British MP put out false claims about India's farm laws. So, we confronted him

Conservative MP Bob Blackman tweeted out an infographic replete with inaccuracies and ‘blatant misinformation’.

British MP put out false claims about India's farm laws. So, we confronted him
Anubhooti Gupta
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The protests by farmers aggrieved at the three farm laws brought in by the Narendra Modi government are reflected on social media as well.

Tweets by pop star Rihanna, environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the children’s author and US vice president Kamala Harris’ niece, Meena Harris, appear to have rattled the government more than they should have.

Meanwhile, in Britain, prominent conservative politician Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East, put out a tweet that included what he called a “useful guide to the farm laws and their impact on farmers” in India. Some of the claims in this guide are downright misleading and false.

We have written formally to Blackman with a rebuttal, and asked him to retract his tweet and apologise for circulating false and misleading information. We think it is perfectly legitimate for a British MP to have an opinion on the farm reforms in India and to express them; we also think it is unacceptable and inappropriate for Blackman to be spreading false propaganda in support of his views.

Who is Bob Blackman?

Blackman is a conservative politician who has won four parliamentary elections since 2010 to represent the ethnically diverse Harrow East constituency in North West London. Some 45 percent of the population is officially of South Asian origin, mainly Hindus, making it one one of the largest Hindu voting blocs in the country.

In exchange for their electoral support, Blackman has welcomed Hindutva leaders into the corridors of power in the UK. In 2017, Blackman invited Hindu nationalist and RSS leader Tapan Ghosh to visit Parliament. In 2018, Blackman hosted key leaders in the UK’s Hindutva lobby at the House of Commons. In 2019, he donned BJP-branded merchandise to address a pro-Modi rally, calling on those present to go out and “convince a hundred people” to vote Modi to a second term. During the British general election later that year, his constituency was the site of an aggressive WhatsApp disinformation campaign that spread myths and mistruths about the attitudes of other candidates towards Kashmir, the BJP and India more broadly.

What did Bob Blackman tweet?

On February 5, 2021 Blackman tweeted in support of the three farm laws at the centre of the farmer protests, quoting an infographic headed “A [blithering] idiot’s guide to India’s Agri reforms”.

That infographic comes from citti.net, an overtly pro-Hindutva website that carries videos, viewpoints, images, and personal stories extolling Hinduism and BJP leaders.

There is more to the so-called idiot's guide than Blackman tweeted but we focused specifically on the four questions included in the bit that were shown in the tweet.

Our rebuttal

The substance of our letter to Blackman was as follows:

“What you referred to as a ‘very useful guide’ is in fact misleading, factually inaccurate and, in parts, downright false. It is likely that you have been poorly briefed and put out this tweet without questioning its factual accuracy.”

“We invite you to consider the following and withdraw your tweet. In view of the huge engagement your tweet received - 38,000 likes and 19,000 retweets as of noon on February 6 - we ask that you also issue a public apology for the misleading tweet.“

In the following paragraphs we addressed each of the four questions in the idiot’s guide infographic that you tweeted. APMC stands for the Agricultural Produce Market Committee, also known as mandi, and MSP stands for the minimum support price that is set by the central government for a select range of crops as recommended by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.

1. Are APMCs and MSPs backed by law?

You claim that they are and will remain so. This is misleading. Under current arrangements, there is no legislative requirement for the government to publish MSPs for agricultural produce. That the central government does so is a politically-driven convention that started at a time of food shortages and soon after the Green Revolution when farm productivity grew. Nor is the government or any of its agencies (mainly the Food Corporation of India, but also state agencies) required by law to buy whatever is brought to the APMCs. A 2017 report from Indian Agricultural Research Institute scientists showed that less than 25 percent of rural farm households were aware of the MSP, and only 6 percent of rural households actually sold their produce at the MSP.

It is equally untrue that the APMCs and the MSPs are guaranteed to continue under the new farm laws. Indeed one of the demands of the protesting farmers is that the MSP be enshrined in statute. Of course the MSP itself is meaningless unless there is a buyer (an agency of the central or state governments) willing to buy produce at that price even when the market price falls below it.

2. Do farmers have the freedom to sell outside APMCs and above MSP?

Your tweet claimed that under the present system, farmers cannot sell outside the APMCs and above MSP. This is absolutely ludicrous. You should have immediately spotted the utter implausibility of a system that makes it illegal for a poor farmer to sell to a generous buyer for a price above the MSP. This alone should have raised your suspicions that whoever briefed you or sent you this infographic was a lying propagandist. I would have expected greater circumspection from a British MP.

As a matter of fact, not only do farmers currently have the freedom to sell outside the APMCs, they actually use it. As the economist Jean Dreze pointed out, the bulk of agricultural trading takes place outside the mandis nor is the idea of contract farming at all novel.

Under the new laws, farmers will have the theoretical freedom to sell their produce nationwide. But the pricing will have no relationship to any MSP that may or may not be announced in the future. The farmers’ fear that the market will push prices down, as indeed happens now, and since the cushion of state procurement at MSP will disappear, the farmers will be rendered penurious.

3. Can buyers get away with not making full payments to farmers?

Your tweet claimed that under the present system they can. Even if it were true, it is internally inconsistent with the earlier false claim that farmers cannot sell outside the APMCs. It would suggest the highly regulated APMCs are so badly managed that buyers can strike a deal with farmers at auction and then renege on it. That would be a failure of the market which it would fall to the state to correct. The settlement of trades in the APMCs is usually very reliable. Indeed, one of the consequences of the Modi government's disastrous act of demonetisation in November 2016, when overnight currency notes of Rs 500 and 1,000 denomination were declared illegal, was that the settlement of APMC deals totally seized up, not because of any intention of buyers to refuse to pay but because the means of payment were taken away by administrative fiat.

The categorical assurance in your tweet that under the new farm laws, buyers can just not get away with not paying farmers their dues is at best silly. Fulfilling one’s contractual obligations like paying an agreed price is standard contract law in India as it is in Britain. There will always be market participants who renege on deals and then the aggrieved party will need to seek redress. And here’s why this claim is falsely and dangerously misleading. Sections in these new laws restrict the jurisdiction of the courts in India in the event of disputes. For instance, section 13 of The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Promotion and Facilitation Act, 2020 says,

"No suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings shall lie against the Central Government or the State Government, or any officer of the Central Government or the State Government or any other person in respect of anything which is in good faith done or intended to be done under this Act or of any rules or orders made thereunder."

4. Can farmers fix their own prices?

Your tweet suggested that under the present system they cannot - and under the new laws they can - fix their own prices. This is another of those illogical and fallacious claims that should have alerted you to the misleading and false propagandist nature of this infographic. Neither under the present system, nor under the new laws can farmers dictate their prices. About 3,00,000 farm suicides over the last few years are testament to the appalling power equations that determine the status of poor and small farmers in India, where they have to take what is meted out to them. They are the ultimate price-takers.

Your constituents could no more write their own salary cheques than a farmer fix his own price. The price, almost by definition, is what the buyer is prepared to pay and the farmer willing to accept; but outside of the MSP system which sets the floor rather than fix the price. It is the market, and the relative balance of power between buyer and seller, that determines the price. It is a canard that the farmer can fix his price. He can try, and if there is a generous wealthy buyer, he will gladly accept a higher than MSP price. But, when he sees his perishable tomatoes wilting in the heat of the Indian sunshine, he will soon have to climb down and settle for the price his buyer might condescend to pay.

Other matters

As a member of the British Parliament, you should also be concerned with two other aspects of the dispute between the farmers and the government in India. One is to do with the process by which these laws came to be passed. The government used its majority in Lok Sabha (the lower house) to refuse opposition demands that the bills be referred to a select committee for detailed scrutiny. In the upper house, where the government does not have a majority, the debate was curtailed, and despite calls from many members for a division, the Speaker, in a partisan and undemocratic move, declared the bills passed in a raucous, noisy and chaotic voice vote. This would never have happened in the parliament that you are privileged to sit in.

The other matter is that of the harsh and repressive approach of the Indian authorities in dealing with legitimate protest; silencing debate through abusive and threatening trolling on social media; shutting down access to the internet; and arresting, beating and punishing journalists through false charges merely for reporting on the ongoing protests.

Again these are tactics that would never be tolerated in Britain, and as a parliamentarian, you should be joining the many members in the House of Commons who have raised these issues through Members’ Questions.

Like anybody else you are entitled to your views and opinions but you are not entitled to peddle false information.”

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