The Centre must leave no stone unturned for finding a broad consensus around the issue by bringing on board all the stakeholders.
History bears testimony to the fact that peaceful expression of public concern has been a hallmark of a robust democracy. India as the largest and a well-functioning democracy has also been an effective breeding ground for nurturing a culture that has consolidated citizens’ right to free expression regarding all issues that concerns their life and well-being.
In tandem with the nation’s deep-rooted spirit of democratic expression and dissent, the country is witnessing a protracted farmers’ protest against the three farm laws that was passed by the Parliament earlier this year. Despite concerted attempts by the Central government to allay the fears of the farmers regarding the contentious legislations, the furore over the issue refuses to die down.
As the country is yet to fully recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the farmers’ decision to hit the streets indicate how serious they view the matter. It is thus extremely crucial to understand what aggravates the situation and what bearing does it have on the larger democratic discourse in the country.
Farmers from the States of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh are the major force behind the protests. In the Congress-ruled Punjab, the Akali Dal, the other important political party in the State, too is supporting the farmers’ cause against the BJP-ruled Centre. The Akali Dal, which was a long-time ally of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), quit the combine to protest against the farm laws, and the party’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal quit the Cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as far back as September.
For his part, the Congress Chief Minister of Punjab, Capt Amarinder Singh, got the State Assembly to pass laws, nullifying the Central farm laws. The other two Congress-ruled State governments in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh have also initiated steps to take legislative actions of the kind.
The protesting farmer unions in Haryana, where the BJP is in power in alliance with Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), have expressed resentment against the laws despite the State government’s repeated attempts to convince them otherwise. There are reports about tension within the JJP, led by Dushyant Singh Chautala, the Deputy Chief Minister, for backing the laws, even though the party has a strong support-base among the farming community.
According to reports, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in turn the ideological parent of the ruling BJP at the Centre, has also expressed support for the protest and claimed that the contentious legislations seems to favour only the big corporate houses and traders — and not the farmers. So, it is clear that not only the opposition parties but also some of the allies of the ruling BJP seem to be apprehensive about the farm laws.
Some major factors are behind the farmers’ protests, both procedural and substantive issues. On the procedural front, the hurried approach of the Union Government in rushing with the three pieces of legislation in Parliament, even while it has a huge majority to get them passed after a full-fledged debate in both houses. Neither did the government engage much with the stake-holders.
The second procedural of the Centre’s failure is in its inability to build a federal consensus on a subject like Agriculture which is a State subject under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. This led to the opposition-ruled States upping the ante against the Centre compromising federal principles.
On the substantive aspects of the laws in questions, the aggrieved farmers believe that the legislation is a harbinger to the abolition of the public procurement and the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime. Public procurement and the MSP are major instruments which the protesting farmers feel are indispensable for their survival.
As the laws suggest, there will be an end to monopoly procurement by Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) mandis, which the protesting farmers feel, will be catastrophic to their long-term interests. They also fear that State governments will not be able to collect market fee, cess or levy for trade outside the APMC markets, and the laws will eventually dismantle the mandi system and push them to directly deal with corporates.
The concern is that the current laws “pose a significant challenge to small and marginal farmers who constitute 86 percent of our agricultural class.” Also, the farm laws exclude the State and Central governments, and also civil courts to intervene in any matter pertaining to subjects covered under them, thus depriving the farmers of independent dispute redressal mechanisms.
Though the Centre has initiated negotiations with the agitating farmers’ unions in order to try and diffuse the protests and accommodate their demands, compromise has proved evasive till now. This is because the protestors would accept no offer other than total withdrawal of the three laws and a legislative guarantee for continuing with the MSP regime.
Succumbing to the pressure of the protesters and rolling back the laws would mean that any significant step towards positive agricultural reforms in the country might become politically difficult. Considering that the ruling party is politically and electorally strong at present, it could imply that if the reforms are not possible now, they would never be possible in the future.
However, a democratic and peaceful protest based on substantive concerns should not be dismissed or discredited for momentary interests of political mileage and electoral expediency. Every ruling dispensation under democratic conditions must strive hard with good faith for constantly prioritising the possibilities of repeated negotiations and consultations for addressing the concerns of the protesting citizens and finding a solution, no matter how vexed the issue in question is.
The Centre must leave no stone unturned for finding a broad consensus around the issue by bringing on board all the stakeholders, including farmers organisations as well as opposition parties in order to resolve the exacerbating crisis, for the interest of the farmers as well as for the larger interest of the nation’s democracy.
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Ambar Kumar Ghosh is an Associate Fellow under the Political Reforms and Governance Initiative at ORF Kolkata. His primary areas of research interest include studying ...Read More +