Chandigarh: As the indefinite sit-in by the agitating farmers on the borders of the national capital entered its 18th day Sunday, there seems to be no resolution in sight.
While the farmers have dug in their heels seeking revocation of the three central farm laws that were brought in earlier this year, the Narendra Modi government is agreeing to only amending them.
Experts and those involved in the talks say engagement is the only way forward. The government will have to do more than just promise amendments to appease the agitators and the protesters, too, would have to climb down from their stand of nothing less than a repeal of the three Acts, say experts.
Som Prakash, a Union minister of state from Hoshiarpur who has been closely involved in organising talks between senior ministers and the farmer leaders, said he is hopeful a solution will emerge as long as both sides are open to engagement.
“Even wars between nations have ultimately been settled through agreements. And here it is not a war. I am of the BJP and have remained MLA twice and am now an MP from Punjab. These are my people, not strangers,” he told ThePrint. “But for both sides it would be good if the matter is resolved earlier than later.”
Haryana BJP chief O.P. Dhankar highlighted that the government has already agreed to make changes in the three laws in line with farmers’ demands.
“After those changes are brought in, states will be independent to implement the three laws as they want, in the spirit they want. For protesting farmers this is victory enough. It should not become a prestige issue now,” said Dhankar.
“If they (farmer unions) are following Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps, they should know not only when to continue with an agitation but also withdraw it gracefully when its purpose is met,” he said.
So far, the government has claimed that the three laws will remove middlemen and allow farmers to diversify and get better access to countrywide markets for their produce.
The farmers, however, fear that the laws will force the mandi system to be done away with and they will then be left at the mercy of corporate giants. They are also apprehensive that the minimum support price (MSP) and the procurement system would be lost to the laws.
‘Reforms are not new’
Noting that the farm reforms in question have been in consideration for decades, H.S. Shergill, agriculture economist and professor at the Institute of Development Studies, Chandigarh said the solution should be face-saving for both sides.
“The Government of India can announce suspension of the implementation of the laws till the concerns of the farmers are adequately resolved. Further negotiations can continue among union ministers and farmer leaders. The Acts can then be redrafted or amended or even repealed,” he said.
“These reforms are not new. They were in the pipeline since 1990. I think the government rushing through them during Covid was avoidable. Regarding MSP and procurement when the government has given assurance it is a major achievement for the farmers,” Shergill said.
The professor also stressed that a suspension of the laws will pave the way for the conflict to end, especially in view of the fact that the protest has united Punjab.
“The government has to realise that unlike other movements including the Khalistan movement, when not every Punjabi or even every Sikh was involved emotionally, in this movement there is almost a complete emotional involvement of the people of Punjab. It has united Punjab like nothing else has ever done. The suspension of the implementation of the laws will be seen as a victory for the farmers and the imbroglio can end pleasantly,” he said.
Bhagwant Mann, the Punjab unit chief of the Aam Aadmi Party said the movement had become so big that it was leading the farm leaders and not being led by the farmer leaders anymore.
“In such a situation farmer leaders have to listen to the protesters. If the protesters believe that a middle ground, short of a repeal of the Acts is acceptable then that is how it will be. But right now there seems to be no chance of that. The protesters want a clear yes or no. Farmer leaders should constantly engage with the protesters and keep their ears to the ground,” said Mann.
‘Farmers should seek long-term solution’
Leading senior advocate of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Anupam Gupta said the agitating farmers are insisting on legally guaranteed MSP and government procurement as they seek protection from the “tyranny of the market”.
“It is this tyranny which the new farm laws impose upon the farmers, in the name of freedom. The Prime Minister’s repeated assault on ‘middlemen’ in rural trade is a thin camouflage for subordinating Indian agriculture to corporate/commercial giants who see agriculture as but another industry and MSP as an insufferable impediment in their crusade for profits,” said Gupta.
“Even if therefore the new farm laws are repealed in toto they will have to be substantially rewritten for the agitators to be pacified. If the agitators remain united, non-violent and apolitical, the agitation will expand and grow sharper in the coming days,” added Gupta.
Satish Verma, professor, RBI chair, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh, said since the farmers have applied reasonable pressure on the the Modi government, they should work towards a more long-term solution.
“Diversification should be a part of the agenda of talks with the Centre. Farmers should demand a one-time package to promote diversification since the government wants them to move away from the wheat paddy cycle,” he said.
“More important than the amendments in the three Acts is to get assurances from the government that they will be procuring oilseeds, pulses, horticulture crops and vegetables on MSP,” Verma said, adding that a solution to this issue could also emerge from the Supreme Court.
Harjeshwar Pal Singh, assistant history professor, SGGS College, Chandigarh said the current situation was a “classical power struggle”.
“The government is on the backfoot and has retreated significantly with offers of amendments but is now digging its heels in trying a counterattack with press conferences and chaupals. At the same time ‘tukde tukde gang’ and ‘urban naxals’ barbs are being used to discredit the farmers,” said Singh.
“The farmers have shown their strength having gained significant ground support. The government should relent and revoke the laws. It should not be a case of egos as well-being and unity of the nation is the primary responsibility of the government,” he added.