India needs agricultural reforms but federalism is the key

The three controversial farm laws have finally been withdrawn. These were the laws passed in Parliament, and repealed by the sheer power of street protests.

Published: 05th December 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th December 2021 02:24 PM   |  A+A-

Farmers Protest

India has a diverse geography, and the problems faced by farmers vary from place to place. (Representational photo | EPS)

The three controversial farm laws have finally been withdrawn. These were the laws passed in Parliament, and repealed by the sheer power of street protests. If the farm laws were good for the nation, as the government had been arguing for the past one-and-a-half years, why were they retracted? If they were against the farmers’ interests, why were they passed in the first place? There are no easy answers for any of these questions, except saying that the government was forced to cancel the laws due to the severity of the protests. 

One can argue that in democracy, the elected government must bend to the will of the people. But how does one know what the will of the people is? Is it measured by the strength of the street protests and its nuisance value? Or should it be estimated through the due process of elections? If it is the former, then there is no need for elections at all. Any group can come out on the streets, protest, create a ruckus and get a law passed or repealed at their will. In a diverse country like India, it would be opening the gate of chaos if street justice dictates the course of the law. So whatever law Parliament, an elected body that represents the people’s will, passes should be sacrosanct seems a reasonable argument. 

However, there is another side to this point. Suppose a group of people—linguistic, ethnic or religious minority—feel that they are getting affected by a new law passed by the government. Their livelihoods are threatened, or they feel their existence itself becomes difficult. The proposed rule may be good for the majority but doesn’t take care of the interests of this minority. To what extent can ‘the majority’s will is supreme’ argument be stretched? Take a hypothetical scenario of imposing one official language or religion over the entire India. What would be the reaction if Parliament passes a law that India would have only one official language or one religion, as that constitutes the majority, or impose the food or dressing habits of the majority on the rest? Would we continue to argue that the law passed by Parliament is sacrosanct and cannot be changed? What is the recourse for those who don’t fall in the majority group—be it ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural—for making their voices heard, other than coming out and protesting on the streets? 

India has a diverse geography, and the problems faced by farmers vary from place to place. The farmers’ issues in Punjab or Haryana are not the same as the issues faced by the farmers in Odisha or Assam. So it is impossible to have a law that would please all members of such a diverse group. Those who are affected would come out with street protests. There is a reason why agriculture was made into a state subject. No magic pill would sort out farmers’ issues across the country, and each geographic area requires its unique solutions. For example, one of the contentious issues that the farmers of Punjab and Haryana were protesting was the proposal to dismantle APMCs. Most Indian states do not have APMCs at all, and this law wouldn’t have affected them. The protests were more or less restricted to a few states near the national capital, yet the proximity to the capital gave their protests considerable visibility. Compared to the prosperous farmers of Punjab or Haryana, the condition of farmers in many other states remains dismal, yet their voices were muted against the law. 

There can be no debate on the pathetic condition of Indian farmers in most states. Whatever be the merits of the new laws, the existing ones haven’t done anything good for the farmers or our country. Farming remains one of the last bastions where archaic socialist laws of the pre-1992 reforms persist. As a result, farmer suicide continues to be unabated, and rural India continues to be desperately poor. 

The farm sector requires a shake-up, and let us hope this retraction of the laws wouldn’t jeopardise the much-needed reforms in the farm sector. Ideally, each state government should be coaxed to make reforms suitable for its farmers instead of having a central law thrust upon them. This is an opportunity to have consensus between states, and a committee to oversee farmers’ diverse problems and interests, like the GST council, would be the path forward. Federalism, and not centralising everything, is the key in a mind-bogglingly diverse country like India. They cannot be solved by a central law, however well-intentioned. 

Anand Neelakantan

Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

India Matters


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