Farm Protest Is Losing Steam: Time For Government To Make Some Smart Moves 

Farm Protest  Is Losing Steam: Time For Government To Make Some Smart Moves Rakesh Tikait with farmers at a protest.
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  • Time for Prime Minister Modi to make some adroit political moves to send the agitators packing, but with some face-savers and self-respect intact.

On 18 February, Rakesh Tikait, the western Uttar Pradesh-based leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, threatened that farmers could destroy their standing crop this season if three farm reforms laws are not repealed.

A few days after that, when some farmers in Jind (Haryana) and some villages of Uttar Pradesh uprooted their crops, Tikait rushed to add that they should not do so unless the protests were forcibly crushed.

That’s probably the quickest climbdown in the history of Indian farm protests, offering a hint that the agitation is fast losing steam. A rail roko agitation around the same time also did not make waves, with some calling it a near flop, with negligible impact on railway services, and others a partial success.

Even the Lutyens media, which knows little about agriculture but was eager to hype up the farm protests since it looked like undermining the Union government, has lost interest. The urban citizen is no longer interested in farm news, and trying to artificially hype it up would lose them TRPs.

To be sure, the agitation is far from over and could yet escalate if the government makes the wrong moves, but the point to note is this: escalation threats are potent only as long as they are not carried out. Once they are – as we saw during the violent Republic Day protests in Delhi’s tractor rallies – the protesters lose both moral and legal ground. Ordinary citizens lose their sympathies when their own interests as consumers are repeatedly threatened.

Asking farmers to burn or uproot crops is like workers demanding wage hikes burning their own cash to make a point. It may have some emotional and symbolic impact, and certainly makes for good video propaganda, but when carried too far it can boomerang. It is about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

If rich farmers in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh actually end up destroying their own produce in large quantities, farmers in the rest of the country, who do not currently get minimum support prices, will quietly rejoice. The green revolution has moved eastwards and southwards, and this is what threatens the profits of rich farmers and traders who are bankrolling the agitation.

It is worth noting that at a recent meeting (19 February) of state agriculture ministers with NITI Aayog, no state actually called for the repeal of the farm laws. The demand for repeal sounds maximalist to most farmers outside the granary states; but ego issues are holding up a solution since some non-farm vested interests are keen to give the Narendra Modi government a bloody nose.

Meeanwhile, the Supreme Court-appointed committee that is looking at the farm laws has had several meetings with state officials, private mandi owners, and farmer unions across several states, including many opposition ones (read here, here). It plans to meet 160 unions, including those 40 that are part of the current protests) before it submits its report to the court.

While it is not clear what the committee will finally recommend, the one thing that the report will establish is that the current agitation is far from representative of farmers everywhere. This myth will be laid to rest when the report comes in.

The committee, obviously aware of the political nature of the task it has been assigned, might well suggest repeal of the farm laws and their substitution with better crafted ones, or it could ask for one law to be repealed, and two others to be amended.

What it is unlikely to do is saddle the state with the burden of buying all agricultural products with minimum support price (MSP) guarantees. It will not seek to bankrupt the state, and no Supreme Court bench can decide what a government should spend on which sector. That would be a violation of the Constitution.

Given the current stalemate and the gradual erosion of interest in the agitation, the government should be working on its own proactive counter-strategy to get the agitating farmers back to their farms instead of blocking entry points to Delhi.

Four moves could help.

First, address the ego issues, so that leaders like Tikait can claim victory without serious loss of face. This could happen if the SC panel suggests repeal of at least one of the farm laws, but even on its own the Centre could reinitiate talks and tell the unions that the laws can be rewritten substantially. This offer was made during earlier talks with the unions, but can be repeated again. The PM agreeing to meet the farm leaders at his home if they are willing to drop maximalist demands could be one face-saver.

Second, the government needs credible sounding boards, and two politicians it could turn to are Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. One is anti-farm laws, and the other has not spoken much on the subject. One or both could be asked to make private efforts to talk to the striking unions and find out some middle ground where the laws do not have to be repealed, but can be promised sensible changes. Singh may not agree to do this, but could still be used as a sounding board to figure out where a solution may lie.

Third, this is also a good time to announce plans for setting up state-sponsored agricultural marketing boards in all major states, including a fund to wean Punjab and Haryana farmers away from water-intensive crops like rice with temporary income support schemes during the transition.

An Amul-type food processing and marketing organisation is what farmers need to up earnings from foodgrain and horticulture production. MSPs are not the way forward. The Centre could offer to fund all initial startup and marketing expenses for Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh farmers, and later to all other states too.

Fourth, the NITI Aayog meeting with state agricultural ministers needs to be followed up with an offer by the Centre to devolve 80 per cent of food procurement funds to states, who can then top it up to help their own states improve farm earnings, or procure foodgrain from other states to feed their own populations. States can be free to set their own minimum support prices for crops that are important to their own farmers, and procure the rest from other states through bilateral pacts.

The real tussle is not Centre versus Punjab and Haryana farmers, but the latter versus farmers in other states. The green revolution has moved east (to eastern UP, Bihar, and West Bengal, Odisha), and to central India (towards Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) and the future of rice and wheat productivity lies in these states. This is what threatens rich farmers in the traditional granary states. They have competition, and no one likes competition.

Time for Narendra Modi to make some adroit political moves to send the agitators packing, but with some face-savers and self-respect intact.

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