Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of the decision to repeal the three agricultural laws in the winter session of Parliament brings some relief to the confrontation between the farmer’s unions and several state governments and the Union government. It will hopefully persuade the farmers to call off the agitation and return to their villages and homes after the largest ever agitation by the farmers anywhere in the world.
Over the next few days, the cabinet is likely to approve the proposal to repeal the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; the Farmers Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. The draft legislation will also get the approval of the cabinet.
There are five lessons from the saga of enactment of these laws, first through the promulgation of three ordinances in June 2020 and later through parliamentary approval in September 2020.
Lessons from the farm laws saga
The first is that at its core, agriculture is a state subject and the Centre should endeavour to take the state governments along in a participative manner. The future of agriculture vests with the states and policies on agriculture and allied subjects have to take into account the agro-ecological conditions prevailing in the states. The Centre should, therefore, enable and support prudent policies that will preserve the ecological balance and produce food items by meeting the best possible norms of productivity.
The second lesson is that the government in power may have a majority in Parliament enabling it to pass any Bill, but it should respect the democratic norms of consultation with stakeholders. Also, important Bills, which have close linkages with the subjects in the state list (Seventh Schedule, Article 246 of the Constitution), should be referred to Standing Committees of Parliament for scrutiny. Some subjects are so complex that even the scrutiny by the Standing Committee will not result in a consensus. An example of this is the Seed Bill, which has been under discussion since 2004 but there is no political consensus.
The third lesson is that political issues cannot be left to be decided by the judiciary alone. In this respect, the decision of farmers unions not to take the farm laws to the Supreme Court shows that their understanding of the functioning of democratic institutions is much better than that of others. In any case, the Supreme Court showed no urgency to hear cases relating to farm laws, Article 370, the allegation of misuse of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the sedition law and the matter of electoral bonds. One must admire the foresight of leaders of farm unions, who consistently argued that farm laws are not the issues to be decided by the judiciary.
The fourth lesson is that in spite of vicious propaganda on TV and social media, the farmer leaders could convince farmers across India that allegations of links to China, Pakistan or Khalistan were baseless. This was the most difficult task before the farm leaders as urban middle classes did not come forward to show much sympathy with farmers’ plight and demands. The disconnect between rural and urban residents was starkly different. WhatsApp forwards continued to build opinions against the farmers’ agitation. There is a strong lesson here for democratic, non-violent and inclusive movements in future. It is not yet clear if the owners of TV channels have learnt any lesson from the agitation.
The fifth lesson that may be learnt is most agricultural households are quite poor to lead a decent life. They struggle to meet their basic education and health needs. The recently released Situation Assessment Survey of agricultural households (2019) by the National Statistical Office, pegs the average income of an agricultural household at Rs 10,218 per month (in 2018-19). The income was only Rs 4,895 in Jharkhand and Rs 5,112 in Odisha. The same was Rs 6,762 in West Bengal and Rs 7,542 in Bihar. The farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh feared the same plight with the possibility of withdrawal of government from procurement of wheat and paddy through the weakening of Agricultural Produce Market Committees.
Overall, repeal should not be taken to imply stalling of reforms in the agriculture sector. PM Modi’s announcement to set up a committee of experts to rethink and strategise reforms is a welcome step. We are hopeful that the states will continue the reform process in consultation with the Centre and other stakeholders.
Sabka saath is critical for sabka vikas.
The authors are Visiting Senior Fellows at Indian Council for International Economic Relations (ICRIER). Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)