We, in Punjab, are in the midst of two major crises today. The Covid-19 pandemic remains an ongoing threat, while the farm laws imposed on us unilaterally, and in the most undemocratic manner, by the Government of India have compounded the distress of our people. Anyone who believes that the farmers are braving the pandemic without understanding the implications of the central laws is either unaware of the ground realities or ignorant about the depth of understanding farmers have about the whole business of agriculture. (I am calling it a business because that is how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its corporate coterie are looking at agriculture now).
The laws are clearly designed to destroy the mandi system in favour of a select few corporates, and eventually, to destroy the minimum support price (MSP) regime as well as the Food Corporation of India (FCI), and hand over the procurement metrics to these corporates. In short, they will eliminate the entire time-tested chain of marketing, pivotal to the growth of agriculture. And once the produce is out of the hands of the government and in control of corporates, one can only imagine the fate of the food subsidy on which millions of India’s poor subsist today.
The proponents of the farm laws accuse Punjab of being unreasonable and politically-motivated. It’s a different matter that not one central leader bothered to explain at any forum, including Parliament, how these laws will benefit the farmers and agriculture, before pushing them forward. This is patently evident from the fact that BJP leaders are now asking their workers in Punjab to go around villages and persuade the farmers of the “invisible” benefits of the laws. Had that exercise been done earlier, and the farmers been convinced of the need for the farm sector reforms, the situation might not have come to such a pass. As for allegations of political motivation against us, one wonders why, in that case, some of the BJP’s own leaders in Punjab have resigned in recent days in protest against the central legislations?
Some have called the laws as agricultural reforms at par with the 1991 economic reforms that catapulted India to the status of a global economic giant. Nothing can be more untrue or unpalatable.
First, did the then government under Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, supported by Manmohan Singh as finance minister, completely dismantle the existing system or make everything completely unregulated? No. What they did was replace the existing licence raj with a more transparent and autonomous regulatory system and regime, in which the regulators were expected to follow a clear economic logic in a fair and impartial manner. And mind you, politicisation was checked, not encouraged in the new system as part of those reforms. Second, the reforms back then were an outcome of the prevailing situation where the country was gripped by high inflation and tax rates, lack of resources, depleted foreign exchange reserves, and was getting rapidly left behind in the global economic progress chart.
Contrast this with the present so-called reforms in agriculture. Whichever way you look at them, the fact is that they will open up agriculture to completely unregulated markets, which even the World Trade Organization (WTO) has not been able to achieve for agriculture. They also completely ignore the fact that the market is imperfect in the case of small and local agricultural operations, which necessitates some protection and support for small and marginal farmers, without whom India’s dream of self-sufficiency in food grains would have forever remained an elusive one.
And finally, I would like to ask , what was the need for doing away with a successful and established system for a new one at this juncture? Unlike 1991, there was no compelling pressure in the present instance which would explain the haste with which the Centre brought in these laws amid the pandemic. One would have, in fact, thought that given the Covid-19 crisis, the Centre would have felt the need to buy and stock more food grains to ensure food security for the poor.
There are many who counter our stand of these laws being anti-federal in nature by pointing to the concurrent nature of various facets of the agricultural marketing system, particularly trading of produce. While what does or does not constitute Concurrent List as per the Constitution might be a subject of judicial scrutiny, does the Concurrent List justify any action on the part of any government (Centre or state) to take decision/action detrimental to the welfare of any section of the society? I do not believe so, and sincerely hope the Centre does not either. Because if that happens, the constitutional ethos as we know it will be destroyed completely. Which probably explains why states, whichever political party may be in power, do not always agree with laws enacted by the Centre under the Concurrent List and exercise their powers under Article 254 (ii) to protect their rights. This was, in fact, done in the case of the Land Acquisition Act, 2015, which BJP-ruled states had then sought to negate through their own bills. Incidentally, these bills received the assent of the then President too, though their ultimate fate rests now with the judiciary.
I do hope the bills passed recently in the Punjab Vidhan Sabha will not only receive Presidential assent but also stand judicial scrutiny to protect the legitimate rights of our farmers. However, since that could well be a long-drawn-out process, I hope and pray that the Government of India will set aside its ego to pull the farming community back from the brink of extinction.
And I do hope they will do so before divisive forces succeed in taking control of the passions of our anguished farmers to polarise our society irrevocably, and throw our country into a vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence.
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