“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting,” Haruki Murakami’s words best describe the farmers’ protest and plight.
Frustrations about a decade of low farm-gate prices form the genesis of the farmers’ protests — a consequence of the government’s carefully crafted agenda to keep placated the urban consumer vote bank which costs farmers their livelihoods and dignity. In face of the determined agitation, the government realises it has erred; yet, without acknowledging as much, it has relented to amend the Acts within weeks of their enactment.
But, the farmers demand that the Acts be repealed. Their point is best exemplified by an analogy: A family, on purchasing a new car, takes delivery. Before they can leave the showroom compound, the car stutters and stops. On closer examination it is found the electricals have failed and the engine has a manufacturing defect. The company offers to repair the car free of cost. But, what does the family do? The family obviously wants a replacement not a repaired car. Similarly, the farmers want the Acts to be replaced not amended. Theseus’ paradox too asks whether a ship that has had all its parts replaced is still the same ship.
Seeing tens of thousands descend on Delhi, the hate spewing social media brigade, anchors of some media channels, and politically motivated members of the academia flush with past successes in subduing demonstrations against the government, began a media blitzkrieg to vilify the agitating farmers. The protests morphed into a nationwide movement that has gathered international attention. Worse, a cold-blooded attempt was made to divide farmers on religious, occupational and regional identities. The trolls have not only antagonised the farmers, but they have also damaged the Prime Minister’s image considerably. His good intentions have been laid to waste.
Faced with the police, Central government forces digging 10-feet broad trenches in the national highway, cement blocks topped with concertina wires, cranes parking shipping containers and tear gas canisters to stop protesters from entering Delhi, the farmers get the feeling that they are mere supplicants and not equal citizens at the gates of what is now the new Republic of India.
The strategy to make farmers believe they were alone and could be defeated seems to have backfired. Talking to the farmers sleeping in tractor trollies, shivering in the biting wet winter cold, one gets the sense that this is what led to hardening of their stand for a complete repeal of the three Acts. It’s time for the leadership to put a leash on the trolls as they are painting the Centre into a corner from where it is becoming increasingly difficult for it to extract itself honourably.
The compassion shown by government interlocutors in the meetings with farmers is contradictory to how leaders address the issue in public – this adds to the distrust. This makes a negotiated settlement even more problematic. Though I suspect the problem runs deeper.
Even after a better understanding and eight rounds of discussions, the central government has refused to repeal the Acts because it feels such a step will set a bad precedent and open a pandora’s box of demonstrations for caste reservations, minority rights and most probably by labour unions who feel they’ve been literally hung out to dry by the labour law reforms.
Like a manna from heaven, the Supreme Court has redeemed itself by providing an amicable solution to the stalemate by suggesting that the Acts be held in abeyance. In light of the trust deficit and point-blank refusal to repeal the Acts, the government will be wise to accept the Court’s suggestion. It is common knowledge that with the present Acts, it’s impossible to achieve the PM’s promise of “doubling farmers income”.
The government should re-evaluate its response and agree to four other points. One, circulate the draft of the amended Acts; two, explicitly define its MSP commitment; three, hold wide ranging consultations with various stakeholders; four, if it is unagreeable to a one-person committee, constitute a small committee — otherwise it will be interpreted as a ruse to scuttle the issue. The Acts, though, can’t be set right even with amendments. Not only because the farmers are demanding it, but to usher in the much needed tangible agricultural reforms, it would actually be wise to put in place a new legal framework.
Today, the perception is that farmers are on one side of the trenches and the government on the other. This is a pivotal moment for the government and it should not have come to this. In every negotiation, both sides must have a face saver for the victory to have a lasting and positive impact. In the present circumstances, it’s absolutely essential to provide a way for the farmers to return home with dignity. Heart wrenching tales of distraught farmers returning home in hundreds of thousands, feeling betrayed is an omen of bad tidings. Before the storm begins to take a turn for the worse or begins to ebb, it is time also for the farmers to reassess and seek positive concessions, because at the end of the agitation, no one would want a status quo ante, that is inevitable otherwise. A learning that I wrung out of the agony is that “it is better to have smart foes than a foolish band of cohorts.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2021, under the title “Step back from the abyss”. The writer is chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj