The Centre must first implement its proposals before continuing talks with the farmers
Both sides unrelenting in their contradictory positions, an agreement between the Narendra Modi government and the agitating farmers on the question of three controversial Farm Bills appears elusive. With the farmers’ organisations calling for a blockade of Delhi’s highways to Jaipur and Agra by December 12, tensions may escalate further. A large number of these farmers from the neighbouring States of the national capital are camping at locations around it for two weeks now. After several rounds of talks, the Centre has now offered a written assurance that government procurement at minimum support price would remain, along with proposals to amend the laws to deal with farmers’ concerns regarding parity between State-run and private mandis, registration of traders, and dispute resolution mechanisms. These assurances are in response to the concerns being raised by the farmers, but they find them inadequate and half-hearted. They have decided to intensify the strike, demanding complete repeal of the controversial laws. The government has ruled out their repeal, setting the stage for a showdown.
Farmers, howsoever politically empowered they might be in some parts of the country, are at the mercy of market forces and government policy all the time. The Centre appears willing to brazen it out in the face of stiff opposition from the people most affected by the laws. In this battle of unequals, the government should look at a just settlement, not a political compromise. The underlying premise of the Centre that farmers will be better off in an open market needs to be qualified. No country serious about food security can leave farming and marketing of produce entirely to market forces. Even the most free market countries and the WTO acknowledge this. India’s agriculture marketing and its crop pattern both undoubtedly require reforms. And reforms do trigger resistance. The way forward is not by questioning democracy itself as senior government officials and functionaries of the ruling BJP have been doing. The Centre must be more cognisant of the fact that the farmers and the farm sector are both under its protection, and they cannot be free market actors. Thy do not have enough leverage to protect their own interest in negotiations with big corporations. There is no point in replacing existing distortions in the agriculture sector with reforms that do not inspire confidence among the farmers. As a start, the Centre must go ahead and fulfil all the promises it made to the agitating farmers, rather than use those as a negotiating position. It must legislate the guarantee of MSP and reassure farmers on procurement and subsidies.