Farm laws will only exacerbate India’s mass hunger problem
The farmers’ protest is as much about farmers’ right to produce in a sustainable way, via minimum support price, as about the food security of 1.3 billion Indians in the 21st century
Protests led by hundreds of farmer groups at the different borders of Delhi, from Singhu to Ghazipur, are going strong. The farmers are battling the might of the Indian State that has almost cut them off from the rest of the city and the country — by layers of barricading, planting nails on the roads, cutting off water and electricity, and heavy patrolling by paramilitary forces. This is a government at war with its own people — first civil rights activists, then university students, followed by journalists and now our farmers.
Without getting into the merits of the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 — the two of the three Farm Laws which form the heart of the ongoing farmers’ protests, this article focuses on the third contentious law, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act (‘ECA’), 2020, and its implications on food security in India.
The history of the ECA can be traced back to the pre-independence times of the Defence of India Act, 1939, wherein the Government of India under the British rule framed regulations to combat the shortages of essential supplies of food and other items during the Second World War.
After gaining independence in 1947, India was a nascent country, struggling with massive food shortages, and it was considered critical that the supply of essential items like food grains, edible oil, kerosene, pulses and other important commodities be not left to the vagaries of the market or seasonal output. The need for price regulation was keenly felt as well.
This is also evident from the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in Part IV of the Constitution, wherein Article 39(b) mandates the State to distribute the ownership and control of the material resources of the community in a way as best to subserve the common good; and Article 39(c) provides that the State ought to ensure that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment.
Accordingly, in 1955, the ECA was enacted by the Parliament to empower the Central government to control production, supply and distribution of certain essential commodities in the interest of the general public. In effect, maintaining adequate supply of essential goods at a fair price is the crux of the Act.
The courts have time and again emphasised that the ECA is a welfare legislation meant to prevent hoarding of essential commodities, shortage of supplies and the consequent spike in the prices. A Constitution Bench of five judges of the Supreme Court of India in a landmark decision in Shree Meenakshi Mills v. Union of India (1974) 1 SCC 468 had elaborated on the object behind the ECA, and how it ought to be implemented by noting in para 65 that “the maintenance or increase of supplies of the commodity or the equitable distribution and availability at fair prices are the fundamental purposes of the Act.”
Similarly, this object has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in several cases, including in a seven-judge decision in Prag Ice and Oil Mills v. Union of India[(1978) 3 SCC 459], wherein the apex court stated that “the object is to secure equitable distribution and availability at fair prices so that it is the interest of the consumer and not of the producer, which is the determining factor in applying any objective tests at any particular time.”
It is well-known that the three farm laws were passed in the Parliament without any substantive debate, especially on the impact of the ECA, 2020 on the consumers, including the poor and vulnerable communities who are excluded from the PDS, owing to Aadhaar mismatch or other exclusion issues.
Since the Amendment Act itself does not state the rationale for such policy change, one has to rely on the statements made by the ministers or the Economic Survey, 2020-2021 tabled by the Ministry of Finance in the Parliament on 31 January to understand its object.
As per the Survey and statements by Niti Aayog officials, the object of ECA, 2020 was to ostensibly benefit the farmers, and to increase India’s food export. Importantly, neither the Economic Survey nor the Niti Aayog was quoted as saying anything in favour of the consumers and how to ensure that consumers avail fair prices in food and other essential commodities.
It is completely disingenuous to say that ECA has lost its purpose in the current times, since India has allegedly become a food surplus country, considering the economic devastation that has happened in India, owing to Covid-19 pandemic and also because of the anti-poor policies of the Modi government.
In the last one year, even prior to the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, India’s unemployment rate rose to highest in the last 45 years, and as per the data released by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (‘CMIE’), India’s joblessness was a record high of 10% in December, 2020.
In the same vein, more than 2 crore salaried people lost their employment in India during the Covid crisis, with no assistance from the government in terms of cash transfer to withstand loss of livelihood and financial insecurity.
Similarly, as per the Global Hunger Index, 2020, India is ranked 94th out of 107, which is classified as having a ’serious hunger problem,’ much behind our neighbours in the region, Bangladesh (75th), Pakistan (88th), Nepal (73rd) and Sri Lanka.
It in this context of widespread economic devastation, loss of livelihoods, rising hunger and extreme poverty that one has to consider the aims and objects of the ECA, 2020 which the government claims is no longer required to regulate the supply of food items, in order to keep prices under control.
Neither the government ministers nor any document from the government indicates how it seeks to ensure that food inflation is reduced or that people are able to buy food at cheaper prices. Only having PDS is not the answer, and that too when the PDS is under attack from many quarters of the government itself.
The ECA is an integral part of the food security framework in India, and to have diluted the same in the name of food surplus is highly arbitrary and ill-thought out, resulting in severe consequences of the people’s ability to feed themselves and their families, amidst larger economic depression.
Several studies have shown that the middle class too has been severely affected by food insecurity, wherein people are cutting down on green vegetable or pulses or meat, in order to feed family members, and has no social safety net to fall back on.
Further, if the ECA, 2020 would actually benefit the farmers as producers, then millions of farmers would not be opposing these laws for almost last three months.
To conclude, ECA, 2020 has been enacted contrary to the objects of the main ECA, i.e., to maintain the regular supply of essential commodities at a fair price for the benefit of the consumers. The ECA is not meant to profit the big agricultural businesses or to help increasing India’s agricultural exports. The farmers know it well that all these three laws, including the ECA, 2020, have been enacted for the benefit of large agri-food businesses or exporters, and neither for the regular farmers nor for the common consumers.
With the world’s largest democracy with second highest population languishing at the bottom of global hunger ranking, it is a shame that this government is only interested to open the agricultural market to few big businesses, while a majority of the population does not even have three meals a day.
The farmers’ protest is as much about farmers’ right to produce in a sustainable way, via minimum support price, as about the food security of 1.3 billion Indians in the 21st century.
(Views are personal)
The author is a Delhi-based lawyer.