The Narendra Modi government’s offer to suspend the implementation of its three agricultural reform laws for at least 18 months marks a significant departure from its stated let’s-keep-talking position in the deadlock with agitating farmer unions. It, effectively, amounts to a repeal of the laws, in their current form, as the unions are demanding. Coming after the government—and the party’s — insistence that all criticism was motivated and political, this is an unequivocal admission of the lack of stakeholder consultation and haste that marked the passage of the legislation. Unlike the Labour Code bills referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee or the Personal Data Protection Bill now being scrutinised by a joint house panel, the farm laws were enacted through the ordinance route in June. The Modi government, even at the time of their introduction in Parliament, refused to heed the Opposition’s request to place the bills before a Select Committee. Instead, it got them passed in September with hardly any debate or informed discussion. This was despite these laws, by the government’s own contention, being as game-changing for Indian agriculture as the 1991 reforms for industry, services and the external sector.
The proposal to put the farm laws on hold and constitute a committee to come out with a mutually-agreed resolution basically substitutes for work that should have been Parliament’s remit. Had the bills gone to a select or joint committee that would have invited comments and suggestions from agriculture experts, farmers and other stakeholders, it may not have created the situation of distrust manifested in the ongoing protests at Delhi’s borders. The Modi government clearly underestimated the strength of the agitation and is looking for a face-saver short of an outright repeal of the laws. One hopes the unions, too, step back from their hard repeal-or-nothing-else line, accept this offer and join the committee that, unlike the parallel Supreme Court-appointed panel, should have representation from both votaries and critics of the laws. This is as good as the legislation being repealed, redrafted and reenacted.
While the Modi government must shoulder the blame for ramming through the farm laws and also mishandling of the protests that ensued, one cannot, however, find fault with the reforms themselves. Dismantling the monopoly of state-regulated mandis in agricultural produce marketing, doing away with stocking restrictions and allowing processors, organised retailers and exporters to enter into contract cultivation agreements with farmers are all steps in the right direction. The fundamental reality today is that India has transitioned from being a structurally deficit to a surplus farm producer. That, in turn, presents a new challenge of finding markets both within and outside the country, which only the private sector can address. The government’s job is to be an enabler, as it did for other sectors in the first two decades of reforms. Agriculture has waited too long and its reforms call for deft political management. Hopefully, the deadlock with farmers has helped the government realise that to effect meaningful change, 300-plus seats in the Lok Sabha also needs some humility and a willingness to listen.