Two key farm bills, dubbed as the biggest reform in agriculture by the government, were on Sunday passed by Rajya Sabha with voice vote amid unprecedented unruly scenes by protesting opposition members who were demanding that the proposed legislation be referred to a House panel for greater scrutiny.
IMAGE: Ruckus erupts in the Rajya Sabha as Opposition rushes to Well of House over agriculture related bills, during the ongoing Monsoon Session, at Parliament House. Photograph: PTI Photo
The Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 have already been passed by Lok Sabha and will now go to the President for his assent before they are notified as laws.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed it as a “watershed moment” in the history of Indian agriculture, asserting that the bills will ensure a complete transformation of the farm sector and add impetus to the efforts to double the income of farmers.
The Congress and other opposition parties slammed the bills as “death warrants” of farmers, and called it a “black day for democracy”.
After a heated debate, Rajya Sabha passed the two bills amid a bedlam as some opposition members, ignoring the COVID-19 protocol, charged towards the podium of Deputy Chairman Harivansh, flung the rule book at him and tore official papers.
They yanked his microphone and heckled him over their demand for a division of vote on their motion to refer the legislation to a select committee.
Twelve Opposition parties later also gave a notice for a no-confidence motion against the Deputy Chairman over the manner in which two farm Bills were passed in the Upper House.
Bharatiya Janata Party president J P Nadda and other senior party leaders said the bills will give farmers freedom in selling their produce and rid them of middlemen, and hit out at the opposition members for their “highly irresponsible conduct” in Rajya Sabha.
In a series of tweets, the prime minister again assured farmers that the existing government support system of MSP will continue, an issue raised by the Opposition, farmer outfits as well as the BJP’s oldest ally, Shiromani Akali Dal, which had quit the Modi government in protest against these bills.
Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Singh Badal, however, stuck to his opposition, urging the President not to sign the bills, and instead return them to Parliament for reconsideration.
Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the food processing minister from the Shiromani Akali Dal party, resigned from the government last week in protest against the bills.
“Democracy has been shamed by the manner in which the government passed death warrants against farmers in the form of two farm bills in Rajya Sabha,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted.
Farmers in states like Punjab and Haryana have been protesting against these bills, with their leaders alleging that the legislations will dismantle the existing system and leave them to the mercy of corporate interests.
Reaching out to the peasantry in these states, the prime minister on Sunday posted his tweets on the passage of the bills in Punjabi as well.
Trouble started in Rajya Sabha when the sitting of the House was extended beyond the scheduled time.
Opposition members, who felt such a move should be resorted to only by consensus, rushed into the Well, shouting slogans against the government and accusing it of being anti-farmer.
This forced Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar to cut short his reply and Harivansh took up the approval of the bills.
Four opposition sponsored motions to send the two bills to a House panel for greater scrutiny were negated by voice vote, but the Congress, Trinamool Congress, Communist Party of India-Marxist and Dravida Munnetra Kazagham members sought a division of vote on the issue.
As Harivansh overruled them saying division of votes can take place only when members are on their seat, TMC leader Derek O’Brien charged towards the podium, thrusting the rule book into the face of the Deputy Chairman.
House marshals thwarted the move as also blocking a book that was flung towards Harivansh. An attempt was also made to pulls microphones away from the chair but the marshals physically stopped that from happening.
DMK leader Tiruchi Siva, who along with O’Brien, K C Venugopal of Congress and K K Ragesh of CPM had moved resolutions for sending the bills to the select committee, tore papers and flung them into the air.
Harivansh, who asked members to go back to their places and not come into the Well due to the COVID-19 protocol requiring physical separation, first muted the audio of the live proceedings but with the ruckus continuing, he adjourned the proceedings for 15 minutes.
When the House reassembled, opposition parties chanted slogans but this did not prevent Harivansh from putting the bill to voice vote.
As the first bill got voice approval of the House and motions for sending it to a select committee were rejected, at least two members tried to climb on the table of Rajya Sabha officers but were pulled down.
Both the bills were passed by voice vote and amendments moved by the opposition parties rejected.
Besides the BJP, the parties which supported the bills included the Janata Dal-United and YSRC party.
After Rajya Sabha was adjourned, opposition members sat on a dharna in the chamber.
As Lok Sabha members who were allotted seats in Rajya Sabha chamber could not enter when the Lower House met, Speaker Om Birla had to adjourn the proceedings for an hour.
An agitated O’Brien, who was in the thick of the action, claimed that the BJP did not want a vote on the bills because it did not have the numbers.
“This story does not end here. It is a sad sad day for Parliamentary democracy,” he said outside the House.
Congress leader Ahmed Patel said 12 parties have given notice of no-confidence against the Deputy Chairman, as the manner in which the Bills were passed is a “murder” of democracy.
“Our demand for adjourning the House and division of votes was disallowed,” he said. “We gave a no-confidence against the attitude of Deputy Chairman and the manner in which the Bills were passed.”
The parties that have submitted the notice include the Congress, All India Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, CPI, CPM, Nationalist Congress Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, National Conference, DMK and the Aam Aadmi Party.
In his reply to the debate, Tomar said minimum price or MSP based procurement of agriculture crops from farmers will continue and is not related to the farm bills that seek to give cultivators freedom to market their produce.
He sought to allay fears that the bills were an attempt to dilute the country’s public procurement system and will lead to exploitation by private companies, saying the minimum support price-based buying by the government will continue.
“Purchase on MSP was done in the past, continues now and it will be continued in the future. There is no room for doubt on this,” he said.
Mandis will not stop functioning and trading will continue as before. Under contract farming, the farmer will have full powers to fix a sale price of his choice and they will receive full payment within three days, he said.
Opposition parties as well as the SAD have expressed apprehensions that the bills are the first step toward removing the MSP which will force the farmers to make distress sales to private companies.
The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 seeks to give freedom to farmers to sell their produce outside the notified APMC market yards (mandis). This, the government says, is aimed at facilitating remunerative prices through competitive alternative trading channels.
Farmers will not be charged any cess or levy for sale of their produce under this Act, according to the government.
It will open more choices for farmers, reduce marketing costs, and help them get better prices. It will also help farmers of regions with surplus produce to get better prices and consumers in areas with shortages at lower prices.
The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 seeks to give farmers the right to enter into a contract with agribusiness firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters, or large retailers for the sale of future farming produce at a pre-agreed price.
It seeks to transfer the risk of market unpredictability from farmers to sponsors.
Tomar said this legislation guarantees cultivators the price they negotiate at the time of sowing itself.
A third bill, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020 that seeks to remove commodities like cereals, pulses, oilseeds, onion, and potatoes from the list of essential commodities and will do away with the imposition of stock holding limits, is to be moved separately.
As the bills were taken up, the Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Haryana unit, supported by some other farmer outfits, held a statewide protest on Sunday during which they blocked roads for three hours.
The Punjab Youth Congress also took out a ‘tractor rally’ from Punjab to Delhi against the Centre’s farm-related measures.