NEW DELHI (Agencies): India’s Parliament has approved a pair of controversial agriculture bills that the government says will boost growth in the farming sector through private investments.
The government says the new laws will make it easier for farmers to sell their produce directly to big buyers, despite growing protest from opposition parties and a long-time ally of the ruling party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the new laws will reform antiquated laws and remove middlemen from agriculture trade, allowing farmers to sell to institutional buyers and large retailers like Walmart.
The bills also make contract farming easier by providing a new set of rules.
But Modi’s food processing minister from an alliance party resigned on Thursday in protest calling the bills “anti-farmer”, and the opposition parties have said farmers’ bargaining power will be diminished by allowing retailers to have tighter control over them.
On Sunday, some opposition lawmakers raised slogans, tore documents and tried to grab the speaker’s microphone in the upper house of India’s parliament, before two controversial bills were passed by a voice vote.
“The passage of both the bills in parliament is indeed a landmark day for Indian agriculture,” one of Modi’s senior cabinet ministers, Rajnath Singh, said on Twitter.
Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Modi’s former food processing minister, is from a regional party which has a strong base in the northern state of Punjab and believes the bills will increase farmer suffering in the breadbasket state.
Her party believes the laws will destroy wholesale markets which ensure fair and timely payments to farmers, weaken the state’s farmers and the overall state economy.
Many farmer organisations have in recent days held street protests in Punjab and the neighboring Haryana state near New Delhi. On Sunday, India’s main opposition Congress party criticised the government.
“We will make sure that the government will have to step down on its knees before the farming community of this country,” said Randeep Surjewala, a party spokesman.
“It will be farmers one side and big businesses on the other side, how will they fight?” he added.
Opposition Congress leaders launched scathing attacks on the government, calling the legislation “black law” and “pro-corporate.”
Rahul Gandhi, a top leader of the party, said in a tweet on Sunday that Modi “is making farmers ‘slaves’ of the capitalists, which the country will never allow to succeed.”
The government has projected that its massive support plans in the agriculture sector will double farmers’ income by 2022.
Participating in the Parliament debate, former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda, now a lawmaker, asked Modi to explain the short- and long-term impact of the bills on farmers.
“The prime minister should explain why there’s a hurry to pass the bills amid the pandemic,” he said.
Modi should “explain how it will help in achieving the government’s goal of doubling farmers’ income,” he added.
Farmers have long been seen as the heart and soul of India, where agriculture supports more than half of the country’s 1.4 billion people.
But they’ve also seen their economic clout diminish over the last three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, farmers now account for only 15 percent of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy.