By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneshwar, January 13, 2021: As India is gearing up to celebrate 72nd Republic Day just after a fortnight, the Narendra Modi led NDA government faces toughest challenge of accomplishing reforms in crucial agriculture sector to propel the country into the league of developed nations with the Supreme Court pulling up the Centre for its handling of the farmers protest against the new farm laws.

The Apex Court on Monday said it is “extremely disappointed” with the way negotiations between them were going. It will constitute a committee headed by a former Chief Justice of India to resolve the impasse. It also may go to the extent of staying the implementation of the contentious farm laws as it refused to grant extra time to the Centre to explore the possibility of amicable solution saying it has already granted the government a “long rope”.

Meanwhile, farmer unions have announced they would march to the capital on the Republic Day with around one lakh tractor trolleys if their demands to repeal the farm laws are not met.

The three contentious farm laws passed by the Union government last year have stirred outrage across the country, particularly among the farming community, and more than a month has passed since thousands of farmers, braving the chilling cold and rain, hit the roads in protest against the new laws. These reforms relate to marketing of agricultural produce, contract farming and controls on transportation, storage, prices and distribution under Essential Commodities Act (ECA) of 1955.

In fact, the Vajpayee government had initiated marketing and contract farming reforms in 2003 through a model act to be adopted by states, but it was implemented only half-heartedly. The problem remained largely unsolved. Modi government has the courage to finally implement these reforms in the agri sector, which waited for too long for transformation. Agrarian reforms that recognize the importance of ecologically and economically sustainable agriculture are an absolute necessity. Such reforms would require more than merely changing the trade emphasis of existing laws. They will involve the creation of inclusive, transparent and well-informed laws compatible with these reforms.

Without private enterprise and capital, agriculture cannot prosper that the country aspires for. But the way the reforms pending for years are hurriedly pushed through executive laws, the ordinance, and thereafter in Parliament, the Modi government’s move betrays a strategy of reforms by shock tactics turning the entire process into corporates vs peasants, putting private participation in jeopardy even for future.

And that sparked off a farm agitation which has so far remained remarkably peaceful. But it is clear that the protesters are not the typical farmers belonging to the lowest and most impoverished sections of society. And mostly they come from Green Revolution tract in Punjab, Haryana, parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Going by the latest official information, the top two lakh farmers of Punjab and Haryana have incomes that are among the top 8 per cent of the farmers in the country and the top 20,000 farmers have incomes that are in the top two per cent. As the agricultural income is free of income tax, wheat farmers enjoy a higher rate of return than rice farmers. The largest farmers, with holdings of 12.6 hectares on an average, are estimated to have agricultural income of approximate Rs 15.75 lakh annually.

In other states, where smaller farmers have the means of securing the minimum support price for wheat and rice, there is a natural attraction for the deregulation of the market and liberation from the middlemen who are the only real beneficiaries of the old Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act. The enacted reforms are also likely to spur investments in agro-industries, including cold storages. These investments have, so far, been patchy owing to earlier restrictions against ‘hoarding’ — restrictions that were put in place during the era of food shortages.

Experts argue that agriculture is a state subject and so these laws are unconstitutional. More than half of the population in the country is dependent on agriculture. But it contributes a paltry 17-18% to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and as a result the average farm household income hovers around Rs 6,500 a month, leading to farm indebtedness and suicides.

While the centre remains firm in its stand not to repeal the three farm laws and maintains that these are for the greater good of the farmers, the farmers’ body sees this whole thing as an attempt to benefit the big corporate houses. But there is a way of solving the tangle by enacting the new laws incorporating the substantive demands of the farmers which the government has virtually agreed to and also incorporate a repeal clause in it, annulling the three existing reform laws.

The farmers are also apprehensive that once these new laws come into practice, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) system will be gone and the APMCs will slowly disappear. They fear that it will negatively impact their income and will further deteriorate their living conditions.

In the two latest rounds of negotiations between the farmers’ organisations and the Centre, the change in the government’s attitude — reflected in the homage paid to the farmers who died during the protest, the conciliatory gesture on the stubble burning issue and the proposed electricity amendment bill — deserves to be welcomed.

The government has also acknowledged flaws in the three farming laws and is offering to make amendments. However, a fundamental gulf exists between the government’s view that its suggested amendments will address these flaws, and the farmers’ view that the amendments do not change the faulty structure of these laws and, therefore, the laws themselves need to be repealed.

On minimum support price (MSP), the most important of the many contentious issues, the government must come out clearly with clear legal stipulation on maintain MSP unhindered.

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