Political processes being intrinsically dynamic and evolving, it is reassuring that the government has placed someone as adept as Home Minister Amit Shah at the heart of negotiating the complexities of pushing reforms in the farm sector. A late-night negotiation with farmer leaders on December 8 having failed, he was back the next day with amendments in writing to the laws. The protesters have rejected the peace-offering yet again. They are buoyed by the support and solidarity from Delhi’s surrounding villages as also bordering districts of Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, there is no mistaking the miscalculation in pushing three critical farm Bills, first as ordinances at the peak of the pandemic and then as Bills which were passed in Parliament without discussion. The government also needs to be mindful of the strategic timing of the protest when farmers in Punjab and Haryana have sold their paddy harvest, sown their wheat crop and have all the time on their hands until the harvest in April.
This is precisely why a steady influence is critical in persisting with what seems like sensible proposals from the government. The government has addressed the apprehension about the new Farm Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act (FPTC), 2020 dismantling the mandi system by proposing to tax transactions outside the APMC zones as well. On the contentious issue of minimum support price (MSP), the government is willing to give a written assurance with regard to its continuance although it is not clear whether this is a proposed amendment hardwired into the legislation. In any case, even the most ardent supporters of the farmers’ movement hesitate in promoting the absurdity of legalising MSPs, which is certain to lead to further chaos and destabilisation. The third most critical amendment is with regard to introducing judicial oversight that was an unfortunate omission via Section 15 of the FPTC Act and Section 19 of the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020. These are significant climbdowns by the government.
There can be no two views on the need for a robust effort to revive and reform India’s agriculture sector. The ruling BJP is also not wrong when it points out that its predecessor, the Congress-led UPA, championed the same reforms that it is now opportunistically opposing. Maximalist positions are standard operating procedure in any protest and negotiations but there does come a stage in the negotiation when both sides agree on the middle ground and go back with something to talk about as a victory. That stage has been reached and the written assurances on the three most contentious aspects of the reform can be the middle ground if the farmers see it so. The onus of a rational response is clearly on them now.