What Should the Outcome of India's Farmer Protests Look Like?

The government has to now step forward with basic changes in its proposals.

The highways that lead into Delhi are getting blocked, one by one.

First it was the Singhu and Tikri borders which were occupied by Punjab and Haryana farmers. Then it was the Ghazipur border, with Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand farmers. Now, farmers have begun blocking the highway at Palwal, on the outskirts of Delhi.

Now that the Panchayat election results are announced in Rajasthan, there will be a fifth road into Delhi blocked too, if the government continues in this manner. Several protestors have lost their lives so far, as part of this agitation, due to various reasons including the cold winter.

The government’s attitude of issuing ordinances during the pandemic lockdown period, then ignoring the farmers and their protests for weeks on end to begin with, followed by a forceful ramming through of the 3 farm acts, along with putting up numerous obstacles and unleashing police repression on farmer leaders has only increased the quiet resolve of farmers to fight these legislations fully. Their demands are clear – amendments here and there will not do and only a full repeal of the 3 farm acts, along with a legislation for guaranteed realization of remunerative prices. They are also demanding a withdrawal of the draft Electricity Amendment Bill 2020 and an exclusion of farmers from the regulatory and penal provisions of a new ordinance about Delhi’s air pollution.

Indian society is responding to the farmers positively. After all, they are our annadatas keeping us alive. As can be expected in any democracy, political parties of various hues are stepping forward to support the farmers in their movement. Local communities are extending warm hospitality. Global citizens and governments are responding too.

However, despite five rounds of talks with the agriculture ministry mainly, and one inexplicable meeting with the Home Minister, the government is not willing to agree to the legitimate demands of the farmers. While the multiple rounds of talks have always happened in a cordial setting, the crux of the matter is that the government does not want to appear to bow down. Farmers want a repeal, and the government is ready only for amendments. Farmers want a legal framework for MSP, and the government is willing to give a “written assurance” that MSP and procurement will continue in the current manner.

There are some who believe this stalemate reflects a “my way or highway” attitude on the part of the farmer leaders.

However, I want to clarify about this. From the articulations of farmer leaders on the issue of why repealing is the only solution as far as they are concerned, the following emerge clearly.

One, not only are the objectives of the laws wrong, but that the three statutes work together against common citizens’ interests (the government also knows that these laws work in tandem with each other and that is why they brought them in together). When the very objective of a statute is objectionable, it goes unsaid that the provisions within the law including several definitions, operationalization provisions, offences and penalties etc., will also go wrong. The objective is around de-regulation, to create a facilitative setup for agri-businesses. The objective is also about the government withdrawing from its own responsibilities around investment on infrastructure, or protecting farmers’ interests.

Two, these laws have clearly tried to undermine state level regulation of agricultural markets. This raises a question of Constitutional validity of the laws. While the government of India is arguing that these fall under Item No. 33 of Concurrent list, farmer unions are making distinction between “markets” and “trade” and are pointing out that the first point of interface of farmers with markets is a state subject under Seventh Schedule of India’s Constitution.

There is already a big question mark on the processes of law-making and how they were brought in under covid-cover. Good law-making begins with the draft statute put out for public consultations, including specific consultations with key stakeholders.

There is also the matter of a well-laid-out procedure in law-making even when the government introduces a Bill in the Parliament and meets with a lot of recommendations for changes to be made from a Parliamentary Standing Committee that studies the Bill, where the Bill goes back to the drawing board and comes back as a New Bill rather than amendments being moved. When there are too many amendments to be moved, then it is better to repeal.

Farmer leaders are also saying that the government has ignored farmers’ protests for too long, and now it is too late to talk about too many amendments, when protesting farmers are very firm that they want a complete repeal and are ready to stay put for however long it takes.

It is also important to note that the government has no reason not to repeal the law, other than making this whole matter into a matter of prestige and political posturing. When asked pointedly about why they will not repeal, the only response was that ‘the government has its own compulsions’. This is not justifiable.

Finally, it is important to note that what the government had sent as its “concrete proposal” to the farm leaders is actually much lesser than what was articulated by the Agriculture Minister in the December 5 talks that were inconclusive! On MSP and procurement, the government is talking about only giving in writing their assurance that the current regime will continue, when that is not what farmers have been asking for – they are asking for a legal regime that guarantees remunerative MSP realization for all farmers for all commodities, at atleast C2+50% formula for price-fixing.

It is clear that farmers are not seeking amendments in the 3 central farm acts, nor are they asking for an assurance of the existing MSP and procurement regime to continue. The government has to now step forward with basic changes in its proposals before the deadlock ends – a full repeal of the three Acts and a legal framework for guaranteeing remunerative MSP realization is what the farmers want. This is in addition to a few more demands.

Kavitha Kuruganti is with the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA)