Break the deadlock

The showdown between the government and farmers’ organisations seems to be going from bad to worse.  After the meeting between Home Minister Amit Shah and farm leaders on Tuesday failed to break the deadlock, the government on Wednesday sent written proposals to farmers to address their apprehensions and make necessary changes in the laws. But the farmer groups — largely from Punjab and adjoining areas — have stuck to their demand of a rollback of the new laws and rejected the government’s offer. In fact, they have decided to up the ante and are now planning to block the Delhi-Jaipur highway and “all roads to Delhi one by one.”

On its part, the government has made several reasonable proposals. For instance, it has given a written assurance that there will be no change in the minimum support price (MSP) regime. Increasing the role of the private sector in agriculture through the recent changes in the law had given an impression to farmers that it would affect government procurement at MSP. The assurance should have made it clear that things would not change as far as MSP is concerned. But this hasn’t worked. Further, the government is willing to allow the state governments to register private mandis operated by the Agricultural Produce Market Committee. This is a significant climbdown by the government but has apparently failed to convince the protesting farmers. While the argument that the government should have shown more patience instead of rushing the Bills without any meaningful discussions has a lot of merit, the fact is it is now willing to engage and make changes in the laws to meet the demands of the farmers, at least partially. It’s time that farmer organisations also showed similar flexibility to find an acceptable solution. This unwillingness to engage and obstinacy will hardly serve any purpose. 

The farmer groups are also blocking highways connecting Delhi, which is affecting free movement. In the given situation, it is worth asking if protesters should be allowed to create difficulties for others to press their demands. In the context of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, the Supreme Court took the sensible view that protesters cannot permanently occupy public spaces. Earlier, the same protesting farmers had blocked rail movement. It is not inconceivable that Delhi may start experiencing a shortage of supplies. This raises several questions: Should protest that is a form of coercion be seen as permissible? Many like the United Nations have said yes if it is peaceful. But what kind of peacefulness is blackmail? What should be the government’s response if Delhi actually starts witnessing shortages? Some of these questions are worth debating as the answers would result in a more mature response.

On balance, the government is right in its position that these laws are necessary, and it is also willing to accommodate farmers’ concerns to the extent possible. Farm leaders must accept that a rollback of laws is no solution as systems designed in another era can’t continue forever and reforms are needed in every sector, including agriculture. A delay in the implementation of reforms in the farm sector would only increase the cost for the economy. In short, the farm leaders need to come off their high horse and avoid getting involved in politicking. That will be a disservice to the group they are supposed to represent.


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