The lower house passed on Thursday two farm bills, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020. Both bills are aiming at deregulating the agriculture sector, one to free up agricultural trade from all restrictions and the other to create a new contract farming putting the Indian farmer at the mercy of big agro industry and multinationals. The bills seek to open up the Indian farming community to monopole and enabling bigger agribusinesses to control the access to markets, which are currently fragmented.

The bills were first announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 15 in the second of her series of briefings on proposed reforms. The main provisions of the Farming Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 abolish regulations of the inter-state and intra-state trade of primary agricultural commodities. Under the old system, farm produce are sold mainly in notified wholesale markets run by so-called agricultural produce marketing committees, or APMCs, under state laws which require farmers to only sell to licensed middlemen in these notified markets, usually in the same area where the farmers reside, rather than in open markets. The bill enables farmers and buyers of their produce to trade outside these tax-free markets and will therefore open up APMCs to competition. The bill will enable food traders to buy farmers’ produce from any market, rather than bind them to the specific markets where they are licensed to operate.

The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 abolishes the old regulations related to contract farming. It provides for a national framework on farming agreements, enabling a farmer to engage with agribusiness firms, processors, wholesalers, exporters or large retailers for sale of future farming produce at a pre-agreed price imposed by big agribusiness.

Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has resigned on Thursday from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, as the BJP ally on Thursday opposed the two farm bills that seek to liberalise the agriculture sector, exposing a crucial rift on the issue of farmers and agricultural reforms. “I have resigned from Union Cabinet in protest against anti-farmer ordinances and legislation. Proud to stand with farmers as their daughter & sister,” tweeted Harsimrat Badal. “I think I was probably the lone voice who came from a 100% agrarian state. The officers who made the ordinances were unable to see Punjab differently from rest of the country” she saif in interview to the Hindustan news agency.

On September 12, the party had formally asked the Centre not to enact three farm ordinances during the monsoon session of Parliament, which began on September 14.

Farmer groups said they feared the new changes would lead to big monopolies. Farmers are already protesting these ordinances in food bowl states, such as Haryana and Punjab, and influential farmers’ unions are also preparing to square off with the government on the demand of making profitable sales in the form of minimum support prices, or MSPs, a legal right. The All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), a front for nearly 200 farmers’ groups, has opposed the bills. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh demanded safeguards for the farming community, so has the Bhartiya Kisan Union.

Major parties that opposed the bills were the main opposition Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Siromani Akali Dal, Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, the Left parties, Nationalist Congress Party, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The Congress’s Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said: “Show me one farmer who is happy over this bills. Haryana and Punjab are on fire.” Adding ““I appreciate the sentiments of Harsimrat Kaur (the minister who resigned from Modi Cabinet) who had the gumption to oppose the bills. These bills are no silver bullet.”

Parties opposing the bill accused the government of taking advantage of the Covid pandemic to introduce “anti-farmer legislations”. “Had there been no corona, farmers’ anger would have been visible in the streets , who does the BJP stand with, foreign investors, Adani-Ambani, dhanna seth (moneyed traders) or farmers?” asked Ritesh Pandey of the Bahujan Samaj Party, registering the opposition of party chief Kumari Mayawati.