It withstood 400 years of onslaught. Be it Nadir Shah, the British or any other raider. It withstood all with its honour unquestioned, its regality undiminished and its importance undiluted. On August 15, 1947, it got its pride of place in Indian history when the tricolour was hoisted from its ramparts. It was cosy in its belief that in these last 70 years, its pride of place in the history of the nation will be indelible. But, it was rudely awakened. Did it ever expect that its own countrymen would besmirch its solemnity? It is not about a region, religion or language. It is about a symbol of the dignity of a nation. None can compete with its majesty, grandeur and awe-inspiring presence. Yes, it is the Red Fort — the pride of the nation. The Ramparts weep. They shed tears, each one of which asks: “Do you cut your nose to spite your face”? Every child will carry the image that TV channels telecasted of an unruly mob, diminishing the dignity of their country’s landmark in history. It will be difficult to obliterate that sight at least in my living years.
But that is not what I set out to write. I could not help articulating those emotions as any discussion on agriculture reform laws will henceforth have that image overpower the thought process in every true Indian’s mind.
Farmers from Punjab, parts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have been agitating against the three Acts which the central government has passed. Their grouse is that no consultations were held with them. We may, for the time being, let that argument rest. We should also accept that they conducted themselves with restraint and decorum. That they were unyielding in their two demands of repealing the Acts and of legalising MSP also, may be allowed to rest. The issue that stares one in the face is: What is the road forward? It seems that those with whom the government conducted 11 rounds of deliberations have lost their credibility to continue the dialogue. The unfortunate incidents on January 26 have taken the wind out of their sails. They have begun to suffer from a deficit of trust. It could be legitimately asked: What if the dialogue were to commence and once an agreement is reached, a new set of farmer groups mushroom, stating that they were not consulted? More importantly, does the rest of the country continue to wait, unable to operationalise FPOs, storage centres, and markets permitted under the new legislation?
Punjab was at the forefront of the Green Revolution. Its farmers provided succour to Indians, helping get away from the clutches of PL-480 wheat. To support the diligent farmers, the Essential Commodities Act was enacted. To ensure farmers a platform to sell their produce and assure them of commensurate prices for their produce, minimum support prices were announced. The Food Corporation of India did a good job in procuring foodgrains and building up buffer stocks. Our present buffer stock holding is double the specified quantity. Since the APMC system was working well in Punjab and power for agriculture was made free, it became lucrative for farmers to cultivate more quantities of foodgrains.
The 1970s saw a huge expansion of rice cultivation in Punjab due to the free availability of plentiful groundwater. The cropping pattern was unmindful of the depletion in the groundwater levels. Soon, Punjab began to contribute one-third of the foodgrain procurement of the nation. The system of arhatiyas, APMC and procurement by FCI, spawned an ecosystem with numerous persons being gainfully involved in it. This well-established system ensured that the farmer did not seek very many new profitable enterprises. Newer and more attractive cash crops were also not grown on a commercial scale. It is these farmer families who have a nagging fear that the new Acts will divert procurement agencies to other platforms, away from APMC markets and maybe even to other states. There is also a lurking suspicion that these Acts are the first step towards the withdrawal of MSP and that contract farming will reduce their bargaining power with corporates. This is the shroud of fear that occupies the mind of the average farmer. Insidious groups have played on these false beliefs, leading to the present impasse.
Neither should discussions reach a cul-de-sac nor should an air of mistrust be allowed to continue. These reforms have been under consideration for a decade-and-a-half. We need to move away from the supply-side constraints that Indian agriculture suffered in the Sixties. Archaic laws have to give way to progressive provisions. Cropping patterns have to be made more scientific. India cannot be facing a groundwater crisis a decade from now. Combined with all this is the pride of a nation, which cannot allow a handful of miscreants to derail progressive legislation, in whichever form it is tweaked. Hence, a way forward must be explored. The government may well take the stand that talks can be resumed only after farm unions agree to the offer made by it. It should not be a question of who has got the upper hand post the rally going awry.
The momentum in reforms must continue. The prime minister has renewed the offer for dialogue. The farmers must gracefully accept the government’s offer. The Supreme Court-mandated committee must continue deliberations with farmer organisations participating in them. The governments of Punjab, Delhi and Maharashtra have supported the protesting farmers. They should partner in the dialogue to evolve a sustainable and meaningful solution. The stakes for the country are high. Farmer unions must recognise that engaging in further sit-in protests runs the risk of insidious elements furtively eroding their credibility. Indian agriculture must rightfully occupy its space in enhancing GDP.
The writer is former Comptroller and Auditor General of India and Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore