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Rebuild trust to resolve farm crisis

Ajay Vir Jakhar writes: Process will need involvement of all parties, especially those opposed to government’s ideas

Written by Ajay Vir Jakhar |
Updated: November 23, 2021 7:15:19 am
A farmer reacts after PM Modi announced the repealing of the three farm laws, at Singhu Border in New Delhi on Friday. (Photo: PTI)

In his book Building Community Food Webs, food systems analyst Ken Meter observed, “Over time, the thrust of farm policy shifted from supporting market mechanisms to compensating farmers for the fact that markets were fundamentally unfair.” In India, our economists and businesses are touting similar failed solutions from the US farm sector. The three farm laws were a consequence of the establishment’s misconception that it knows what is best for the farmers. It continues to misdiagnose, falter and stumble, having shot itself in the foot so often in the recent past that such erring has become a habit, just as it has habitually belied expectations.

The perseverance of the farmer unions has forced the repeal of the three farm laws. The politically astute retreat by the PM signals the BJP’s flexibility and determination to remain in power beyond 2024. On issues of farmer policy, the government had buckled before, in 2015, by allowing the land acquisition ordinance to lapse. It has now rolled back the farm laws before the UP assembly elections — the control of the Hindi heartland states is critical for the party.

A commitment to using the political process to negotiate a settlement would have spared the PM this situation. There is no gainsaying that a dialogue — not the use of the government agencies for back-channel talks and attempts to drive a wedge between farmer unions — should have been the government’s chosen route to resolve the issue. The laws were passed by a hurried voice vote and the PM announced a repeal without the Cabinet approving it. Similarly, the Supreme Court overreached in constituting a committee to study the farm laws, and, worse, it did not forward the report to the government. All this is representative of the rampant undermining of institutions at the highest levels.

In his speech to the nation, the PM listed many initiatives that have been introduced for small farmers. Some like zero budget farming hold promise and some have given respite to farmers. But these cash doles are simplistic responses to addressing the root causes of the distress on farms. Most other government initiatives, if assessed independently by the intended beneficiaries, would reveal the glaring extent of lapses, missed opportunities and not-so-positive outcomes.

The PM has announced an expert committee to suggest a way forward. While working with governments, I have learnt that committees are a convenient way to scuttle implementation of ideas. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the government’s intentions but hollow promises in the past remind me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. One of the ironies of the moment is that the PM is justifying the repeal with an apology for not being able to convince farmers about the benefits of the farm laws. Let alone explain to the farmers, the BJP has failed to convince its own cadre in villages. Rather than serving a useful purpose for its parent organisation, the party’s IT cell has aggravated the mess with its hate-spewing campaign.

The perspective from the farm is not a pretty one. India has witnessed more farmer agitations in the past seven years than in the last 70 years. Meanwhile, the country faces its highest-ever unemployment rate, even as demonetisation and other policies play themselves out over seven years of continuously falling GDP and declining social development indicators. Bureaucratic apathy has driven the farmers to a point where they are resorting to looting fertilisers in broad daylight. Historically, across the world, a depressed farm sector has led people from rural areas to migrate to urban spaces in search of livelihood opportunities. The current dispensation has managed — perhaps for the first time since the depopulation of the Roman empire — a reverse migration from urban centres to the villages. The latest setbacks are to be viewed alongside a host of other challenges that the government faces.

An ineffective Opposition perpetuates the mess. It allows the party in office to rule without checks and balances. The government has lost control of the fiscal, administrative and governance space. However, this is not the time to be despondent: If government underperformance is a result of public policy, it can be undone by changing the approach to policy-making. There is no reason to question the PM’s ability to bring any improbability to life.

There is a trenchant demand for a legal MSP. Farmers across the country perceive it to mean that open-ended procurement will continue and it will be extended to all crops. Given that the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) ministerial conference is starting later this month — under whose aegis public stockholding limits remain contentious — any commitment to a legal MSP for all crops seems highly unlikely without exploring the challenges related to efficacy, design and scope of delivery. However, when the trust of the people is lost, one must tread cautiously because the opportunists with political ambitions will use the circumstances to rouse sceptical masses, even against good ideas.

After the repeal of the farm laws in Parliament, farmer unions should consider suspending the agitation to allow space for the PM to deliver on his promises, including one on doubling farmer income by August 15 next year. If not satisfied with delivery, they could remobilise to return to Delhi six months before the parliamentary elections in 2024. Going forward, everyone should pitch in — especially those opposed to the government’s ideas — by presenting detailed proposals with guidelines for implementation as well as their financial and social implications. It would be a humane gesture to heal the wounds, if Parliament acknowledges the sacrifice of the 700 who died in the process of making the government reconcile to the will of the people.

Sadly, the way the three farm acts were conceptualised and what unfolded thereafter has only led to the reform momentum losing steam. A status quo was never an option. Worse still, the bureaucracy does not have the capacity to design a food-systems approach that considers human health and that of the planet as one. Yet, it is an idea whose time has come and global thinkers are setting great store by it. The real challenge now is not to satisfy the farmer unions but to secure a future we can all trust.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 22, 2021 under the title ‘Up ahead: Restoring trust’. The writer is chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj

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