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Agriculture reform: Policy and perception

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Mihir Bholey

The impasse between the government and the farmers of Punjab and Haryana continues following the new farm act. Rounds of inconclusive discussions have led to the call of ‘Bharat Band’ while the cease by the farmers of the two states continues at the borders of Delhi. There is a sense of bewilderment both among the government and the common man about what the farmers exactly want. Nobody including the government wants the interest and the legitimate demands of the farmers overlooked.

This is a common sentiment that runs across the nation. However, the common man of the nation is somewhat worried about the inflexible and resolute approach of the agitating farmers who want nothing less than the complete revocation of the Act passed by the parliament. If we set such a precedence in the country then no elected government will ever be able to function leave aside legislating new laws or reforming the existing ones. Democracy will have to surrender before mobocracy and the nation will lose its spine. However, if the farmers agree to negotiate, it will only reinforce their respect in the eyes of common Indian. We must appreciate them for not resorting to violence or allow their agitation to be hijacked by the political parties or vested interest groups so far. But do we know how long will it remain insulated from such imminent threats?

While the final outcome of the agitation and negotiation is still awaited, one good thing that has happened is the ongoing discussions and debates have opened up the underbelly of the farming sector to a common man. So far he only knew that all is not well in this sector. Now he can also identify the caucus, the systems, outdated policies and people who keep millions of our small and marginal farmers in permanent quandary. The facts and data which hitherto were the privy of the experts, policymakers and the seasonal farmer leaders are now out in the open. For the first time a common man is able to comprehend the problems of the small and marginal farmers and also the dilemma of the government.

It would be unfair to believe that the previous governments were not interested in farming reforms. As a matter of fact, it has been the outcome of the successive agriculture policies by all the governments that the nation which suffered from serious food insecurity post-independence has now become not only a food surplus but a food exporting nation too. As per the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data India today is world’s second largest producer of food grains, fruits and vegetables. In 1950 we only produced 50 million tons of food grain. In 2019-20 it reached to 295.67 million tons. The contribution of agriculture in Indian economy is higher than the world average of 6.4%. The agricultural exports as a percentage of India’s agricultural GDP has increased from 9.4 % in 2017-18 to 9.9 % in 2018-19. Not only that, even during the period of pandemic the exports of agri-commodities from India kept rising. During March 2020 to June 2020 it rose from Rs. 25552.7 Crore against an export of Rs. 20734.8 Crore during the same period in 2019. The increase was a sharp 23.24%. These are no mean achievements.

But what surprises is to see the political opposition of the present Act which aims at taking the previous achievements to further heights. The hypocrisy stands exposed when one sees some of the most revolutionary recommendations of the seminal Swaminathan Report viz contract farming, allowing farmers to sell their produce outside Mandis and APMC also being opposed ostensibly for scoring political brownie points. Despite making lesser contribution to the GDP (15.4%) in comparison to the service (61.5%) and industry (23%) agriculture sector remains the jugular vein of the Indian economy due to the high dependence of people (42%) on it for direct and indirect employment. As such, any policy decision in this sector should be better based on the advice of the experts rather than being subjected to politically motivated misinformation and opportunism.

So when the Prime Minister says we ‘can’t build new century with old laws’, it makes tremendous sense. All public policies require periodic revision. Agriculture policies having roots in the previous decades also require the same. What’s wrong if setting aside the previous policy paralysis the present government seeks a landmark agriculture reform through this Act? The food insecurity era has gone. Today the massive gains from the green revolution need integration to the free market economy both at the national and global level. That will change the fortune of the farmers. From over dependence on subsidies, mandis and middleman farmers need to move to freedom of choice in terms of market, price and produce. Niti Aayog observes if India’s GDP has to grow at 9-10% for the next 30 years, it cannot be without bringing revolution in the agri sector. However, it needs a policy with futuristic outlook and liberal provisions. That’s what the government has tried to do.

Governments are expected to transform, reform and perform. Nevertheless, transformative policies bring some initial disruptions. The present one is no exception to that. Farmers’ concerns and anxieties are also not completely unfounded. Through this new act if we want our small and marginal farmers whose only core competence is to cultivate to become agri-entrepreneur by adopting new methods of contract farming etc., it’s a bit ambitious for now. We will have to hold their hand and win their confidence first. It’s true that even if they adopt contract farming as an option they’ll never lose their land. But the confidence will not build until it has been demonstrated with institutional handholding by the government. It’s like a father holding the little hands of his child who wants to take his maiden steps. Institutional support will make our farmers future ready. Besides making policy reforms, government should also work on perception management among the stakeholders. There is an old legal adage; justice should not only be done, it seem to have been done. Government must ensure farmers also realize that.

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