NEW DELHI: Perhaps for the first time in the country, a movement of farmers is trying to secure statutory rights for the group, in the form of two Kisan Mukti (Farmers’ Liberation) bills.

With most agrarian households deep in debt, and the winter session of Parliament expected to begin mid-December after elections in five states, the government may find itself cornered, with at least 21 opposition parties unanimous in their support for the bills.

The Freedom from Indebtedness Bill and the Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill were introduced as private member’s bills by Raju Shetti, MP from Hatkanangle in Maharashtra, in August 2018.

The drafts of both bills were first tabled in the Kisan Mukti Sansad of women farmers in November 2017 on Parliament Street, after many months of farmers’ protests and marches in several states.

The Freedom from Indebtedness Bill, 2018 seeks to provide ‘a one-time immediate and complete loan waiver’ to all farmers, against debt incurred on agricultural production and debts which they owe to institutional as well as private creditors.

The bill will bind the government to implement the waiver, in a single instalment, within three months of its being enacted into law, and ensure that farmers’ ability to get fresh loans in the coming season is not affected.

State governments in UP, AP, Maharashtra and Karnataka announced partial loan waivers to farmers earlier this year, amounting to a total of Rs 1.5 lakh crore or trillion, according to reports. For comparison, the RBI reported last year that just 12 companies owed public banks Rs 2 lakh crore.

The bill also declares all farmers’ private debt null and void; no proceeding or suit may be filed against a farmer for recovering the principal or interest.

The bill will also ensure:

- An expansion of the definition of ‘farmer’ to include agricultural workers, women farmers and others, whether or not they own land

- The right of every farmer to access institutional credit by enumerating and registering all actual cultivators/ farmers

- Statutory, institutional provisions for setting up National and State Farmers’ Distress and Disaster Relief Commissions, which will provide relief from debt burden to farmers as and when distress occurs due to factors beyond their control, preventing debt accumulation and suicides

- A reform of priority lending norms and ensuring compliance

- Effective disaster relief and crop insurance

- The promotion of low cost, ecological agriculture.

The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices Bill, 2018 proposes to make guaranteed remunerative minimum support prices (GRMSP) for all crops a ‘legal right’ for farmers throughout India.

GRMSPs would provide a minimum 50 percent return over production costs, which would be calculated comprehensively, covering all paid-out as well as imputed expenses. They will guarantee the prices realised by farmers, not just the MSPs announced by politicians.

A Commission with Teeth

These remunerative prices would be determined by a Central Farmers’ Agricultural Costs and Remunerative Price Guarantee Commission, conceived as an ‘autonomous body corporate’ whose chairperson and members would be appointed by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Union Agriculture Minister.

The Commission’s recommendations would be binding on the Centre.

It would also have the power to recommend the notification of a ‘distress affected area’ or ‘distress affected crop’, and pass orders for relief to such farmers.

The Farmers’ Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices Bill, 2018 also seeks:

- To empower state governments to notify bonuses over and above the central MSP

- To set up State Farmers Agricultural Costs and Remunerative Price Guarantee Commissions in the states

- Numerous mechanisms for implementation of the GRMSP, including regulation in market yards as well as procurement centres, other market interventions, measures to regulate imports, measures to prevent distress sales, investments in Farmer Producer Organisations, and measures to reduce and regulate input costs

- Offences and penalties for failure to comply with provisions of the statute in market yards, or even lack of effective and timely procurement, and Grievance Redressal and Compensation mechanisms.

Both bills were drafted by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), an umbrella organisation of around 200 farmer organisations across the country.

Preventing the Debt Trap

Speaking to The Citizen on the importance of the bill, AIKSCC convener VM Singh said, “Both bills are closely connected and interrelated. The issue of remunerative prices alone can’t be tackled without providing relief from persisting indebtedness. The higher returns will only go to pay back past loans. On the other hand, if only loan waivers are provided without addressing the issue of remunerative prices, farmers will again be pushed back into debt trap.”

This year as in the past, MSP commitments made by governments are typically not met. The MSP amounts fixed by governments are far lower than what farmers should get, and the prices farmers realise are far lower than the MSPs announced.

During the last one year, India has seen some serious farmer rallies, protests and movements happening across various parts of the country, raising concerns about the conditions of farmers.

Opposition Parties Find Something in Common

While farmers’ disenchantment, anger and frustration with the present government and its crippled agricultural policies is at its peak, opposition parties seem to have come together on agrarian issues to drive the movement towards a unified direction. Around 21 political parties including the Congress, CPI-M, NCP, TMC, BSP and DMK have extended written support to these bills.

Earlier in the year, the AIKSCC held a roundtable meeting in the national capital to seek support for the passage of the two bills, and to fine tune their provisions.

It was attended by former union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and a host of opposition party leaders, including Sharad Yadav, Farooq Abdullah, Y.S. Chowdary (TDP), M. Rajamohan Reddy (YSR Congress), Kanimozhi (DMK), Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M), D. Raja (CPI), Jay Prakash Narayan Yadav (RJD) and Babulal Marandi (Jharkhand Vikas Morcha).

The Citizen also spoke to Kavitha Kuruganthi, who is associated with the AIKSCC and other farmers’ organisations, who said, “If PM Modi and his government were serious about the farmers’ issue, this bill should not still have been pending. The bill was introduced as a private member’s bill and not by the central government.

"It shows the lack of seriousness and political will on the government’s side about farmers’ issues.”