Ending the deadlock: On farmers, reforms and stakeholders

Reforms, however necessary, cannot be done without consultations with all stakeholders

Farmers protesting against three agriculture reform laws, and on related issues, have reached a partial agreement with the Centre on Wednesday, but the main points of contention remain unresolved. The government has agreed to not penalise farmers for stubble burning and to safeguard power subsidies. Farmers have decided to continue the agitation until the three laws are repealed and their demand for a legal guarantee for MSPs for farm produce is met. Farmer leaders will meet with Central Ministers again on January 4. Flexibility by farmers and a reconciliatory approach by the government led to the partial agreement, but the core concerns regarding the laws and MSP are not amenable to easy resolution. The government has continued to propagate the laws — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act — as measures that will enhance agriculture incomes. The Centre is so sure of the promise of these reforms that it did not even attempt to build a political consensus around them beforehand. Subsidised power and lopsided incentive structures have built cropping patterns that are no longer sustainable. Large sections of farmers meanwhile continue to languish in debt and fear. Farmer concerns are not uniform across India.

The ongoing agitation is being spearheaded by farmers from Punjab and Haryana, who have been big beneficiaries of government procurement. The current agitation, its apparent energy and resolve notwithstanding, is geographically and programmatically limited. It now faces the risk of losing steam or spinning out of control. At least some groups that are part of the agitation currently might favour more flexibility. The government is reluctant to agree to a legal guarantee of MSP because the demand is unrelated to the laws. The government is also hoping to tire out the agitators. Finding a way out will be better for both sides. Though a completely satisfactory resolution of all issues raised by the farmers is not possible immediately, the government must reassure them that honest efforts will continue to address them even if the protests are formally ended for now. Reforms are necessary to ensure that India has a productive, sustainable and remunerative agriculture sector. While all stakeholders appear to agree on this principle, they diverge on questions of detail. The reports of the National Commission on Farmers, chaired by Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, and other government committees have suggested solutions. The Centre must engage with the farmers, political parties and States on the economic and environmental issues at stake. That is the best route to effective reforms.

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