Updated: November 28, 2020 9:09:37 am
Economic reforms in India have often been by stealth. This is because they have been pushed mostly by minority governments. The three central farm laws, by contrast, have been enacted by a regime enjoying a comfortable majority under an unquestioned leader. This government was, however, clearly caught off guard by the protests mounted by farmer organisations. True, these have been largely by farmers from Punjab and Haryana. But most farmer movements in the past — whether Champaran, Kheda and Bardoli or Mahendra Singh Tikait’s Boat Club rallies — were localised affairs. The Narendra Modi government erred in first projecting the agitation as purely Opposition-sponsored and then in using force — from making preventive arrests to firing tear gas shells and water cannons — to stop the farmers from entering the national capital. These failed to deter the demonstrators, who were eventually given “safe passage” into Delhi.
The fault in this whole episode lies not in the reforms, but in the way the farm laws were passed, and the government’s strategy of communication, or lack of it. Of the three pieces of legislation, farmers probably had little problem with the ones that did away with the government’s powers to impose stockholding limits in foodstuff (except under “extraordinary” price increase situations) and provided a framework for contract cultivation agreements. The law that probably touched a raw nerve was the one ending the monopoly of agricultural produce market committee (APMC) mandis in farm products trading. Punjab and Haryana are two states where APMCs, for all their levies and dominance by market intermediaries, have served as lifelines for their farmers. They have perceived the dismantling of the monopoly of these institutions as a precursor to their closure (à la BSNL) and eventually the end of the existing minimum support price (MSP)-based government procurement system. The Modi government did try to assuage these fears, but the hasty passage of the bills with little debate inside or outside Parliament hardly helped. And the fact that these were enacted in the time of COVID-19 — the reason given for not allowing farmers to gather — only added to the distrust.
The price of the messy handling of the farmers’ protest may not be political. Instead, it could potentially delay or derail the government’s future reform plans, whether to do with decontrolling urea prices or replacing MSPs and open-ended crop procurement with direct farm income support. Like the three farm laws, these are again reforms necessary to harvest the true potential of Indian agriculture and make it globally competitive. The Modi government has more than enough political capital still at its disposal, which it should use to constructively engage with the farming community, to talk to it and to listen to it.
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