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  • Raghav Sand

Agricultural Reforms: Who Will Blink First?

The National Capital Territory of Delhi has been choked by farmers from most northern states. Primarily the protestors have come from states of Punjab and Haryana. A complete disregard for social distancing norms and Covid-19 protocol is shown by the sons of the soil. If this doesn’t sound and feel like a super spreader event, then nothing else would.

Farm sector reforms were passed by the parliament in September and since then there have been apprehensions about its utility and reliability. There are robust grievance redressal mechanisms in the statute, and the farmer is protected from discrimination and exploitation. The government will monitor the sector and respective agencies will maintain the checks and balances. Whenever a reform is introduced in the economy it creates shock waves in the system. Set patterns and cash flows for middlemen are subject to reduction or being erased altogether. Had these people been concerned about farm reforms and increasing the per hectare income, a lot could and should have been done in the past decades.

Are these Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) holding back an individual farmer’s pursuit for prosperity? It is a widely known fact that these district level committees are pseudo political fronts and mostly cater to powerful individuals. In 1951, the constitutional amendment to Article 19 and 31 laid the foundation for abolishing Zamindari system. In some way or the other individuals and groups with large land holdings have voluntarily and sometimes forcefully nominated themselves as leaders of agricultural bloc. These self-proclaimed farm leaders have deep rooted vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

The sentimental value associated with a farmer restricts most citizens to question their ways and means. Post-independence, India has invested astronomical sums in lifting agriculture produce and income. The agriculture sector enjoys non-partisan support and will be a priority sector for the government due to the sheer number of people it directly employs. In the last three decades, agriculture sector has not kept pace with manufacturing and service sector. Anyone who says that agriculture sector has been a drain on national finances will be ostracized. The sheer number of non-performing accounts (NPA) and subsequent farm loan waivers has consumed vital funds slowed down other developmental activities.

Moving to a market driven economy model in farming will definitely feel like jolt in the near term, but most defining economic reforms have resulted from trial and error. The government has been assuring farmers with respect to minimum support price, while farmers have demanded scrapping of the new farm laws altogether. When a farmer will sign a contract with a person / entity to sell the produce, the whole process takes shape as a self-financed activity. The reduction of stress in the banking sector will be a huge relief.

Every time there is an election, either the farm loan waiver is part of the promises made by all major political parties or a tacit understanding. Whenever these loans are waived, banks capital is erased and subsequently fresh capital is infused to keep the banks afloat. Has anyone bothered to care how the government re-capitalises public sector banks? The answer is simple – from the consolidated fund of India. This money is a sizeable chunk of the budget every year. What if the agricultural sector was self-sufficient and self-reliant? Vital economic resources could have been applied to improve education, healthcare and infrastructure.

The government and other development agencies are always monitoring the well-being of agriculture sector. Even after all the technological development, there are loss of lives due to hunger. The whole food ecosystem needs a rethink. Covid-19 has left an indelible scar of the nutrition and nourishment of impoverished sections of society. Polite blackmail by vested interests does not help in these difficult times.

Central government would have envisaged some form of resistance to the reforms, but it has been caught flat-footed. One of the points of criticism that central government has faced is that important legislation was introduced and passed without desirable levels of discourse. Even if the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has clear majority in Lok Sabha and sound floor management skills in Rajya Sabha, it should have planned and executed awareness programmes about the salient features of new agricultural laws. Most farmers are not aware of the statutory know-how and it is easy to sow the seed of fear and apprehension in their minds.

BJP got distracted by the Bihar state assembly election and took the whole episode lightly. It lost an important ally in Punjab – a move undertaken by Shiromani Akali Dal to maintain its grasp on the local turf.

The way most Indians register protest is the epitome of anarchy. Lack of regard for civility overflows when a protest creates problems for several individuals. Blocking roads and stopping trains undoubtedly infringe upon the rights of others, but who cares what the other person is going to suffer. Someone might miss a train or flight, some other person may miss an important appointment with a doctor, while an important hearing in the court may get deferred due to no-show. All this puts brakes on life, which has already suffered due to the pandemic. There is a silent, polite and well-mannered majority, which is always held at ransom by some or the other disgruntled group of people.

Can we not learn to protest without disturbing normal life for others? Does it always have to be chaotic? Political opportunism blossoms in such circumstances. Every opposition leader – actual or self-proclaimed – enters the fray and wants to be seen as the saviour. Ironically, those who are in the opposition today have spoken about agricultural reforms with identical proposals while they were in power. Expertly and efficiently, politicians change colours and sides, and the ongoing farmer protests are no different.

The Supreme Court of India in a recent judgement opined that “public ways and public spaces cannot be occupied in such a manner and that too indefinitely”. Blocking national highways and rail tracks is a clear infraction of the judgement. We are all in this together. Farmers need buyers and final consumer’s food bill gets inflated after multiple points arise in the food value chain. Brokers are glorified logistical support providers who need to rethink their role in the system. Let an individual farmer choose what is good for him / her and those who want to remain with old system be given a practical lesson about the benefits that will come from the transition. Whatever may the final terms of negotiations and agreement between protestors and the government, restoration of normal life must take precedence.

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