A pop artiste with 10 crore Twitter followers and a school-going climate change activist have weighed in on India’s farm laws, while Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has held up the bogey of ‘Khalistan’. It is now abundantly clear that there’s more to the on-going farmers’ agitation than opposition to the Farm Acts per se.
Diverse forces have assembled under the banner of the farmers’ front and talks are going nowhere. Offers of meaningful discussion have been repudiated. On the Farm Acts themselves, the protesters have little to say and say it at great length. In place of cogent reasoning, there are speculative arguments and wild allegations to the effect that farmers will be beggared and/or alienated from their land. Discussions slide off at a tangent and morph into rhetoric of the ‘right to peaceful protest’ variety. It is high time that the Centre called their bluff.
The high-profile voices coming out in support of the farmers’ agitation are located in free-market economies, notably the UK, the European Union, Canada and the US. This begs the question: Why are they opposed to the liberalisation of Indian agriculture? Since when are economic freedoms a bad thing? No answers are forthcoming.
The government’s plea that the facts be ascertained “before rushing to comment on such matters” falls on deaf ears. Greta Thunberg is apparently unaware that the farmers want field-burning, a massive source of air pollution, to be penalty-free. She is also oblivious to the environment-unfriendly farming practices followed in Punjab, which have led to groundwater depletion, food contamination and soil degradation – an unsustainable system the farmers are fighting to perpetuate.
As for Rihanna, her tweet in support of the farmers’ front attracted considerable hilarity, with Twitterati wondering just why she has “love on the brain” for farmers from a small state in India? Perhaps a hit single celebrating the burning fields of Punjab will follow.
Captain Amarinder Singh has further raised the stakes, by warning that Pakistan would exploit the unrest in the state. Reading between the lines, he is red-flagging the possibility of a fresh wave of Pakistan-sponsored terror unless the Centre caves in to the demands of Punjab’s farmers.
Leave it to the states
The Centre could take the path of least resistance and adopt the eminently pragmatic suggestion that individual state governments be allowed to decide, over the next 18 months, whether or not they want the Farm Acts of 2020. If Punjab does not want to adopt the laws, which envisage a larger role for the private sector in agricultural trade, it can continue with the present system.
Eventually, the state would have to come around, in view of the increasing competition from other agricultural states, like Madhya Pradesh. Punjab is wholly dependent on procurement of foodgrain by the Centre. As the procurement base expands to include other states, it will need a well-developed open market to absorb surplus cereals. At the same time, it will have to diversify to high-value crops, thereby reducing its dependence on the MSP system.
The counter to this suggestion is that the agitation is no longer about agricultural reforms. No matter how many steps back the Centre takes, the list of demands will grow longer and more outrageous. For instance, the farmers have already demanded that Minimum Support Price (MSP) be applied to private traders. That has been tried (in the case of sugarcane) and has failed spectacularly, costing the taxpayers billions in bailout packages to sugar mills.
The farmers’ front had also demanded that the clean-air ordinance be defanged and that the Electricity Amendment Bill, which involves streamlining the power subsidy, be dropped. The Centre has already agreed to these demands, but it cannot possibly offer MSP to all farmers for all crops and the leaders of the farmers’ front know it.
Revealing the extent of food and fertiliser subsidies in Budget 2021 – a staggering Rs 2.43 lakh crore for food and Rs 80,000 crore for fertilisers – was a wise move. The Centre also needs to clarify the state-wise discrepancies in disbursement of farm subsidies. The MSP or price support subsidy is skewed in favour of Punjab and Haryana and that needs to change.
Politically, passing the buck on agricultural reforms to the states would play out well. For one thing, the protest would no longer have a single focus, as farmers from different states have different concerns and would have to take them up with the concerned state governments. If the farmers turn down the Centre’s offer, public opinion, which turned against them following the violence perpetrated by ‘peaceful’ tractor rallies on Republic Day, will only harden.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.