In rejecting SC proposal to negotiate with panel, protesting farmers are displaying obduracy

There is no other way of saying it. The protesting farmers, picketing on the outskirts of the National Capital, are showing no signs that they are serious about reaching a solution to the stalemate over the agricultural reforms. Instead, they are displaying a Trumpian obduracy in refusing to negotiate beyond ‘my way or the highway’. With due respect to the real farmers among the protestors who are braving the elements and standing their ground to achieve their objectives, they are neither the sole custodians of India’s billion-strong farming community nor can they force the withdrawal of laws that have been passed via a due process by the Parliament by arm-twisting an elected government.

Instead of debate over the contentious clauses of the legislature, the protestors are simply seeking to bypass India’s democracy and its institutions by throwing a massive tantrum, holding an explicit threat of disruption and an implicit threat of aggression. India is a democracy. The coercive approach cannot be allowed to subvert the democratic process or else the republic will make itself vulnerable to all forms of extortionary tactics by interest and pressure groups of every stripe.

The protesting farmer unions have accused the Union government of stubbornness and advised the Centre to shed its ego. They would do well to heed their own advice. It is the protestors who have rejected every government overture, every reconciliatory gesture, every painstaking attempt by the government to clarify their doubts, fears and apprehensions and have stuck to their maximalist position of “repealing of the laws”. Under the circumstances, it is quite clear that a solution won’t emerge unless the farmers shed their ego.

The Supreme Court has come under criticism for setting a terrible precedent in staying indefinitely the implementation of the three farm laws. This columnist has argued that the apex court, in so doing, has impinged upon the legislative domain and violated the separation of powers. However, the judiciary stepped in to break the stalemate and through its interventionism, the apex court attempted to create a condition conducive for talks.

It pulled up the government for failing to handle the protests and put on hold till further orders the implementation of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020; and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020 to “assuage the hurt feelings” of protesting farmers.

The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde set up a four-man committee of noted agricultural experts to listen to the farmers’ grievances, the views of the Centre and to make recommendations, giving it two months to submit its report. In its interim order, the Supreme Court also observed that “representatives of all the farmers’ bodies, whether they are holding a protest or not and whether they support or oppose the laws, shall participate in the deliberations of the committee and put forth their viewpoints."

One of the arguments made by the Opposition and voices sympathetic to the farmers’ protests is that there is a trust deficit at work that is hindering talks. In other words, the campaigners don’t trust the government and therefore the Centre’s repeated assurances are not making any impact. The apex court’s order sought to address this trust deficit. If protestors have an issue with the government and its intent, then it ought not to have any issue with a neutral panel set up by the court of domain experts.

The Supreme Court may have pushed the envelope in attempting wade into the issue, but it has also bent the arc of the issue towards a negotiated settlement by keeping the laws in abeyance and delegating a panel to listen to the protestors’ grievances.

If there was a hope for a breakthrough, it was quickly dissipated as the farmer unions flatly refused to present themselves before the court-appointed committee and called it a “government ploy”.

Outrageous charges were levelled against the panellists — Bhupinder Singh Mann, national president, Bhartiya Kisan Union and All India Kisan Coordination Committee; Pramod Kumar Joshi, agricultural economist and director for South Asia, International Food Policy Research Institute; Ashok Gulati, agricultural economist and former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices; and Anil Ghanwat, president, Shetkari Sanghatana. The domain experts have been called unsuitable for the job owing to their ostensible predisposition to the reforms.

"We don’t accept this committee, all the members in this committee have been pro-government and these members have been justifying the laws”, a section of the protesting farmers was quoted by NDTV, as saying. “We think the government is bringing this committee through the Supreme Court. The committee is just a way of divert attention,” said Balbir Singh Rajewal of the Bhartiya Kisan Union.

The panellists may or may not have backed the reforms in their personal opinion but that doesn’t automatically disqualify them from holding the responsibility entrusted on them by the Supreme Court. One of the panellists has already said that he will set aside his own views while talking to the protestors. To call the panellists — respected figures such as Gulati — ‘pro-government’ is to not only raise questions on their personal integrity but to also question the integrity of the highest court of the land. It is no less disgraceful that Opposition parties such as the Congress are floating these dubious charges.

The protestors have not only rejected the Supreme Court’s proposal and reiterated that they want “nothing less than repeal”, but they have also declared that the Republic Day tractors’ rally will go on as scheduled. Indian Express reports that a village in Moga has threatened to impose fines on farmers who are not ready to send their tractors for the parade. Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait has told a foreign news portal that “if the government forcibly tries to disperse the farmers, it could trigger bloodshed resulting in the deaths of more than 10,000 persons.”

On the one hand, the protestors are issuing threats and indulging in coercionary tactics to arm-twist the government, on the other hand, they are playing the victim by saying “court proceedings show what government thinks of farmers.”

The government has sent invites to the farmers for talks, reiterating readiness to discuss “all issues”, Union railway minister Narendra Singh Tomar has said the government has “no ego”, clarified on more than one occasion that the Centre was open to clause by clause discussion on the three laws, the Centre has said it is ready to give written assurance on MSP and impose cess on private mandis.

The prime minister, twice in a span of 24 hours in September, assured farmers that MSP will continue, gave a point-by-point rebuttal to the lies and misleading narratives on the farm laws and defended the farm laws and the government’s intent on MSP and APMC modernisation with data and statistics. On 25 December, during an outreach program for farmers, Narendra Modi again reached out to the farmers, saying that “I humbly request everyone, even to those opposed to our politics that we are ready for talks but talks should be based on ‘tark’ and ‘tathya’ (argument and facts).”

The protestors have called government’s proposals “empty and ridiculous”, clarified that they don’t want “meaningless amendments but a complete repeal”, and declared that they will “make the government repeal the laws,” adding that “the fight has reached a stage where we are determined to win no matter what.”

The complete refusal to engage in any form of rational debate, refusal to budge even a millimetre from their position and remaining adamant on ‘total repeal’ are not negotiating tactics. These are strong-arm methods. Should the government bow into their demands and repeal the laws that make it possible for small and marginal farmers to reap the benefit of contract farming and allow them to sell their produce at a market price directly to private players instead of selling it solely through APMCs?

As economist Surjit Bhalla writes in Indian Express: “Farmers are forced to sell their marketable produce only through a mandi regulated by the government. The new reformed law allows the farmer to sell through the APMC, and to sell outside the APMC. It is her choice. The government procures all of its food through APMCs — only about 6 per cent of the farmers in India sell through the APMCs to the government. These 6 percent are all large farmers, primarily residing in the two states of Punjab and Haryana.”

Ananya Awasthi, assistant director, Harvard School of Public Health-India Research Center, writes in News18, “the new bill mandating for opening up of APMC mandis to competition, might actually hurt the revenues of a wide network of middlemen and those state governments who rely heavily on taxes imposed in the APMC markets. This is corroborated by astounding figures from Punjab, where in FY 2020 alone, arhatiyas made more than Rs 1,460 crore out of charging commissions for selling of farm produce and the state government collected about Rs 1,750 crore by imposing the mandi tax.”

The government also has a duty towards the vast majority of India’s small and marginal farmers who want more options to sell their produce and are expressing their vote of approval for the new farm laws by not joining the protests that are geographically restricted to one corner of India. The protesting farmers must realise that obstinacy is also harming members of their own community. Their interests may be affected — any reforms worth its salt will cause disruption in the status quo — but the government is duty-bound to keep the larger interests of all farmers in scripting policies. It is time for the protestors to shed their ego and engage in good faith. No one wins in this stalemate. India loses.



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