If the Narendra Modi government finds itself boxed into a corner over the three agricultural reform laws that farm unions want to be rolled back, it has itself to blame. Of course, it will not. From Prime Minister down, the blame has been Opposition “propaganda”, “rumours” and even Trudeau’s silly sermons. As this newspaper has underlined, the reforms, by and large, are in the right direction and much-needed. Stockholding limits, inter- and intra-state movement restrictions and export bans on farm produce have no place in a country transitioning from being a deficit to surplus producer. The challenges before Indian agriculture are increasingly on the demand than supply side. Farmers need to find new markets for their crops, which is what policy should enable. The law dismantling the monopoly of APMC (agricultural produce market committee) mandis in the sale and purchase of farm commodities does precisely that. There can be no serious economic arguments against allowing alternative markets for produce, whether it is private mandis, direct collection centres, electronic platforms or contract farming arrangements. Politics is, of course, another matter.
The ongoing agitation has more to do with politics and its communication. Ironic for a regime that has accumulated considerable political capital and is deft at headline management. What it lacks is humility, the ability to believe that in a democracy even if you have the numbers, you need to listen to those who are critical of your decisions. Calling them stupid isn’t going to help. These laws were first passed through the ordinance route and then in Parliament by voice vote without referring to the relevant house committee for better scrutiny. The unseemly urgency with which the Bills were rammed through — that too, in the middle of a pandemic — created suspicions in the minds of farmers. It even allowed a crucial ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, to quit the NDA, on the issue. That mistrust is what is now playing out in the streets. Much of it could have been avoided through proper stakeholder consultation. But whether it was demonetisation, abrogation of Article 370, the Citizenship Amendment Act or mishandling of the migrant worker exodus, the Modi government loves to introduce massive policy disruptions through grandstanding, executive fiat.
The limitations of this approach stand exposed by the protesters who have laid siege to the national capital asking for the three laws to be repealed. For the first time, the Modi government has been forced to engage with an opposition. The refreshing part about this engagement has been the clause-by-clause discussions of the laws — and the government even offering to amend some provisions that certainly merit a relook (those relating to dispute resolution mechanism in non-APMC trade areas, for instance). Every disruptive reform has its critics and street protests. What is important is to allow — and be seen as allowing — those protests to play out, listen to them, acknowledge that they are a vital part of the decision-making process rather than keep dismissing them as rantings of those who can’t win elections. If the spirit of accommodation seen in Vigyan Bhavan was visible in Parliament, perhaps it would have produced different results. Both the lack of a deliberative Parliament and the fate of legislation being decided by those on the streets corrode democracy. No reform is worth that.