Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has defended her government’s new contentious agricultural laws and claimed that they do not hurt farmers, The Indian Express reported on Monday. The legislation was passed in Parliament during the Monsoon Session amid protests by the Opposition. President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent to them on Sunday evening.

Minister of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare Narendra Tomar had held consultations with all stakeholders such as farmers and other MPs before introducing them in Parliament, Sitharaman said, adding that Opposition parties were now doing a disservice by protesting against them. “I am not surprised, I am disappointed… because the extent to which consultations had happened… not just with the stakeholders… but MPs were asked for their views, farmers were asked for their views… Tomarji went through the whole rigour,” she told the newspaper.

“When the protests are going on – look also at the places where the protests are being held – what exactly are you protesting for?” she asked. “Which part of the Act is hurting you? Hurting the farmers, how pray? I challenge these people… ask us that one question, where we won’t be able to answer you.”

Sitharaman had announced these agricultural reforms on May 15 as part of the Atma Nirbhar fiscal and monetary package to revive the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. The bills were then promulgated as ordinances in June and rushed through Parliament in September.

When asked why the Centre did no just re-promulgate the ordinances and refer the bills to a select committee like the Opposition demanded, Sitharaman said: “There is no end to the debate… It is not in the merit of the matter.”

She also criticised the Congress’ opposition to these bills and claimed that the party had added similar reforms to its own manifesto. “They started saying that continuation of the Minimum Support Price and government procurement should be hardwired by putting it in the Act,” she said. “Now, you put APMC dismantling in your manifesto, you didn’t say then that MSP will be hardwired. Why now?”

The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill were cleared by Parliament in September amid protests from the Opposition.

Critics say that these new agricultural policies would lead to farmers losing out on guaranteed purchase prices for their crops, to the benefit of large corporations. Most Opposition parties and farmers’ organisations across the country have strongly opposed the bills. The Shiromani Akali Dal, one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s oldest allies, pulled out of the National Democratic Alliance in protest against these bills.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre, however, has consistently maintained that the bills would help in farmers getting a higher price for their produce as state-based Agricultural Produce Market Committees or APMC has been removed.

‘Economy continues to face challenge but picking up’

Sitharaman added that the economy continued to face challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, especially since there was no end to the crisis or vaccine in sight. “Six months haven’t really reduced the challenges but the nature of challenges has changed… and the ministry is now quicker than what it was in terms of responding,” she said.

India’s coronavirus count on Monday rose to 60,74,702 with 82,170 new infections in 24 hours. The country’s toll is now 95,542, while more than 50 lakh people have recovered. Government data published earlier this month showed that India’s GDP contracted by 23.9% for the April to June quarter due to the escalating coronavirus crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic was still definitely a worry even though the mortality rate was low, she said. “You are doing all this [physical distancing, using face masks and hygiene measures] with no material change in terms of handling the pandemic,” she said. “You don’t have a sure-shot vaccine, you don’t have a clear-cut end date; and with reports in some places that people who have been cured, are getting it back… big uncertainties are playing in the minds of entrepreneurs, small and medium.”

This uncertainty impacted economic activity, especially in the services sector, she said, adding that manufacturing sectors have bounced back. Migrant workers are returning to industries such as garments and apparel, exports in some sectors and rural economy were also picking up, she said. “This is a big story… not just agriculture, but non-agriculture rural activities are also robust.”