Patna: Nitish Kumar’s decision to repeal the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act in 2006 is turning out to be an albatross around his neck. The 14-year-old move is proving cannon fodder for the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Left-Congress alliance, which is building support around the farmers’ agitation against the new Central farms laws.
Leader of the opposition in the Bihar assembly and RJD leader Tejaswhi Yadav sat on dharna at the Patna Gandhi Maidan on Saturday, in solidarity with the agitating farmers’ unions from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country. He demanded the restoration of the grain markets obliterated in the wake of the Bihar government’s decision to repeal the APMC Act, 14 years ago.
The farmers’ wing of the CPI(ML)-Liberation, the Punjab Kishan Union, is already participating in the stir in and around Delhi. Party general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya organised his party’s two-day central committee (CC) meeting in Patna on December 4 and 5, to give strength to the farmers’ stir. CPI’s Kanhaiya Kumar has begun mobilising farmers and workers for a “sustained” agitation against the new farm laws.
There are three points which link the Bihar farmers’ cause with their counterparts in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country:
- The Bihar government’s decision to repeal the APMC Act in 2006 and its disastrous consequences in the last 14 years.
- Bihari migrant farm workers’ dependence on the relatively prosperous farmers in Punjab/Haryana for work.
- The perceived threat on jobs and livelihoods of Bihar’s migrant workers in the event of corporations taking over farming and farm produce-related business after the implementation of the new farm laws.
Supporting the three new farm laws, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has repeatedly said, “Our decision to annul the APMC act in 2006 was a precursor to the new farm laws introduced by the Centre. We have fixed the target of procurement of 30 lakh metric tonnes of paddy through over 8,500 Primary Agriculture Credit Societies (PACS) across the state that have been operating in place of the market committees which weakened or lost their existence with the end of the APMC Act in Bihar. The government has fixed Rs 1,868 as the rate of per quintal procurement of paddy, for which the money has been given to the PACS.”
Controversy over Nitish’s claim
However, Bihar RJD president and veteran farmers’ leader Jagdanand Singh disputed the chief minister’s claim. “The CM (Nitish) is telling a blatant lie. The repeal of the APMC Act in 2006 created a monopoly in place of the diverse market that had multiple buyers in the form of local grain merchants, rice and flour mill owners besides the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and State Food Corporation (SFC) providing options to the farmers. Now, in the absence of the market, the farmers have to conduct distress sales. There are no buyers to buy their paddy even at the rate of Rs 900 to Rs 1,100 per quintal.”
Jagdanand also disputed Nitish’s claim that his government first began procurement of rice and wheat in 2006. “The Bihar government led by Lalu Prasad had begun procuring farmers’ produce in 1994 through the market committees that existed before 2006. It’s a matter of record that the government had procured five lakh tonnes of rice from farmers before the Nitish-led NDA government took over from the Rabri Devi one 2005.”
Chairman of the Bihar State Cooperative Market Union Limited (BISCOMAUN) and farmers’ leader Sunil Singh said, “The state has produced as much as 1.28 crore lakh metric tonnes of paddy this year. The biggest anomaly is the government has fixed the target of procuring only 30 lakh metric tonnes and for that also it has not allotted a single paisa to any of the PACS.”
The rough statistics says that the unplanned lockdown caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 saw the return of over 30 lakh migrant workers – mostly from Punjab and Haryana – to Bihar. These migrant workers have had a difficult few months because of the loss of work in Punjab and other states.
“Now, the three farm laws stealthily enacted by the Centre during the lockdown have fuelled fear among farmers and farm-workers that the corporate sector has influenced the Narendra Modi government in a bid to capture the Indian agricultural market,” Jagdanand said, adding, “Nitish is a dummy chief minister of the BJP, blindly toeing Narendra Modi’s policies.”
Punjab-Bihar cultural link
Former Bihar cadre IAS officer from Punjab and writer Amita Paul said, “Despite the distance, Bihar and Punjab share commonalities in terms of social and cultural values. Patna is the prime destination for Sikhs from across the world as their 10th guru, Gobind Singh Saheb ji, was born at Patna Sahib. Moreover, both societies have agricultural roots supplementing each other for centuries. Punjab farmers treat Bihari workers with dignity and Bihari workers have contributed a lot to the prosperity of Punjab’s farms over the years. You will not find a single farm – particularly in the Doaba region from Ludhiana to Amritsar – without Bihari workers.”
Dipak Sahu, a resident of Bhojpur in Bihar who has opened a grocery shop at Chaheru in Kapoorthala district of Punjab, agreed with Paul. “Punjab is my second home. You can find thousands of small traders and vendors from Bihar selling vegetables and fruits in the markets of Phagwara, Jalandhar and Ludhiana. We have been working here with dignity and love from the Punjabi people. We – Biharis and Punjabis – are together in our grief and happiness.”
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and author of Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s autobiography. He has also authored The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.