Autocratic reforms with obstinacy

If the new farm laws are good for everybody, where was the need for secrecy and haste in passing them?

By Author J R Janumpalli   |   Published: 11th Jan 2021   12:05 am Updated: 10th Jan 2021   11:03 pm

The three farm Acts enacted by the BJP government represent another hasty and unrealistic reform. Yet again the government did not do its homework despite setbacks to its earlier ‘reforms’. Moreover, these farm Bills were not so urgent that the ordinance route had to be taken in the middle of a serious pandemic. Passing the Bills in the Rajya Sabha without division and not referring it to a select committee as demanded also proves the undue haste, apart from showing the lack of confidence in due parliamentary protocol.

As expected, farmers rejected them and launched an indefinite protest. The government has engaged them in eight rounds of inept discussions so far, with a laidback and stubborn attitude, perhaps with an intention of tiring the the agitating farmers. They also tried to snub them with several political insinuations and strived hard to divide them to turn their protest unpopular.

But all efforts of the government have proved futile so far. Farmers’ protest has only gained strength. They have dug in around Delhi with all the makeshift paraphernalia indicating a long fight. The hollowness of the laws and the motivated attitude of the government are being exposed. Meanwhile, the issue is procrastinating in the Supreme Court.

Questionable Jurisdiction

The jurisdiction of the Centre on these laws itself is questionable. In the tangle of State, Centre and Concurrent List, the Centre seems to have hijacked it in the name of “inter-State trade and commerce”.

Agriculture in India is primarily a State subject. These three laws affect the States and farmers in every way. Yet the Centre did not feel it fit to consult the State governments and farmer organisations, the main stakeholders. It was obligatory for a democratic government to do so. On the contrary, calling the Acts as historical, the government bringing them, at an inappropriate time in such a clandestine manner, makes it very intriguing. More so, for a government with such large majority in Parliament.

Agricultural Marketing

The act of sale by a farmer — be it in an APMC mandi or elsewhere outside it, is very much part of agriculture. Such sale amounts to “agricultural marketing”, which is distinct from “trade and commerce”. Trade begins only after the farmer has finished “marketing” the produce.

Our agriculture marketing system needs a serious overhaul but it should be an exercise that ensures social and economic justice to our majority low-income population. We have over 85% small and marginal farmers and 65% of the population is dependent on the public distribution system (PDS) for their essential farm-based rations. Over the years, the term PDS has become synonymous with ‘food security’.

To meet the State and central PDS obligations, we need certain regulations for the procurement and prices of essential crops. Here, the MSP and the levy on foodgrains come into play. The present laws do not take much cognisance of these realities. It is felt that the reforms also need to take into consideration an array of factors related to ecology, nutrition, equity, culture, economics and politics, along with the consideration of efficiency of agriculture markets.

The three Acts have failed to look at these interconnected dimensions. Any agriculture reform without proper reference to these issues cannot be comprehensive. India is not a developed country with high per capita income (PCI) to open its agriculture marketing to the competition of the world market. We need to have reforms commensurate with our economic and social conditions. We simply cannot copy developed countries. Our $3-trillion economy is not much if we take our $2,200 PCI into consideration.

Purpose of Mandis

While it is essential to provide competitive markets for farmers to sell, it should not be done by bypassing the present mandis. If the problem is the Licence Raj and oligopolistic structure of some mandis, we need to change the licensing requirements, improve infrastructure and administer them well to have more buyers (small and large traders, companies, cooperatives, FCI, etc) participating in the auction in the same mandi. The entry of corporates in direct competition with the traders would strengthen this competitive purchase environment and bring this institutional market closer to all types of farmers.

But under the new Acts, a few private players will be free to frame their own rules regarding their procurement decisions from individual farmers. Farmers will have to accept those rules or go elsewhere. There is no level playing field. Unlike the mandi, which is a regulated public space where farmers can hold private traders/corporate buyers accountable, the accountability of private marketplaces flows to their respective shareholders and not towards farmers. While proponents insist that the regulated mandis will function as earlier, farmers have effectively argued using the BSNL vs Jio example, that in the medium run, most of these mandis, except the largest ones, are likely to become obsolete.

What is so Secret?

Whatever be the merits of the laws, they were conceived in secrecy. If it was for the good of everybody, where was the need for secrecy and haste. The protesting farmers are being treated in a cavalier fashion — calling them offensive names, attributing unsavory intentions and the parleys with them are deliberately being extended. There are already eight rounds of talks in about 45 days without any meaningful result. This shows government’s obstinacy and intent to weaken and defeat the protest without conceding any genuine demand. Such behaviour cannot come from a democratic popular government.

The government thinks whatever it does is a historical reform. It thinks that since agriculture now provides just 16% of reduced contribution to Net State Domestic Product (NSDP), it does not need to be nurtured like earlier. And it should be left to market forces by handing it over it to the private sector. The government should know that even the highly developed US provides heavy subsidy to its agriculture. Even today in India 65% people depend on agriculture and 57% of land area of India is under agriculture. In the US, only 2-3 % people depend on agriculture and the land under agriculture is just 17%.

India simply cannot afford to remove subsidies, MSP and APMCs and leave its agriculture to the vagaries of private market forces. All of them need a big overhaul, with the consultation of stakeholders and experts based on ground realities. But it cannot be dispensed with obstinate autocratic reforms.

(The author is a freelance journalist)

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