Farmers of India have felt exploited for long. The reforms that the Centre brought in, apparently to make the agriculture sector more efficient and lucrative in the form of three ordinances in June, have had the effect of upsetting large sections of them further. Parliament passed them into Acts in September. More than 500 farmers’ unions are now on a path of agitation. Thousands of farmers from the neighbouring States, stopped by the police on their way to Delhi, are camping at several points around the national capital. They have refused to move to a designated site, a condition set by the Centre for talks. The Centre has aggravated its original mistake of rushing through these laws without wide consultation and political consensus by taking a condescending attitude towards critics. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Sunday that farmers stood to benefit from the new measures, and this may well be true. The trouble is that most farmers are not convinced by the assurances and fear that their precarity will increase as a result of the changes. Farmer leaders have pointed out that the Centre has refused to address their specific concerns regarding the new laws, which they are concerned will render them helpless in the face of exploitative market forces.
At the heart of the fears is the potential end of the MSP and guaranteed government procurement of the produce. The new legal architecture allows farmers more choices in selling their produce, in theory, and creates a national market for their produce. The end of a monopoly market could theoretically lead to more efficiency, but procurement at MSP has been the backbone of India’s food security edifice. If the new laws lead to a dismantling of the MSP and the mandi system, the farmers fear that they will have little leeway in contracts with private buyers. There are loopholes in the existing system and the case for reforms is strong. But railroading a raft of measures cannot be the way forward. If the Centre is open to legislating a guarantee of procurement at MSP, farmers could be convinced to accept the new laws. Agitating farmers are also pressing for the withdrawal of the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2020, fearing it will end subsidised electricity. While market factors must be taken into consideration, any country’s agriculture sector must find an equilibrium of the interest of the producers and consumers, and account for uneven environmental factors across different regions. The apprehensions of the farmers are not unfounded. The onus is on the government to win their confidence. It must unconditionally reach out to the farmers and empathetically listen to them and not precipitate a crisis by high-handedness.