Friday, 12 August, 2022
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Modi govt must sweat in Parliament to avoid bleeding on street. Farmers’ protest shows why

The consequence of the Modi govt skipping steps of a deliberative democracy is that the farm bill’s policy argument plays out in emotions instead of economics.

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One lesson of civilised, constitutional politics is that the more you sweat in parliament, the less you bleed on the streets (or indeed, the jungles). The Narendra Modi government could have avoided farmer unrest and protests had it adopted a broad-based social consultation process and taken its time to put the farm bills through the parliamentary process. Yes, a number of farmers’ associations, middlemen’s lobbies, and civil society groups would have raised their voices against the changes. Yes, the Congress and other opposition parties would have opposed the bills in Parliament. But the Bharatiya Janata Party is neither short of supporters in the media and the Indian population, nor of seats in Parliament for the Modi government’s reform proposals to fail. Skipping the journey and jumping to the destination merely meant that all stakeholders in the agricultural sector received a shock instead of an explanation, a ready-made decision instead of a hearing, and, in many cases, existential fears instead of positive expectation.

Why it chose this path is a mystery. It is easy to attribute it to this government’s ‘style’ of governance and close the discussion. If we set the style argument aside, the question becomes one of political management of reform. Could Prime Minister Modi and the BJP’s leadership have calculated that it is easier to get agricultural stakeholders to reconcile to a fait accompli than to build consensus first? The narrative dominance that the BJP currently enjoys might have encouraged the party’s leaders to pursue the course they did. After all, every government knows that once you get the protesters to go back home, what they were protesting against remains standing.

At their heart, the Narendra Modi government’s package of agricultural reforms is a major step in liberating farmers from the political economy that they have been trapped in — they provide legal and administrative basis to permit contract farming while protecting farmers’ rights, and they promise to insulate the agricultural sector from price and stock controls. For decades, we have acknowledged that Indian agriculture needs reform, and the chronic distress that farmers face is a consequence of policy frameworks that keep them trapped in a cycle of low productivity, indebtedness, dependence on the monsoon, and ultimately on the government. We knew that the systemic shackles that trapped Indian farmers had to be broken.


Also read: Won’t budge till Modi listens to us, say women farmers braving winter chill at Delhi border


Reform anxiety

The central challenge facing any reformer is that even the intended beneficiaries of the reform usually fear the unknown god, and would rather live with the devil they have known. Cast back your memories — if you are old enough to have them — to the public debate of 1991-92 when the prospect of opening up the Indian economy to the world was received with manifold anxieties and vehement resistance. Yet today, we take the unprecedented prosperity those reforms created for granted, so much that we are undermining the winning formula by deliberately cutting ourselves off from the global economy in an unthinking bout of misplaced nationalism. What we know from India’s own experience of the past three decades is that structural reforms liberalising the economy are not only necessary, but tend to show results very quickly. That’s because India’s fundamental economic problem is one of lack of economic freedom and any reform that makes individuals, firms, and societies freer than before will lead to greater overall prosperity.

But we also knew that structural reform of agriculture will entail rebalancing of Union-state relations, deepening inter-state cooperation, and above all, genuine, wide-ranging, democratic consultation with farmers and other stakeholders. If we have deep disquiet among farmers across the country today, it is because they have genuine fears that the mandi-middleman-MSP system that they know will be replaced with an unknown system of markets, corporates, and technology. And if we have lakhs of farmers at the gates of the national capital, it is because the Modi government decided that legislation could come before consultation and persuasion.


Also read: This is how Modi govt plans to address farmers’ problems, end protests


Need for consultations

The other consequence of skipping the steps of deliberative democracy is that the policy argument plays out in emotions instead of economics. And as the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ demonstrates, in India agriculture has always been cast in emotional, even moral terms. [As an aside, see why moralising is a bad idea]. Most people will agree with the view that unlike, say engineers, auto-rickshaw drivers, or postal workers, farmers perform a different, more socially valuable role. This means even good economic arguments get derided because they do not appeal to our emotions. At the same time, much of the public support for PM Modi and the BJP is also based on emotional grounds. We have, thus, ended up with a clash of emotions, which, unfortunately, is not the best way to settle an issue as important as the future of Indian agriculture.

What the farmers’ associations are demanding — debt relief and guaranteed remunerative prices — are not only reasonable but also not inconsistent with the overall direction of the reforms. The Modi government should make a genuine effort to substantially address the real fears and misgivings of Indian farmers, instead of seeing it as an exercise to patronisingly “explain” the reforms to them. There is too little trust in Indian society for aggrieved farmers to take the government’s word that the reforms will leave them better off. For reforms to be successful, it is necessary to accept both the legitimacy of the farmers’ grievances and the genuineness of their demands.

Nitin Pai is the director of the Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.

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22 COMMENTS

  1. I have been reading this news for the past few days about Indian farmers. I have no understanding about the laws or it’s implications. But I don’t think it is required in this case. If these laws are made/amended to benefit the farmers and if the farmers themselves have said in large number(democracy) and continue to say they don’t want them than why is the Indian govt so hell bent on it. Aren’t there other issues affecting other sections in the Indian society (doctors, engineers, plumbers, teachers, students, police etc) that might need reforms and focus on them. I mean if they don’t want them, agree and move to the next section. And if the farmers come back later saying you haven’t done anything for us the govt can always show that we tried to but the majority of you’ll didn’t want it.

    Also, don’t understand why other sections of the society need to get involved. Do farmers support other sections of the society when they protest? Genuine question, not sure if it happens in India

  2. It’s true due process not done while passing the bill in the parliament and was done in a hurry and they are facing the music with the farmers for their mistakes and it is better to revoke the farm laws so that they can save the face – it’s as also a lesson for any government not to take the farmers might and influence in any society- that many people have started supporting then – however good the reforms might be- they need to address their issues in time and with genuine consideration

  3. I may or may not be wrong to say that most powerful in central government duo are Narendra Modi And Amit Shah . unfortunately both are democrats and believers in democratic values . They have killer instinct and to satisfy their craze of proving themselves masters of all what they survey they can go to the any extent keeping all considerations of national interest and interest of any section of population away . They are their first to implement the agenda of Hindutv of RSS throughout country and secondly serving their personal interests and greed of power by befriending and taking help of mightiest and strongest persons of country and abroad through benefitting them.
    Now as for getting of three agricultural acts and labour laws during national calamity and ban imposed on public as whole to protest and demonstrate hurriedly without allowing any discussion to any one including BJP M.Ps.passed is concerned ,it was terrible pressure of Trump American President on Modi to implement provisions relating to agriculture and labour of WTO . Modi neither has wisdom nor courage to think of avoiding Trump`s threat
    in India`s interest. He least cares down falling Indian economy ,per capita income of common man and their suffering . Let the Farmers die on roads Modi bothers little. His personal safety from America`s wrath is his priority.

  4. Do you know most of the people there are not farmer but people from left parties posed as farmer ? There is village in Punjab called Suicidal Village where no male farmer lives as all men have suicided .

  5. Fail to understand how the passing of Farmers’ Bills are construed to having passed without due process, the said Bills were passed by both Houses of Parliament after being debated, unfortunately some opposition parties take to the streets to achieve what they fail to achieve in Parliament, a very unhealthy trend, thwarting Acts of Parliament is most undesirable

  6. Re Farmers’ Bill – wonder if these were not passed in both Houses of Parliament with a discussion upon them, appears some opposition parties deny to acknowledge Acts of Parliament and tend to convey an impression that legislations get enacted without due process, something unheard of and very harmful

  7. There were somewhat same kind of opposition to the move of Man Mohan Singh as finance minister, when he opened the Indian economy from the clutches of bureaucracy. The similar arguments were given to stop the move. But Rao as PM didn’t budge. Here too the same is true. But now this agitation is being hijacked by professional anti Modi elements. So government should negotiate with the genuine representatives and try to solve the problem by some give and take.

  8. 1. Perhaps the BJP government wants to do everything clandestinely whether it is EVM voting, CAA/NBC Bill or the farmers bill even when there is a mass unrest but the government wishes to thrust upon what it likes whether it is liked by the nation or not.
    2. We are helpless because we have voted them to power or they grabbed it is immaterial but we expect the government to work for the nation and not only for the party.

    • What is democratic process? All 3 bills were debated in both houses of parliament, the temples of democracy. There cannot be no question of being clandestine in passing the bills. The regular anarchists are always ready in the wings to stage unrest in the country.

  9. The reform was not broght through proper parliamentary process. what was the need to hurry with this legislation?.If the so called beneficiaries are not willing to accept,then why do you be adamant on.This attitude makes the whole excersice suspecious about the government,s real intentions.

  10. The way issues are becoming harder on the farmers’s side, it is apparent that either their grievances are genuine or stoked to genuineness by vested interests. The Government may simple announce the bills as withheld for the coming crop season and this will be face-saving on both sides. Thereafter the parleys can go on. This seems prident for the present

  11. Really enjoyed a well thought approach. Wish he was little tough on the Modi govt for forcing bill without consultation. Farmers are also protesting forced laws that MIGHT help the farmers. And asking for MSP is not remurative prices.

  12. Excellent article. Fair insights meant for the progressive minds who believe in structural reforms of an institution.

  13. MSP is like minimum wages for farmers. Minimum wages are very much part of free economy. Free economy doesn’t mean that few riches are allowed to exploit workers or farmers.

  14. Liberals have their opinion as a yardstick and not data. How fixed remunerative price is a reform?
    As a customer I want fix buying price. Price fixing is anti-reform and manipulates the market which benefits corrupt and dominant.

  15. How can you tell that becoming a part of the global economy or liberalism is good for India. When government makes such laws first they have to do it for the farmers . Not for the corporate or MNC’s.

  16. Not only Modi and his Government, I suppose all members of both the houses of Parliaments and all occupants of North and South block need to sweat profusely to get the country on track for speedy development. Please don’t absolve some law makers and executives from the responsibility……This is an appeal to all “experts” and the Meida

  17. Can’t understand how guaranteed remunerative prices are consistent with reforms! Guaranteed remunerative prices will make this reform a non-starter

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