Three rounds of talks between farmers’ unions and the Centre proved inconclusive last week. While the Union government is keen to amend the farm laws to incorporate some of the suggestions, such as providing a level playing field for APMC markets and private markets and a time-bound mechanism for dispute settlement, the unions are insisting on repeal of the laws. Farmers are saying that the intention of these laws is to dismantle the minimum support price (MSP) system and undo APMC markets, leading to corporatisation of agriculture.
The government claims that the laws are aimed at opening up more markets for farmers without touching the APMC markets — which are under the jurisdiction of state governments — and without disbanding procurement at the MSP, besides promoting healthy development of contract farming by provisioning legal backing for a fair deal to farmers.
There is a need to build consensus about the laws among the farming community and state governments so as to encourage their wider participation in the implementation.
The Centre is banking on state and local governments to implement the laws in terms of forming the Conciliation Board to be set up by the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) to resolve disputes, besides supervision, monitoring and proper implementation.
As a first step, educating various stakeholders — farmers, elected representatives at the village level, local agricultural and marketing officers — to put them on the same page is crucial. The campaign strategy should include the dissemination of detailed information about the lacunae in the APMC Act. How will the new markets function? Can FPOs (farmers’ producer organisations) establish new markets? What is the procedure for the sale and buying operations in the new markets outside APMC markets? What is the mechanism to protect farmers? The campaign should also include information about post-sale activities like weighing, generating sale bills, time limits for payments, the procedure for dispute settlements, modalities for contract farming, new stockholding limits and other information is crucial for farmers to clear the doubts about new farm bills.
Traditionally, state agriculture departments have been providing agriculture-related information to farmers through block-level agricultural extension officers. However, over the years, they have been burdened with the distribution of subsidies and inputs, with actual farm extension reduced to a peripheral activity.
As a result, there is little information dissemination about the government’s policies through the state agricultural department. Many a time, this gap is filled by the private sector or NGOs. The farmers’ agitation against the laws is a result of the long neglect of public sector farm extension.
When there is a weakened public farm extension system, information provided by vested interests are dominant in shaping public opinion. In many earlier instances, the misinformation campaign by vocal NGOs blocked useful technologies like biotech-based mustard and soyabean seed varieties which have the potential to make India self-sufficient in edible oils for several years.
The national objective of doubling farmers’ income by 2022 cannot be achieved amid the confusion over the new laws. The doubts of farmers need to be cleared through a proper communication strategy.
Both state and Central governments needs to use the latest technology, keeping in view the wider penetration of smartphones and broadband connectivity. However, while deploying ICT-based farm extension, there is a danger of exclusion of uneducated or poor farmers. To include these farmers, the government has to use traditional ways of farm extension like employing progressive farmers as kisan mitra (friend of the farmer) to bridge the gap. These kisan mitras can be recruited from local areas so that they are able to educate farmers about the utility of new policies.
Strengthening the public extension system needs an adequate budget. At least 1 per cent of the agricultural GDP should be allocated for agricultural extension to effectively offset any misinformation campaign by vested interests.
The author is an agricultural economist at ICAR-Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad. Views are personal
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