What the FAQ: Modi repeals three farms laws as assembly elections near. Here's everything you need to know

The end of November would have marked one year of the nation's farmers protesting against three controversial farm laws that were hastily passed by the government
Pic: Edexlive
Pic: Edexlive

Please return home to your families: That was Prime Minister Narendra Modi this morning, appealing to farmers across the country, who have been protesting against the three farm laws passed by the Parliament in September 2020. The protests have been going on for almost 12 months now and have resulted in clashes, casualties and controversies, painting the union government in poor light. Modi announced on the morning of November 19 that the three contentious laws will be repealed in the next session of the Parliament. 

The end to this saga comes pointedly close on the heels of the assembly elections of the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, along with others such as Punjab and Goa. It is to be noted that the protests had caused the BJP to lose an old political ally in Punjab, the Shiromani Akali Dal. And while there is no doubt that the protests were being followed closely by all and sundry, here's a look back at why they were needed in the first place, what has the government's response been so far, and what the repeal of these laws means.

1. What were the three laws, and what were the farmers' concerns over them?
The Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act: Better known as the APMC Bypass Bill, this overrode the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee laws (APMC) provisions of the states, and allowed farmers to sell their produce outside of their local markets (also known as the APMC mandis), without being required to pay a market fee or cess. The farmers claimed that this would weaken demand in the mandis, which are most convenient for them, as they do not have the resources to transport and sell their produce in distant markets. 

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act: In simple terms, this law said that farmers can enter into contractual agreements with buyers before sowing season in order to predetermine the price at which they will sell the crop. Critics and farmers both lambasted this Act for encouraging corporatisation of agriculture, without protecting farmers from losses or exploitation. The law has no mention of regulating the Minimum Support Price (MSP) in these contracts, and the farmers feared that MSP might be removed altogether. This was a major concern because the MSP is the bare minimum price at which the central government and its agencies have to purchase certain crops from the farmers. This price is set twice a year and is determined based on various factors by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. What might have also miffed the farmers is the fact that though the practice of MSP has been around for many decades now, it isn't law in India, which means there are no rules mandating the centre to implement an MSP every year. This new law was perceived as a threat to a practice that safeguards farmers from the operational risks of their job.

The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act: In another move aimed at inviting private investment into agriculture, the government, through this law, clipped the centre's control over determining stockholding limits of wholesalers and retailers for essential crops and commodities. It also removed a whole host of items from the list of essential commodities, such as potatoes, onion, oilseeds, pulses and cereals. Stockholding by retailers and wholesalers basically controls the price of the essential commodities in the market. And without the centre's regulation, the farmers feared that they will be open to exploitation by middlemen and businesses, who will get better control over the market. The centre, in the law, said that they will not set stockholding limits except under extraordinary circumstances such as exponential price rise in commodities, war, or famine.

2. When were they passed? 
The Modi government had, at first, introduced these laws as ordinances in June 2020 as part of a COVID-19 relief package. Hasty legislation that bypasses public and parliamentary scrutiny is nothing new for the Modi government. They were introduced in the subsequent session of Parliament that year and were passed by the Lok Sabha on September 17, 2020, and by the Rajya Sabha on September 20. They received the President's assent and became laws officially on September 27, 2020.

3. How did the Opposition react when the laws were passed?
The Opposition, both in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, has been accusing the government of not allotting enough time to debate and discuss the farm laws. The INC's Rahul Gandhi also drove to the Parliament on a tractor in a symbolic gesture to request unity among the opposition to support the farmers in their protests against the laws. 

4. What did the experts say? 
Experts across the board were of the opinion that reforms in farming and agricultural laws are extremely necessary. However, they were divided on the impact these laws will have. While a few of them said that they will serve corporate interests and leave farmers at their mercy, a few said that they will make the market more competitive. However, the consensus across the board was the government had failed to communicate properly with the farmers and other stakeholders on the issue and were rushing and imposing these reforms. 

5. Did they take any legal recourse?
Petitions were filed against the laws in the Supreme Court, and on January 12 this year. The apex court had put the implementation of these laws on hold and constituted an expert committee including agricultural economist Ashok Gulati,  Jitender Singh Maan who is the President of the Bharat Kisaan Union, Dr Pramod Kumar Joshi, International Policy expert and Anil Dhanvat of the Shivkeri Sangathan to review them. 

6. When did the protests start?
The protests began on November 26, 2020, and were epicentered in Western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. About 35 farmers unions have been a part of these protests over the last year. Apart from repealing the farm laws, the protestors have also been demanding the inclusion of compulsory MSP in the law, and the implementation of the recommendations by the Swaminathan Commission of 2004. They had also demanded a stay on the ordinance that fined and penalised farmers for stubble burning. This was granted to them by the central government early this year during a round of talks. 

7. What were some of the events during the course of the protest?
On Jaunary 26, Republic Day this year, thousands of protestors drove into Delhi on tractors and occupied the Red Fort, and other parts of the city. The resultant clashes, damaged facilities, and injured protestors and policemen alike. The largest of these protests are concentrated around the Tikri, Ghaziabad and Singhu borders of Delhi, where mini-communities of sorts have sprung up in order to support the daily grind of the farmers protesting there. These include schools, medical stalls, dental camps, libraries, langars, and even massage chairs. A Mahapanchayat was also held to discuss these laws and determine the course of action.

8. Which states were for/against the laws?
The states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh had tabled a host of counter-legislations against the three laws in October last year. However, none of these received the Governor's signature.  On November 18, a day before the central government announced the repeal of these laws, the Chief Minister of Telangana led a dharna in the state, announcing his support for the farmer's movement, and adding that he will help mobilise it across the country. The state was agitating against the central government's refusal to purchase paddy from Telangana. 

9. How many farmers died during the protests?
Although the central government says there are no records of deaths during the protests, farmers claim that there have been 600 casualties of the agitation, including suicides as a result of the laws. This also includes the incident in the Lakhimpur Kheri area of Uttar Pradesh where a BJP member allegedly mowed down protestors with his car, killing four.

10. How does the repealing process work?
While the laws haven't as yet been implemented, they will still require a repealing bill to be passed in the Parliament in order to revoke them, since they had received the signature of the President when they were passed by the Parliament last year. The next session of the Parliament is due to start at the end of November. The three laws can be repealed with a single bill.
The protesting farmers have said that they will stick to their sites of protest until November 29, when the Parliament session begins and the laws are officially repealed.

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