On farm laws, how the Centre faltered

The farmers’ agitation at Delhi’s doorstep exposes deep fault lines and new possibilities in the politics of representation, the politics of reforms and the politics of Centre-state relations. These have significant consequences not only for the future of agriculture, but also for the future of negotiating economic reforms and federal relations in India.

First, on the politics of representation. Yogendra Yadav’s repeated reference to the Mahendra Singh Tikait-led farmers’ protest of 1988 to emphasise the “historic” nature of the current protests is a reminder of the deep vacuum of agrarian interests in contemporary party politics. This was the result of an economic consensus that sought to push agriculture to the margins — the best way to improve agricultural productivity is to get people out of agriculture was the well-accepted policy mantra. Agrarian interests were depoliticised and farmers treated as a constituency to be managed.

However, in recent years, growing agricultural distress has led to a resurgence of farmer agitations — for instance, the long march in Mumbai in 2018 — which pushed agriculture into the mainstream discourse of the 2019 election and highlighted the return of farmers as a political constituency.

The post-Green Revolution mobilisation coalesced around the interests of landed farmers. However, deepening agrarian distress led to a broadening of solidarities, as documented by the scholar Shreya Sinha in the specific instance of Punjab, that cut across traditional class, caste and gender lines. In the long march of 2018, Adivasi and landless farmers walked alongside the landed, demanding political recognition. The current protests, although dominated by landed farmers, also include small farmers and farm labourers.

Regardless of their economic rationale, the new farm laws have amplified uncertainties for all those whose livelihoods are intertwined with agriculture, and it is these collective anxieties that are finding political expression today. The Centre’s refusal to address these anxieties, and instead clamp down hard and discredit protests as voices of vested interests or worse, is a great disservice to the genuine fears that are seeking expression. But, in its hubris, the government is also opening up new sites of mobilisation that have the potential to shift the current status quo in agrarian politics.

Second, the entire chain of events from the promulgation of the ordinances to their passage as Acts exposes the deep failures of our politics of reforms. India’s reform narrative has repeatedly pitted politics against “good economics”, demonstrating impatience with the often endless negotiations and compromises that politics necessitates. It is this impatience that has legitimised bypassing political and institutional processes in the name of reforms. The three farm laws are a textbook example of this approach.

Choosing to introduce central legislation on state subjects without any debate, refusing to consult farmers or even to give their anxieties a hearing, and pushing the bills through Parliament without debate are, at one level, typical of the modus operandi of this government. But, at another level, they also have deep legitimacy in a policy discourse that is impatient with the pulls and pressures of realpolitik. By riding roughshod over processes and bypassing politics, reforms, especially those that seek to bring about far-reaching changes in the existing status quo as the current farm laws seek to do, fail to overcome resistance and push poor policy design.

There is no question that India’s agriculture markets are in urgent need of reform, but to assume this can be done without responding to the anxieties of those impacted — farmers, middlemen and labourers — and without assurances of protection and finding a middle ground, is a recipe for failure. Worse, we are now locked in a politics of distrust where arriving at a consensus for reforming the subsidy regime, price support system and procurement will be near-impossible. Reforming agriculture needs a politics and institutional process where farmers have a stake in reforms and an assurance that their concerns will be responded to.

Finally, the federal question looms large in the entire reform approach. On the one hand, it risks weak implementation. By centralising agriculture reforms, the laws leave unaddressed the question of ownership of state-specific functions — from taxation to dispute resolution and building physical markets, vital to effective implementation. States can easily pass the buck to the Centre, leaving in its wake a vicious cycle of reform failure, not unfamiliar to India. Successful reforms need Centre-state coordination, and not centralisation. But the greater challenge is political. By introducing legislation on state subjects, the farm laws set a dangerous precedent that risks reopening the federal consensus. Moreover, Haryana’s response to protesters from Punjab also points to new emergent tensions in inter-state dynamics.

Now that the process of negotiations has begun, will the current impasse break? The laws are unlikely to be repealed and the farm leaders probably know this. But it is for the Centre to show political statesmanship and use this opportunity to rebuild trust with farmers and bring the states to the negotiation table. A renewed politics of trust is the only way India can set about the task of reforming agriculture.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research. Mekhala Krishnamurthy is a senior fellow and director of the State Capacity Initiative, CPR and associate professor, Ashoka University.

The views expressed are personal

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