The farmers must gracefully accept the Govt’s offer of further talks, while the PAnel set up by the SC continues deliberations with farmer organisations participating
By Vinod Rai
It withstood 400 years of the onslaught. It could have been Nadir Shah, the British or any other raider from abroad. It withstood all this with its honour unquestioned, its regality undiminished and its importance undiluted. On August 15, 1947, it got its pride of place in Indian history when the tri-colour was hoisted from its ramparts. It was cosy in its belief that in these last 70 years, its pride of place in the history of the nation will be indelible. It was rudely awakened. Did it ever expect that its own countrymen would besmirch its solemnity? It is not about a region, religion or language. It is about the symbol of the dignity of a nation. None can compete with its majesty, grandeur and awe-inspiring presence. Yes, it is the Red Fort, the pride of the nation. The Ramparts weep. They shed tears—each one of which asks; “Do you cut your nose to spite your face”? Every child will carry the image that TV channels telecast of an unruly mob, diminishing the dignity of its country’s landmark in history. It will be difficult to obliterate that sight, at least in my living years.
But that is not what I set out to write. I could not help articulate those emotions as any discussion on reform laws of agriculture will henceforth have that image overpower the thought process in every true Indian’s mind.
Farmers of Punjab, parts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have been agitating against the three Acts which the central government has passed. Their grouse is that no consultations were held with them. We may, for the time being, let that argument rest. We should also accept that they had conducted themselves with restraint and decorum. That they were unyielding in their two demands of repealing the Acts and legalising MSP also, may be allowed to rest. The issue that stares one in the face is: Now what? What is the road forward? It seems that those with whom the government conducted 11 rounds of deliberations have lost their credibility to continue the dialogue further. The unfortunate incidents of January 26, have taken the wind out of their sails. They have begun to suffer from a deficit of trust. It could be legitimately asked: What if the dialogue were to commence and once an agreement is reached, a new set of farmer groups mushroom stating that the dialogue was not with them and they were not consulted? More importantly, does the rest of the country continue to wait, unable to operationalise FPOs, storage centres, and markets permitted under the new legislation?
Punjab has been at the forefront of the green revolution. Its farmers provided succour to Indians and helped get away from the clutches of PL-480 wheat. To support the diligent farmers, the Essential Commodities Act was enacted. To ensure farmers a platform to sell their produce and to assure them commensurate prices for their produce, minimum support prices were announced. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) did a good job in procuring food grains and building up buffer stocks. Our present buffer stock holding is double the specified quantity. Since the APMC system was working well in Punjab and power for agriculture was made free, it became lucrative for farmers to cultivate more quantities of food grains.
The 1970s saw a huge expansion of rice cultivation in Punjab due to the availability of plentiful free groundwater. The cropping pattern was unmindful of the depletion in the groundwater levels. Soon Punjab began to contribute one-third of the food grain procurement of the nation. The system of arhatiyas, APMC and procurement by FCI, spawned a whole ecosystem with numerous persons being gainfully involved in it. This well-established system ensured that the farmer did not seek very many new profitable enterprises. Newer and more attractive cash crops were also not grown on a commercial scale. It is these farmer families who have a nagging fear that the new Acts will divert procurement agencies to other platforms away from APMC markets and maybe even, to other states. There is also a lurking suspicion that these Acts are the first step to the withdrawal of MSP, and contract farming will reduce their bargaining power with corporates. This is the shroud of fear that occupies the mind of the average farmer. Insidious groups have played on this misbelieve, leading to the present impasse.
Neither should discussions reach a cul-de-sac nor, an air of mistrust be allowed to prolong. These reforms in agriculture have been under consideration for a decade and a half. We need to move away from the supply-side constraint that Indian agriculture suffered in the sixties.
Archaic laws have to give way to progressive provisions. Cropping patterns have to be made more scientific. India cannot be facing a groundwater crisis in a decade from now. Combined with all this is the pride of a nation, which cannot allow a handful of miscreants to derail a very progressive legislation, in whichever form it is tweaked. Hence, the way forward has to be explored. The government may well take the stand that talks can be resumed only after the farm unions agree to the offer made by the government. It should not be a question of who has got the upper hand, post the rally going awry.
The momentum in reforms must continue. The prime minister has renewed the offer for dialogue. On their part, the farmers must gracefully accept the offer of the government. The Supreme Court-mandated committee must continue deliberations with farmer organisations participating. Governments of Punjab, Delhi and Maharashtra have supported the protesting farmers. They should partner in the dialogue to evolve a sustainable and meaningful solution. The stakes for the country are high. Farmer unions must recognise that engaging in further sit-in protest runs the risk of insidious elements furtively eroding their credibility. Indian agriculture must rightfully occupy its space in enhancing GDP.
The author is Ex- CAG and Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Views are personal