Government Must Dig In For Long Battle Of Wills Over Farmer Blackmail: Five Things It Can Do, Three Things It Mustn’t
The refusal to seek middle ground implies that the government has to brace itself for a battle of wills that could stretch for months.
Here’s what the government can do to avoid disruption.
From all reports, it appears as if there can be no meeting ground between what the protesting farmers will accept, and how far the government will go to appease them. One of the farm leaders is quoted in The Economic Times as saying: “We can give one line in writing to the government that we have rejected its December 9 proposal, (that is) if the government is waiting for it."
This should clearly tell us that the farm leadership is resorting to coercive blackmail. The protest is not about addressing the genuine grievances of farmers. There is nothing in the three farm laws passed by Parliament that can even remotely threaten the incomes of farmers; if anything, it offers some new options if the laws are well implemented.
The refusal to seek middle ground implies that the government has to brace itself for a battle of wills that could stretch for months. This challenge is as big as Covid, where the government acquitted itself well by being both patient and sensible in its responses. It needs the same mix of patience and firmness to see the protests through. It is a pity that the protesters have chosen just the moment when the economy appeared ready to emerge from Covid-related supply disruptions to push it back to crisis mode in the economic zones around Delhi.
The options the government should rule out immediately are the following:
One, it cannot use force to stop the farmers from blockading Delhi at its entry borders. It has to find ways to supply Delhi by other means with its essentials. The industrial areas surrounding Delhi need similar help.
Two, it cannot offer to repeal the laws, for that would be giving in to blackmail. If it caves in, it will open the floodgates to more pressures of the same kind. This is the Shaheen Bagh model raised to the power of ‘n’. It must be defeated and seen off.
Three, it cannot also ignore the well-being of the protesting farmers, especially given the winter and the likelihood of Covid surfacing again in the Punjab-Haryana-Delhi belt. It has to help the protesters avoid disease even as it knows that they are upto no good right now by showing utter contempt for the rights of others.
However, there are logical ways out for the government to deal with the multiple threats of supply chain disruptions and Covid resurgence.
#1. The government should always keep the doors open to talks, so that when the farmers are worn down a few months down the line, some settlement can be arrived at that is fair to both farmers and consumers.
#2. The Centre must start moving forward on the new laws, by encouraging states that are willing to come on board to set up proper regulators for contract farming, and also by funding states to create the necessary infrastructure for setting up private mandis and price information points where farmers can begin to see the laws working. These can be done in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and extended to Haryana and other states slowly. All states must be encouraged to take the lead in organising farmer producer organisations, with cooperatives like Amul and various state-level milk marketing federations being asked to spearhead moves to help farmers get a better price from the market through value-additions and branding.
#3. This may also be a good time to announce an additional dollop of PM Kisan Samman payouts. The extra cash will help farmers realise that cash is better than MSPs, which are available only to a few rich farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
#4. The most important step would be decentralisation. Procurement operations must be shifted to state governments, and they should be handed 90 per cent of the food subsidy cash to manage their own procurement chains. By centralising such decisions in Delhi, the Union government has made itself a target for farmer blackmail. Most states would be happy to get the extra cash, which they may use to substantially favour their own farmers in terms of crops grown and for procurement. Once Punjab’s farmers realise that farmers in different states have different interests, they will have no option but to seek to negotiate themselves out of trouble. They have needlessly allowed themselves to be led by rabble-rousers who have painted them into a corner.
#5. A long-term plan to shift subsidies from rice and wheat to coarse grains must be coupled with special bridge low-cost loans to farmers to keep lands fallow for a few seasons would help. Rice should be grown only in heavily rain-fed areas, and certainly not in Punjab. Punjab should be moving towards horticulture and other coarse cereals, given the sharp deterioration in its soil through excessive use of cheap urea and incentivisation with high MSPs. Rice is a water guzzler, and possibly the single biggest cause of groundwater depletion in the state. Urea prices should be raised in stages by compensating farmers with cash instead. This way, farmers will anyway use less urea and soil-damaging fertilisers. Punjab’s farmers need liberation from foolish farm policies, not further mollycoddling with more liberal MSPs.
In short, the solution to the farmers protest involves being simultaneously soft and firm with them. No one can give in to blackmail, but that does not mean farmers need to be dealt with harshly either.
Maybe, offering them first jab of the Covid vaccine will be useful. It will show that the government cares for them. Doors for talks and dialogue should be kept open all the time. It is farmers who are closing the doors, and not governments.
Above all, the government must open regular communication channels to all farmer organisations, and not only the misguided ones camping on Delhi’s borders.
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