Mumbai: Voting rights for farmers to elect members to local Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) boards may soon be a reality in Maharashtra, with the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government preparing to seek legislative clearance for a new bill this week. This comes after a previous set of agricultural reforms freed fruits and vegetables from the purview of APMC regulations.
Under existing laws, only gram panchayat members, and credit and cooperative societies can vote in elections to APMCs, which are dominated by the opposition Nationalist Congress Party and Congress.
Mint had reported about this legislation in March when the state government planned to introduce it in the budget session.
However, the government could not introduce the bill in the budget session and instead, issued an ordinance on 13 June. A senior BJP minister, who did not want to be identified since “the proposed bill was already part of the legislative proceedings", said the government would try to convert the ordinance into an amendment bill. “We had already issued an ordinance to this effect in June and it will be effective till December this year. If we fail to get it replaced by a bill during the monsoon session, we will re-issue the ordinance in December," the minister said.
The legislation seeks to amend the Maharashtra Agriculture Produce Marketing (Development and Regulation) Act to provide greater representation to farmers in the functioning of APMC boards. Maharashtra has 305 APMCs across the state, which regulate purchase and sale of agriculture commodities in designated APMC markets.
In August last year, the state government deregulated fruits and vegetables from these regulations, enabling direct farmer-to-consumer markets outside the regulated markets. The minister cited above said the provision to give the farmers voting rights was another key reform to make the APMCs “more farmer-oriented and representative". Each APMC is governed by a 21-member board of directors elected by members of the agriculture credit societies, multi-purpose cooperative societies, members of the village panchayats, traders, commission agents, and labourers who unload, load, and weigh the produce. The government also nominates some members to the board.
The statement of objects and reasons for the amendment bill says the government wants to “ensure maximum representation of the farmers on the market committees". The bill proposes to give all land-holding farmers who reside in the area of operations of an APMC and who have sold their produce at least thrice in the preceding five years in that APMC market the right to directly elect the directors. The bill also seeks to remove the provision for nomination of some members by the government.
“The APMC Act was brought in the 1960s only to protect interests of farmers and provide them with regulated markets in their area of landholding. Though the people who elect the board are mostly farmers, their intention to fight the APMC election is largely political. Over the years, local politicians, traders, commission agents, and labour unions have developed vested interests in the functioning and control of the APMC while the farmer, who is supposed to be the central beneficiary of the system, has been neglected. We are restoring the system to its original status and objectives," said the minister cited earlier.
However, several opposition legislators from the Congress and the NCP have demanded that the amendment bill be referred to a joint committee of legislators from both the houses of the state legislature. In Maharashtra’s bicameral legislature, the BJP-Shiv Sena government enjoys majority in the legislative assembly but the opposition has majority of 43 members in the 78-member legislative council.
A Congress legislator said the opposition would try to block the legislation. “The BJP wants to dismantle the APMC and the co-operatives because it has failed to penetrate these sectors through democratic means. By doing these things which it calls reforms, the BJP is in effect slowly killing the APMCs and co-operatives," said the legislator, requesting anonymity.
A senior NCP legislator said the proposal to allow the farmers to directly elect APMC board would lead to elections “on the scale of the assembly polls" since each APMC catered to several villages comprising thousands of farmers. “Do we have the resources, infrastructure, and logistical mechanism in place to organise elections on this scale in more than 300 APMCs," he asked.