Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture released a draft Model Contract Farming Act, 2018. The draft Model Act seeks to create a regulatory and policy framework for contract farming. Based on this draft Model Act, legislatures of states can enact a law on contract farming as contracts fall under the Concurrent List of the Constitution. In this context, we discuss contract farming, issues related to it, and progress so far.
What is contract farming?
Under contract farming, agricultural production (including livestock and poultry) can be carried out based on a pre-harvest agreement between buyers (such as food processing units and exporters), and producers (farmers or farmer organisations). The producer can sell the agricultural produce at a specific price in the future to the buyer as per the agreement. Under contract farming, the producer can reduce the risk of fluctuating market price and demand. The buyer can reduce the risk of non-availability of quality produce.
Under the draft Model Act, the producer can get support from the buyer for improving production through inputs (such as technology, pre-harvest and post-harvest infrastructure) as per the agreement. However, the buyer cannot raise a permanent structure on the producer’s land. Rights or title ownership of the producer’s land cannot be transferred to the buyer.
What is the existing regulatory structure?
Currently, contract farming requires registration with the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in few states. This means that contractual agreements are recorded with the APMCs which can also resolve disputes arising out of these contracts. Further, market fees and levies are paid to the APMC to undertake contract farming. The Model APMC Act, 2003 provided for contract farming and was released to the states for them to use this as reference while enacting their respective laws. Consequently, 20 states have amended their APMC Acts to provide for contract farming, while Punjab has a separate law on contract farming. However, only 14 states notified rules related to contract farming, as of October 2016.
What are the issues with the current structure, and how does the draft Model Act seek to address them?
Over the years, expert bodies have identified issues related to the implementation of contract farming. These include: (i) role of APMCs which are designated as an authority for registration and dispute settlement in most states, (ii) provisions of stockholding limits on produce under contract farming, and (iii) poor publicity of contract farming among the farmers about its benefits.
Role of Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees/Marketing Boards
The NITI Aayog observed that market fees and other levies are paid to the APMC for contract framing when no services such as market facilities and infrastructure are rendered by them. In this context, the Committee of State Ministers on Agricultural Reforms recommended that contract farming should be out of the ambit of APMCs. Instead, an independent regulatory authority must be brought in to disengage contract farming stakeholders from the existing APMCs.
In this regard, as per the draft Model Act, contract farming will be outside the ambit of the state APMCs. This implies that buyers need not pay market fee and commission charges to these APMCs to undertake contract farming. Further, the draft Model Act provides for establishing a state-level Contract Farming (Promotion and Facilitation) Authority to ensure implementation of the draft Model Act. Functions of the Authority include (i) levying and collecting facilitation fees, (ii) disposing appeals related to disputes under the draft Model Act, and (iii) publicising contract farming. Further, the sale and purchase of contracted produce is out of the ambit of regulation of the respective state/UT Agricultural Marketing Act.
Registration and agreement recording
The Model APMC Act, 2003 released to the states provides for the registration of contract farming agreements by an APMC. This was done to safeguard the interests of the producer and the buyerthrough legal support, including dispute resolution. The procedures for registration and recording of agreements vary across states. Currently, registration for contract farming has been provided with the APMC in few states, and with a state-level nodal agency in others. Further, market fee on purchases under contract agreements is completely exempted in few states and partially exempted in others. The Committee of State Ministers on Agricultural Reforms recommended that a instead of a APMC, district-level authorities can be set-up for registration of contract farming agreements. Further, any registering authority should verify the details such as the financial status of the buyer.
Under the draft Model Act, every agreement should be registered with a Registering and Agreement Recording Committee, which will be set up consisting of officials from departments such as agriculture, animal husbandry, marketing, and rural development. Such a Committee can be set up at the district, taluka or block levels.
Disputes between the producer and the buyer
The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare observed certain risks related to upholding the contract farming agreement. For example, producers may sell their produce to a buyer other than the one with whom they hold a contract. On the other side, a buyer may fail to buy products at the agreed prices or in the agreed quantities, or arbitrarily downgrade produce quality. The Committee of State Ministers on Agricultural Reforms recommended that dispute redressal mechanism should be at block, district or regional-level state authorities and not with an APMC.
Under the draft Model Act, in case of disputes between a producer and a buyer, they can: (i) reach a mutually acceptable solution through negotiation or conciliation, (ii) refer the dispute to a dispute settlement officer designated by the state government, and (iii) appeal to the Contract Farming (Promotion and Facilitation) Authority (to be established in each state) in case they are not satisfied by the decision of the dispute settlement officer.
Stockholdings limits on contracted produce
Stockholding limits are imposed through control orders as per the Essential Commodities Act, 1955. Such provisions of stockholding limits can be restrictive and discourage buyers to enter into contracts. It was recommended that the buyers can be exempted from stock limits up to six months of their requirement in the interest of trade. Under the draft Model Act, limits of stockholding of agricultural produce will not be applicable on produce purchased under contract farming.
While contract farming seeks to provide alternative marketing channels and better price realisation to farmers, several other marketing reforms have been suggested by experts in this regard. These include: (i) allowing direct sale of produce by farmers, (ii) removing fruits and vegetables out of the ambit of APMCs, and (iii) setting-up of farmer-consumer markets, (iv) electronic trading, and (v) joining electronic National Agricultural Market for the sale of produce.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.