Only positive thing in these bills is that maybe our apple growers might get rid of Azadpur and other Indian fruit Mandi Arathiyas?Let us understand the pros and cons of each farm bill.

Farmers Produce Bill

This is known as Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020. Farmers and traders associated with agriculture are at the liberty to sell and buy their produce outside the registered ‘mandis’ under control of Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC). This would be Promoting free interstate & intrastate trade of farmers’ produce. Reducing transportation costs and helping farmers in getting better prices and facilitating electronic trading (e-trading).

What critics say ?

The States & UTs will lose revenue as they won’t be able to collect ‘mandi fees’ if farmers sell their produce outside the APMC mandis; commission agents (Arathi) will become jobless. It will affect the Govt’s Minimum Support Price (MSP) in the long run. The newly set up mandis, a lot of investment has been made on them by Govt, will have no business.

Contract Farming Bill

This is also called Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services bill, 2020. This bill facilitates contract farmingwherein a farmer enters into a legal contract with agri based companies, manufacturers, food processing companies etc., who intend to buy the farm produce, leaving no space for the middlemen like Arathiya etc. There can be direct deals between a vegetable farmer and potato chips company or a pizza making chain of restaurants who need non stop supply of potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes or green chilies. The contract can also be between a big farmer or a Farmer Producer Organization (FPO) with some branded juice company who need regular supply of fruits.

What do critics say?

The critics say that in a contract farming arrangement, the farmer will always be the weaker party both during deal-making and in dispute resolution. They would not be able to negotiate for the best prices when they sit across with management graduates from top business schools of India or abroad. Companies can drag farmers to courts in case farmers won’t be able to meet the demands and this has happened in some parts of India in recent past.

The Government claims that by enabling farmers to enter into business contracts with companies or individual business groups the middlemen costs are done away, leaving more money for the producer. Small and marginal farmers will not be involved in contract farming, bigger zamindars will have a great role to play. MNCs can buy farm land of small farmers on higher rates to become players in contract farming

ECA Bill

This is also called Essential Commodities (Amendment) bill, 2020. This law deregulates the production, storage and sale of several food items including pulses, cereals, edible oils and onions, except in the case of extraordinary circumstances. Under this new law, stockpiling limits can only be imposed only if retail prices surge 50% above the average in the case of non-perishables and 100% in the case of perishables.

The law provides for the control of supply and distribution of any good deemed “essential”. The list of items under the Act includes drugs, fertilizers, edible oils and petroleum products. The Act prohibits hoarding or stockpiling of certain products so as to protect consumers from irrational spikes in prices. Pertinently face-masks and hand sanitizers were brought under the purview of this EC Act  after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What the critics say?

The amendment act justifies and legalizes hoarding, which can be disastrous for the prices of critical items like vegetables and pulses. The MNCs and corporates will be better equipped to hoard and stockpile since they have better storage facilities, unlike ordinary farmers, self-help groups (SHGs), Farmer Producer Organization (FPO) or cooperatives. The price limits that have been set are too high and thus likely to be triggered very rarely, if at all.

Impact in J&K

Framers in Jammu & Kashmir fall in the category of marginal farmers. From the last two decades the Agriculture landholding in Jammu & Kashmir, especially Kashmir valley, has come down drastically. This is attributed to massive urbanization & population growth. The average size of operational holding at national level also declined to 1.08 hectares in the 2015-16 agriculture census compared to 1.15 hectares in 2010-11. Due to constant shrinking of fertile and irrigated agriculture land, Kashmir valley continues to shrink, making us more dependent on imported food grains. The average size of agricultural landholding in Jammu & Kashmir has shrunk from 0.62 hectares in 2010-2011 to 0.59 hectares in 2015- 2016. A top official of the Land Revenue Department (name withheld) told me that operational landholding is lesser than what has been shown in the agri census. He argued that it is around 0.50 hectares only in J&K as official figures seem to be exaggerated. This is further much less in Kashmir valley. As per 2010-2011 figures operational landholding in 10 districts of Kashmir valley was as under : Anantnag (0.39 hectares), Kulgam (0.39), Shopian (0.56), Pulwama (0.48), Srinagar (0.31), Budgam (0.43), Baramulla (0.51), Ganderbal (0.37), Bandipora (0.48) and Kupwara (0.51). As on date this had further come down drastically. Even in Jammu division the landholding is coming down. The constant dip in agricultural land holding from 0.62 hectares to 0.59 hectares during the last 4 to 5 years has led to conversion of estimated 78,000 hectares of farm land for non-agricultural purposes in Kashmir valley alone. This includes creation of new housing colonies and shopping malls.

Conclusion

The forcible land acquisition for highways, power projects and defence purposes is further destroying our agricultural economy. For Srinagar Ring Road project Govt. is forcibly acquiring around 4000 kanals of fertile land in Budgam alone. Technically the Govt. should provide more compensation than what is provided in other states in view of Kashmir’s small landholding. Affected farmers came on roads many times on this issue. The Right to Fair Compensation law is not invoked as the notification issued in 2017 for Ring Road project has lapsed due to efflux of time (see section 11-B of JK LA Act 1934). Assessment of fruit trees made during land acquisition is done as per 1993 regulation @ Rs 16/ Kg while apple sells @ Rs 100 / kg in market. At Karewa Damodar near the new Airport Srinagar 3800 kanals of orchard land has forcibly been acquired by Govt. paying poor farmers compensation @ Rs 6 lakhs/ kanal in 2013 when the market rate in nearby Humhama was Rs 1.20 crore / kanal. In such a scenario the farmers of Kashmir are least bothered about the new farm legislations. They are fighting for their own survival as their small landholding is under constant threat.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement