The three farm bills piloted by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to liberalise agricultural trade and passed by Parliament, overriding demands by the Opposition for greater scrutiny, are a done deal. Big farmers’ groups, particularly in Punjab and Haryana, are continuing to protest the bills, fearing deregulation will leave them vulnerable to powerful corporate agribusinesses and in an even weaker negotiating position than before, but it is unlikely this will force the government to have a rethink. The reforms have cost the Bharatiya Janata Party one of its oldest allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal, which has quit the ruling alliance. Farm reforms have been long overdue in India, but the government’s new farm laws have become contentious for two reasons: one, they do not guarantee acquisition of farm produce at the minimum support price (at least, not in letter); and two, the manner in which they were pushed through, by a dubious voice vote, ignoring calls for parliamentary oversight, even voting.
A prolonged agitation by farmers can impact rabi or winter-sown farm operations, hamper procurement of kharif or summer-sown crops and delay the benefits that should accrue from the reforms themselves. Reforms can’t be forced on a sector that still employs the poorer half of all Indians. Mere laws cannot change ground realities or alleviate India’s agrarian distress if the farming community doesn’t perceive them to be beneficial. The agriculture sector has been the only bright spot in the Indian economy, growing 3.4% in the June quarter, as the overall economy contracted 23.9% due to the widespread lockdown. It will have to keep up the momentum to protect rural incomes, even as the wider economy heads for a rare recession. The government must, therefore, resolve this crisis. The government ought to have agreed to the Opposition’s demand to send the bills to a select committee for greater scrutiny. And it should have written in the concept of support prices into the laws. These would have reassured agitating farmers, satisfied critics and made regulatory oversight more robust. One way to do this is by framing appropriate rules to operationalise the farm bills that provide for a strong regulatory mechanism to ensure that private agribusinesses don’t act as the new overlords.
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