The complete shutdown witnessed on March 26 in the wake of nation-wide bandh called by farmers’ union reflects the deep agony agriculturists in the country are going through. The bandh call was given to mark the fourth month of the farmer agitation which assumed the status of a movement with hundreds of thousands of farmers from across the country sitting in dharna around Delhi, the National Capital, leaving behind their home and hearth.

What ails our farm sector? Let’s analyse the current agrarian crisis in the wake of the farm laws.

It is only the farm sector which could withstand the trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 induced lockdown. We felt proud of our farmers who kept us going despite the unprecedented crisis the magnitude of which has never been seen before. The sector grew by 3 percent amid an overall 8 percent GDP contraction in 2020-21.

In an effort to leverage the strength of the agrarian sector, the Narendra Modi led Central Government enacted three farm laws. These are: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, and The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act.

The government projects these laws as path-breaking measures in the sector to remove middlemen and facilitate farmers to sell their produce anywhere across India.  But farmer unions made it clear by November last year itself that the laws were unacceptable to them. They had said they neither asked for any such reforms, nor did the government consult them before going ahead with the legislations. Ever since, the farmers are in an agitation mode. They called the laws anti-famer, and by extension anti people.

As the government failed to respond to their desperate calls to withdraw the laws, the famers march to Delhi in large number. But as the government blocked their entry into the National Capital they had no option but to carry on with their agitation outside the city. Ever since Sindhu, Ghazipur, Tikri border points of Delhi have become hotspots of the protests even as the farmers, in due course of time, diversified their agitation and expanded it to the rural hinterlands in a bid to make it broad based.

Throughout the agitation, under the stewardship of Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), the decision-making body of farmer unions in the country, the farmers kept on raising the demand for repeal of the new legislations in toto. The four-month-old agitation has been interspersed by occasional negotiations with the government. As many as 11 rounds of talks were held between the representatives of the agitating farmers and the government. But with both the parties sticking to their respective stands the negotiations failed to yield any worthwhile outcome.

Touted as the big-ticket reforms in the agriculture sector, these three farm laws are in political limbo with little prospects of any window opening for further negotiations between the Centre and the protesting farmer unions. Meanwhile, the protest has gathered momentum and assumed the position of a pan India movement with drawing support from panchayats the impact of which can be seen in the poll-bound states.

The March 26 Bharat Bandh might not be a tipping point but the response it generated across the country clearly shows that there has to be a common meeting point to resolve the issue at the earliest. It is important to note that a Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on food recommended that the government should implement the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 – one of the three controversial laws.

The Eleventh Report of the PSC on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution on the subject matter – ‘Price Rise of Essential Commodities – Causes and Effects’ tabled in Parliament on March 19 and the Report says, “There is a need to create an environment based on ease of doing business and for removing the fear of frequent statutory controls under the Essential Commodities Act to boost immediate investment in the agriculture sector, increase competition and enhance farmers’ income.” The Report validates the farmers’ protest partially, if not completely.

In January, the Supreme Court had stayed the implementation of these laws for the time being and an expert panel was formed to look into the matter. The government, on its part, had offered to delay the implementation of these laws by 18 months. But the offer did not cut much ice with the farmers which they rejected outright and insisted on complete withdrawal of the laws besides a legal guarantee for the Minimum Support Price (MSP). Thousands of farmers, primarily from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh stayed put along the Delhi border. They are not ready to compromise on anything less than the complete abrogation of the laws. At a time when they are getting extensive support from farmers across the country they are unlikely to give in.

In its order, the apex court had directed that the MSP system in existence before the enactment of the farm laws should be maintained until further orders. Besides, the farmers’ landholdings should be protected. “That is, no farmer shall be dispossessed or deprived of his title as a result of any action taken under the farm laws,” it ordered.

Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait says the Union government tried to divide farmers on the basis of caste and religion but failed to do so. He asserted, “We are united and farmers may have to go to Delhi and breach barricades again. The movement would continue till the laws are taken back and if required the protesting farmers will sell their produce at the Parliament complex in the national capital as part of their protest.”

How to tide over the crisis? First of all the government should concede it did no good by bypassing the mandis run under the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs). The role of these mandis in making the agricultural markets efficient in India can never be denied. Agri experts are of the view that the mandis themselves should have been made competitive enough by incentivising more players to partake in the auctions of the mandis. Leader of Swaraj India and one of the key members of the SKM, Yogendra Yadav, says rather than reforming the Agri market the three Central legislations would end up deforming with clout of middlemen diluting its position and eventually allow bigger middlemen in them.

The Way Forward

The Centre can still come forward without compromising its image of facilitator of big-ticket reforms. The trust of farmers in the government’s approach needs to be restored. Forming a high-powered committee comprising officials of the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, NITI Aayog, members of SKM, and independent experts may be a viable option. Farmers also need to arrive at a meeting point and take a holistic view for an inclusive growth of the sector.

The business side of farming needs serious attention. There has to be a b2b or a b2c setup, where eventually the farmer gets a larger, wider choice to be able to sell to a large number of consumers. India should build an entire system and flow in such a way that it is standardised to meet all regulatory, farmer and consumer  requirement.

It’s time the government created a new ecosystem for agriculture. The laws on marketplaces can be implemented with some modifications to do away with bureaucratic roadblocks. We are now in a tech-enabled era with its various components such as digitalisation, mobile, and the internet access to aid all business transactions. Today access to information is the key. With this it is now possible to carry out transactions in any sector with ease. It will ensure a more decentralised kind of approach. Now, a farmer has as many as five options to sell his produce as regards where and whom to sell depending upon the best deal, best terms of trade and best price.

There is no harm in changing with the times. If the new system fails to deliver, there would always be a scope to create a better one in future.

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The opinion expressed in the article is of the writer. Writer is a freelance journalist/journalist based in Delhi

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