New Delhi: While hearing several pleas seeking the removal of protesting farmers from Delhi borders, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde suspended the implementation of the three farm laws until further orders on Tuesday. However, at the same time, it put the Centre in an evidently advantageous position against lakhs of protesting farmers by setting up a committee comprising only those experts who have been openly favouring the contentious legislations.
The constitution of a committee is clearly unfavourable for the Samyuktha Kisan Morcha, a temporary front for all the protesting farmers’ unions, which had expressed its strong disinclination to depose in front of a committee, and had instead reiterated its core demand to repeal the laws.
On Monday, the Supreme Court had lambasted the Centre for its poor handling of the farmers’ protests and its apparent non-consultative approach. The bench also spoke about setting up a committee to resolve the dispute. Yet, most unions felt that the apex court’s intervention to find an “amicable” solution to the impasse between the Centre and farmers was ambivalent at best, as they felt it may end up diluting their fundamental demand.
A day later, such speculations proved right when the Supreme Court unilaterally set up a committee and announced its members without any consultation with the unions.
The four members of the SC’s committee will be celebrated pro-market agricultural economist Ashok Gulati and Pramod Kumar Joshi, along with Anil Ghanwat of Shetkari Sangathana and Bhupinder Singh Mann, leader of one of the factions of the Bharatiya Kisan Union.
Both Ghanawat and Mann have always supported private, corporate-led markets in agricultural trade – which the new farm laws seek to introduce institutionally.
With such a composition, it is highly unlikely that the committee would instil any confidence among the protesters whose core opposition is premised on the pro-market heft of the new farm legislations. Moreover, the Supreme Court bench appears to have ignored its own understanding of a truce committee. In previous hearings of the pleas, Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde had argued for a committee headed by former Chief Justice of India R.M.Lodha, and had even mentioned the possibility of having agriculture expert and senior journalist P. Sainath on the panel.
How the four members have responded to the farmers’ protests throws some light on the apex court’s preferences.
The most celebrated agricultural economist in India, Ashok Gulati has been the chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), the primary body to fix prices for agricultural commodities and regulate food supplies. He has worked with several governments in the past, has held multiple leadership positions in different national and international organisations, and has been instrumental in fixing the Minimum Support Price for food grains.
However, he has been avowedly a votary of free market reforms in Indian agricultural trade, and has veered towards advocating an unregulated agricultural market in India. Since 2015, he has served as a member of NITI Aayog’s task force on agriculture and chairman of the expert group on agriculture market reforms.
Dissing the stance taken by the unions, who feel that the new laws would reduce their bargaining power against big corporates, weaken the MSP regime in trade, and eventually end their autonomy over their land, Gulati had supported the Centre quite early on in this stalemate.
Writing for the Indian Express, he had said:
“The economic rationale of these pieces of legislation is to provide greater choice and freedom to farmers to sell their produce and to buyers to buy and store, thereby creating competition in agricultural marketing. This competition is expected to help build more efficient value chains in agriculture by reducing marketing costs, enabling better price discovery, improving price realisation for farmers and, at the same time, reducing the price paid by consumers. It will also encourage private investment in storage, thus reducing wastage and help contain seasonal price volatility.”
He blamed the opposition for “misleading” farmers on the laws. Gulati’s is an expert opinion, and many who follow agricultural markets are likely to agree with him, but it is one thing to have an informed opinion about the farm laws and one thing to be on a committee which is needed to resolve the differences between farmers and the government.
As a person with such an unambiguous position on the new laws, he is unlikely to be perceived as a friendly panel member by the unions.
Pramod Kumar Joshi
Joshi is, again, one of the foremost free market-inclined agricultural economists, and has been supporting the farm laws. He has been working in the fields of technology policy, market, and institutional economics, and is currently the South Asia director of International Food Policy Research Institute. He has been the director of the National Academy of Agricultural Research Management at Hyderabad. He has also served as a member of the intergovernmental panel on the World Bank’s International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development.
In September, 2020, when the farmers had just begun their protests over the laws, he pitched in with senior bureaucrat Arabinda K. Padhee, also known for his expertise in agriculture policies, to make a case for pro-market reforms in agriculture trade and support the Centre’s laws.
“There is a perceivable fear amongst farmer-organisations that these reforms will end the MSP system and promote corporate farming. There may be little truth to such apprehensions. On the contrary, the experiences from the East and Southeast Asian countries show that such reforms lead to evolution of competitive markets and benefit both producers as well as consumers,” the two authors wrote for The Financial Express.
While making their case in favour of the laws, they said:
“The private sector is expected to invest in agri-logistics, provide improved technology and offer guaranteed procurement. Such a scenario opens enormous opportunities for agricultural diversification, towards high-value commodities, processing and exports. The Agriculture Infrastructure Fund, recently created by the government, would be of much use in this direction…The agricultural marketing legislations can’t be wished away through avoidable delays or non-cooperation by the states—any such tactics will ‘irreparably’ harm the prospects of Indian agriculture in the long run.”
“It is regrettable that the farmers’ agitation has not yet been resolved, despite the Centre’s positive response on considering genuine demands. It is also unfortunate that farmers are changing the goalposts before every negotiation. Initially, it was claimed that the laws were framed without consulting farmers and farmer organisations; this is an unfair claim. The issue of deregulating agricultural markets has been under discussion and been debated for the last two decades.”
“Various non-farm organisations and a few intellectuals who are supporting the farmers’ demands must realise that the demands are unworthy of such support…Any rollback of the farm laws will be disastrous for the farm sector and farmers. The new farm laws will help India emerge as a leader in agriculture and agro-processing,” Joshi and Padhee emphasised.
To put Joshi on the committee, amidst visible opposition by unions to any such manoeuvring by authorities, is more likely to be questioned than be accepted by all parties wholeheartedly.
While the apex court bench did consider it fair to have representatives from the farming community in the committee, it has done so only by appointing two leaders who are, again, supportive of the laws.
Anil Ghanwat was among the first farmers’ leaders to openly support the farm laws, even as most farmer unions were agitating against them in different parts of the country. Ghanwat represents the Sharad Joshi-founded Shetkari Sangathan, a farmers’ union in Maharashtra which has historically advocated the opening up of agricultural markets and weakening of regulatory bodies like the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC).
Shetkari Sangathan has a long history of charting its own individual path against different farmers’ unions of the country. Joshi has firmly believed that only freeing up the agriculture market would benefit farmers, and not otherwise. He organised farmers by running a campaign against government’s allegedly corrupt practices, which he said were being done to advantage consumers more than farmers.
A recent Indian Express explainer recalled one such moment in 1984 when Joshi organised an agitation to break the Maharashtra State Cooperative Cotton Marketing Federation’s cotton procurement norms.
“Joshi was the only one among India’s three big farm leaders at the time — the other two were Mahendra Singh Tikait of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and M.D. Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha — who supported globalisation and the entry of MNCs in agriculture. When the followers of Tikait and Nanjundaswamy were torching outlets of American fast food giants, Joshi and his supporters took out marches in support of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Joshi welcomed India’s joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995,” the explainer said.
Following the same doctrine, the Shetkari Sangathan, now led by Ghanwat, has stood in sharp contrast to the farmers’ protests against the new laws. Ghanwat was among the few farmer leaders to have met Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar in September, 2020. His organisation also held a demonstration to support the laws on October 2, 2020.
While arguing that the new laws will bring “financial freedom for farmers”, Ghanwat said that the new legislations restrict powers of APMCs, and were “welcome” as “this would lead to more investment in rural areas and encourage agro-based enterprises.”
“The government can stay implementation of the laws and amend them after discussions with farmers. However, there is no need to withdraw these laws, which have opened up opportunities for farmers,” he made his position clear at another instance.
Bhupinder Singh Mann
The Samyuktha Kisan Morcha consists of various ideologically-opposed unions including different factions of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) and several other such fronts, but curiously the apex court bench chose Bhupinder Singh Mann, a BKU faction leader who has consistently supported the new legislations. Mann’s leadership has led to BKU only changing its position in favour of introducing certain amendments and negotiating with the government amidst a rising demand for a total repeal of the laws by a majority of farmer unions.
In fact, Mann, a former Rajya Sabha MP, chairs the newly-formed All India Kisan Coordination Committee (AIKCC), which was formed by Sharad Joshi and now supports the farm legislations.
In December, Mann met Tomar to give a memorandum demanding that the three laws be implemented. The AIKCC sprung into action only when a majority of unions decided to stay put at the Delhi borders to agitate against the laws.
“Reforms are needed in order to make agriculture competitive. But safeguards are needed to protect farmers, and anomalies must also be corrected,” Mann told The Hindu after submitting his memorandum to the union minister. The memorandum spoke of amendments to ensure judicial recourse to farmers, and the need for a level-playing field between the private and state-run markets. It also demanded that the MSP regime should continue, while derestricting the Essential Commodities Act, which allowed the government to impose stock limits by private traders.
Bhupinder Singh Mann and Shetkari Sangathan had sent a letter to Minister NS Tomar last month saying they were in favour of laws with amendments
Both representatives are on the new committee pic.twitter.com/2pHWtQy0kI
— Aman Sharma (@AmanKayamHai_ET) January 12, 2021
Interestingly, the AIKCC submitted its demands around the same time when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed Swadeshi Jagaran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh also started demanding a set of similar amendments. Most of these demands were put forward by pro-government farmer unions as the call for a complete repeal of laws gained strength across the country. Around the same time, the government also expressed its willingness to consider some of these demands, and put forward a “clause-by-clause” proposal containing possible amendments to the laws.
The protesting unions saw such intervention by pro-government groups as an attempt to derail their agitation and muddy the waters.
Precisely for such reasons, the apex court’s putting together of a panel, which comprises only pro-government voices, is being seen by agitating groups, as yet another attempt to delegitimise the protests. The Supreme Court’s decision not to accommodate even a single member who could be seen as unbiased will only worsen the distrust among a majority of farmers towards the Centre.
“What is the point of such a committee? Why should any genuine farmer’s group be interested in conversing with them? The Supreme Court itself has given a good reason to the protesting farmers to boycott this committee,” commented economist and a professor in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, R. Ramakumar, soon after the apex court declared the names of the panel members.
Agriculture policy expert Devinder Sharma tweeted likewise.
The SC has formed a committee in a bid to end the stalemate. Looking at its composition, I am reminded of what Ghalib had once said:
क़ासिद के आते आते ख़त इक और लिख रखूँ
मैं जानता हूँ जो वो लिखेंगे जवाब में#FarmersProtest
— Devinder Sharma (@Devinder_Sharma) January 12, 2021