Thursday, 27 January, 2022
HomeOpinionOn agriculture reforms, Modi is in the same farm as Nehru

On agriculture reforms, Modi is in the same farm as Nehru

The three agriculture laws that the Narendra Modi government had introduced brought back the ghost of competition, something Nehru had faced in the 1950s.

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Farmers’ movement has concluded with the repeal of three agriculture reform laws — The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. In addition to this, the Narendra Modi government has also given written assurance to constitute a committee to look into the matter of legal guarantee for Minimum Support Price. The Modi government has also principally agreed to withdraw cases registered against agitating farmers.

Multiple interpretations have emerged after the Modi government’s move but none draw parallels with a similar situation that faced Jawaharlal Nehru in 1959 when the prime minister attempted to introduce a radical change in India’s agriculture. Nehru too had to back down.

Also read: ‘Leaving part of me behind’ — Farmers begin to vacate Delhi borders as year-long protest ends

Cooperative farming… 

Back in the 1950s, the Jawaharlal Nehru government had contemplated to usher radical changes in India’s agriculture system through the twin policies of land reforms and cooperative farming. The former was somehow implemented after judicial hurdles, but the latter could never materialise.

In those days, all major policy decisions were first placed at the Annual Session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) before they went to Parliament. When Nehru presented the proposal to implement cooperative farming at the 64th Annual Session of the AICC in 1959, in Nagpur, his proposal was vehemently opposed by Chaudhary Charan Singh, who had implemented the policy of land reforms in Uttar Pradesh. Other regional leaders of the Congress party also joined Charan Singh in opposing Nehru. Thus, the proposal was defeated, burying the idea of cooperative farming permanently.

Burying the idea of cooperative farming has had a long-lasting impact on persistent poverty and the evolution of the current system of agriculture practises in India. The land reforms did not have the provision of land redistribution to landless farmers. Instead, it was envisioned that the government would cultivate the surplus land available after reforms and practise cooperative farming. The idea was to engage landless people in farming activity with the government investing credit and other inputs. The grains then would be distributed among the families of labourers involved. The idea also finds special mention in B. R. Ambedkar’s State and Minorities: What are They and How To Secure them in the Constitution of Free India.

Also read: Lesson from year-long protest: No govt, not even Modi-led BJP, can afford to annoy farmers

…and the arguments against this model   

The principal argument against cooperative farming was that this policy would pave the way for the industrialisation of agriculture as it would result in creation of two kinds of agriculture — one would be government supported, the other by medium and small farmers. The government supported agriculture, critics said, would eventually eat away farming by medium and small farmers because the latter would be cultivating with help from government. The opponents argued that instead of the government directly stepping in to take up farming through a cooperative model, it should support medium and small farmers through infrastructure, credit, and other protective measures.

Nehru’s response to agrarian question

Faced with opposition, Nehru looked towards the technological route to boost productivity in the agriculture sector so that surplus food grains could be purchased, and distributed among the poor through the public distribution system (PDS). Successive governments worked to implement this idea, which ultimately resulted in the Green Revolution. But at the same time, the government also took protective measures to control agriculture prices. The peasantry then started demanding higher prices for their produce. So the government’s policy resulted in ‘politicisation of peasantry’, making them a voting bloc. The final outcome was the emergence of political opposition outside the Congress party under the leadership of Chaudhary Charan Singh.

The ghost of competition

The three agriculture laws that the Narendra Modi government introduced brought back the ghost of competition, something Nehru had faced in the 1950s. Back then, the argument against Nehru’s policy was that the medium and small farmers would not be able to compete with State-backed cooperative farming. Today, the argument is that the farmers would not be able to compete with ‘contract farming’ by big business houses. The fear is that the big business houses would be able to access bank credit easily, something that medium and small farmers can’t because the government would be withdrawing from the agriculture sector. The fear also is of the big business houses storing food grains in their mega stores and gradually killing the prices for routing out medium and small farmers, similar to the telecom sector where Jio has eliminated smaller players.

Also read: How farmer protest on Delhi borders ended: The 5 demands govt agreed to, and the 1 it didn’t

Modi’s Nehruvian dilemma

In his attempt to introduce cooperative farming, Nehru was faced with the dilemma of choosing between supporting medium and small farmers and feeding the poor. Nehru was accused of harming the interest of the farmers. However, he tried to overcome this dilemma by carving out a third path — adopting a technological route to increase productivity and distributing the food grain through PDS.

Narendra Modi is also facing a similar dilemma — to support medium and small farmers or fulfil the demand of the urban middle class. Price of edibles, particularly perishable items, has been one of the concerns of the urban middle class. The lack of good storage facilities is argued to be one of the principal causes behind frequent price rise. One of the objectives of the proposed farm laws was to give opportunity to private players to build storage infrastructure for edibles, which would eventually reduce prices. But the claim that creation of such infrastructure would necessarily keep prices under check is deeply contested because wisdom suggests that instead of reducing, prices stabilise throughout the year. When prices do not fluctuate, it creates an illusion that the inflation is not high. For example, the price of apples does not fluctuate very quickly throughout the year despite being grown in India. The main reason is contract farming of apples where private companies purchase and store the fruit, even for the next season. Similar is the case in European countries where prices do not fluctuate quickly due to control of the supply chain by mega corporations such as TESCO, LIDDLE etc.

For the burgeoning urban middle class, a strong support base of Modi, inflation of edibles is a big concern. By bowing down to the demands of farmers, PM Modi has gone against the concern of this vote base. How this will unfold electorally, we need to wait and watch.

Arvind Kumar (@arvind_kumar__), PhD Scholar, Department of Politics and IRs, Royal Holloway, University of London. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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